Cassi and Peter Dymond, owners of Satsuma Cafe, in New Orleans, outside their business.Courtesy of Satsuma Cafe
A New York Times article called “Experiencing New Orleans With Fresh Eyes and Ears,” published earlier this month, wasn’t so different from many articles in the paper’s travel section: it delved into the culture of a city, surveying the newest and hippest in dining, art and music.
But by touching on some particularly thorny issues currently causing tension within the city — namely gentrification and the vegetable most associated with it — the piece poured salt on fresh cultural wounds, inspiring a backlash.
“I read the article before I went to bed,” said Cassi Dymond, owner of Satsuma Cafe, which was mentioned by the newspaper. “That was a mistake. It made me clench my fists.”
The story, which surveyed how recently arrived “creative types” are adapting to the city’s peculiarities, inevitably aroused anger among many residents over the rapid change taking place in New Orleans. But there was one choice line that seemed especially designed to provoke debate about a hot-button issue of gentrification.
“New Orleans is not cosmopolitan,” said one actress quoted in the Times piece. “There’s no kale here.”
The quote has so far inspired no fewer than five op-eds, several think pieces and take-downs on various local blogs, hundreds of tweets and Instagram photos tagged with #KaleGate, and even a tongue-in-cheek plan for novelty kale-flavored beer (it’s not clear if the beer was actually ever made).
But beyond the online fervor, New Orleans residents say there are real reasons the article made them feel so indignant. They say their anger isn’t so much about the kale line, or even the article as a whole, but about a pervasive sense that the power to define New Orleans increasingly lies out of the reach of native New Orleanians.
They say that with each new transplant to the city, and each new article about the city’s hipness, its true identity and real issues are swept under the rug in favor of talk of what Loyola University professor C.W. Cannon calls “New Orleans exceptionalism” — the idea that New Orleans is somehow more mystical and primitive than the rest of the U.S.
Cannon and others said the city has a long history of being misperceived as simultaneously an uncultured wasteland and a paradise for creative types who can exploit its sense of otherness for their own gain.
In the process of defining New Orleans from this outsider perspective, New Orleanians say what’s often ignored are serious social problems in the city: that it’s increasingly divided between old and new, between rich and poor, and between those who have access to things like freshly grown vegetables (including kale) and those who don’t.
That’s why the kale comment proved particularly controversial: Residents were put in a bind defending the availability of kale, but not wanting to promote the idea that bringing more kale — “the leafy green of the gentry class,” as Tulane professor and frequent commentator on gentrification Richard Campanella calls it — is a good thing.
Employees at the Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans look over their beds of kale.Al Jazeera
“In the selling of New Orleans as a hot-spot for duck-fat fry food trucks and middle- to upper-class creative types, our faults and failures are neatly omitted,” wrote Kat Stromquist, who has lived in New Orleans for 10 years. “That doesn’t augur much hope for the arrivants’ attention to the city’s problems.”
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Not many New Orleanians want people to stop coming to the city. But many say the way it’s defined by outsiders virtually guarantees that an important middle ground is being missed.
Few know that better than those on the front lines of both gentrification and poverty in New Orleans.
Grow Dat Youth Farm is in many ways a sign of the changing city: It employs teens from impoverished communities to grow vegetables, including four kinds of kale, and donates much of that to low-income residents. But it also relies on the donations and work of volunteers who often come from the rapidly growing creative class in the city. And it sells kale to new, high-end restaurants and at a farmers market in a wealthy part of town.
Given the farm’s connection to different communities in the city, it’s no surprise that one of its founders, Jeanne Firth, has a nuanced view on gentrification, New Orleans culture and issues like poverty.
She said the Times article didn’t anger her as much as it reinforced her feeling that issues cannot be separated in discussions about the city. Yes, it can feel like a magical, raw place that’s ripe for creativity, but that aspect of New Orleans shouldn’t be focused on to the detriment of examining its continued problems with poverty and food access.
“The places we are selling to are highly esteemed, James Beard Award–winning places, and they’ve been really supportive of our work,” she said. “And then there are all these awesome social justice organizations we work with on the other side. The space we occupy, it’s straddling all sides. So we don’t see a tension between those things. We see them as interdependent.”