The Cultural Ramifications of Gentrification in New Orleans

Gentrification is not just physical displacement; it’s cultural appropriation across entire neighborhoods.

| Spring 2018

There once was a time when societies believed that the erection of architecture was a violation of the Earth. In Architecture and Violence, author Bechir Kenzari describes the millennia-old practice of construction rites, which demanded that an architect spill blood on his building’s foundation stone as a sacrifice for the privatization of land that once belonged to no one and to all. Our national culture does not bestow land with such dignity. Instead, private ownership is at the core of our values.

It is said that any atrocity committed by a nation state is lawful since the state created and, therefore, exists outside the law. It only has to shift the boundaries of the law to encompass cruel or unusual actions it wishes to perform.

“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us. But the state does not only shift the law to suit its purposes during exceptional times: the practice is foundational.

John Winthrop, the architect of puritan new world colonialism and American exceptionalism (“City upon a Hill”), codified the theft of Native American land into a doctrine known as vacuum domicilium, which stated that land without “permanent development” is open for occupation. Having encountered places and people that existed beyond the cultural imagination that underpinned their own legal premises, the English self-ordained themselves with the authority to judge the value of indigenous peoples’ land use—their architecture, cultural practices, and agriculture—and found it worthless.

With time, those wielding the power to negate cultural value commodified those same cultures in order to extract economic value from them. This model defines our history and frames many of the issues of place and culture that we address today. The subject of cultural appropriation, for example, has gone viral. What is cultural appropriation? Why are folks so mad?

Cultural appropriation—the theft and hollowing out of culture, place, and people into commodities—cannot be separated from the historic abuse of various cultures and the labeling of their bearers as “primitive,” “inferior,” “dangerous,” and “illegal” in order to establish dominion over them. People whose cultures have been commodified are mad about cultural appropriation because it cannot be separated from the theft of their land, life, dignity, freedom, and rights. It cannot be separated from colonialism, from the murder with impunity of Black men and women by the police, or from the gentrification of their neighborhoods.