Sunday, August 30, 2009

Excuse Me, Is This Sugar Town?

It's said that the second you arrive in New York to live, you're a New Yorker. Native-born New Yorkers will bristle.

But beyond questions of relative nativeness lies the matter of who gets to speak for a place, whose interests are being served by such and such spokesperson, and how is this authority handed out. Do we trust the voice of an insider, easily corrupted, or an outsider, prone to puffery and drive-by logic? And what about writers, those great arbiters of culture and country? How long would one have to immerse before being taken seriously? Joan Didion, for example, spent two weeks in El Salvador in 1982 and wrote a pamplet-sized book called Salvador, which begins, "Terror is a given of the place." Do we believe her?

Traditionally, the "outsider's perspective" has, rightly or wrongly, been given an exalted seat on the spectrum of all possible perspectives. The outsider is objective, we think, and won't be swayed by nepotism or nostalgia; he can see a place as it is, not as it's advertised; she won't be caught in the cyclical wash of spin and hype. But these are unsure waters. No one likes a tourist with a megaphone.

John Yarbrough wrote a poem in 2007 about New Orleans called Knowing a Place, which comments on NO's misrepresentation as a den of sin, colored in by too-ready shorthands like Zydeco, Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. It opens:

New Orleans never was a cream and sugar town
it was a poor place black coffee place
good place to visit if you didn’t dig too deep
hard place to live lots of folks went there
ordered up a plate of crawfish they didn’t eat

However shallow it may be to think of New Orleans, post-Katrina, mainly as the place where the sky rains green and gold plastic beads once a year, I admit to being infected by the stereotypes. I've never been to New Orleans. If I ever go -- and I'd like to -- I'd want to access something real about the place, authentic, living alongside the stiff drinks and hurricane coverage. What sources should I look to?

Lester Carey, for starters. NYTM columnist Rob Walker writes in his blog No Notes:

"A commercial sign-painter, Carey started in 1982 stencilling and painting on actual signs, sometimes on walls, but always at the behest (and in the service of) business owners, in New Orleans. Carey has painted signs for supermarkets, undertakers, restaurants, auto repair shops, among other shops."

"If you've lived in New Orleans in the past 10 or 15 years," Walker continues, "I think you'll recognize at least some of his creations." Calling out his ubiquity and undeserved obscurity, when asked which neighborhoods featured his work, Carey said, "I'm citywide!"

New Orleans isn't Sugar Town; it's Lester Carey's town. And he doesn't have to say a word.

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At September 2, 2009 at 4:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read - or re-read - A Confederacy of Dunces before going to NO. But do go. It's a city with a very strong sense of place, and a city a lot of people are drawn to like no other. -KTC

At April 18, 2013 at 7:20 PM , Blogger anthonyturducken said...

more about Lester here:

At May 7, 2013 at 10:18 AM , Blogger Matt said...

Thanks for the link, Anthony! The SPALC is doing amazing work. Long live Lester.


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