Assetua Amenkun remembers very clearly coming back to New Orleans in September 2005, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina. She worked as a 911 dispatcher. "I had to come back early," she said in an interview last year from her 7th Ward home.
"And the city, oh my. It was just… beyond the devastation, beyond the physical devastation… There were no children. There were no birds. There were no dogs and cats. But more importantly, there was no music. It just was dead."
Amenkun had long been a part of what made New Orleans feel so alive: She was a queen among the Black Masking Indians, who dress in honor of the Indigenous people who assisted in their ancestors' liberation—a keeper of tradition. A historic, Category 5 hurricane, Katrina had wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, killing nearly 1,400 people, displacing over one million people, and causing over $100 billion in damage. What was left after the storm was a shell of a city, and it took an interminable amount of time for any semblance of New Orleans, as Amenkun had known it her whole life, to return.
Amenkun, now a teacher, dancer, and again a keeper of traditions, recalls the months that followed as the time that her city's government officials stopped pushing the culture of Black New Orleanians to the fringes and began to claim it as their own. For most of the city's history, Black culture, arguably the culture of New Orleans, had been ignored, sidelined, or tokenized by the local government. After the storm, things changed. One of the turning points after Katrina, according to Amenkun, was a marketing campaign that brought her and her fellow Masking Indians up to Chicago for a World's Fair type of event.
"They sent me and two other Indians on a public relations tour. We went to Chicago. They actually brought a New Orleans streetcar up there."
When asked, she couldn't immediately remember what the campaign was called, but she knew she had a picture. In it, Amenkun and two other Black Masking Indians, in full regalia, are smiling. The sign she's holding reads, "Forever New Orleans."
That image, of multi-colored plumage sprouting around a white and green placard and three Black faces, evokes the one hazy word that swirls around the city: culture.
Culture is native New Orleanians fighting to honor the varied traditions of their ancestors. Culture is the ethos that the city's transplants and tourists alike attempt to capture, bottle, and mount on their walls. Culture is the raging beast that government and private entities aim to subdue in order to safeguard monied interests. The sights and sounds, the feathers and brass that make the city, mean something. And in a place hovering perpetually at the brink of economic and environmental insecurity, the question of whose lives are defined—or erased—by that nebulous concept of making culture becomes the most important battleground in the story of New Orleans.
Hundreds of articles and opinion pieces were written about New Orleans in the months and years following the storm, by a national press that was, in turn, captivated by a macabre interest in the aftermath of a cataclysmic disaster while also sincerely rooting for the resurgence of a city in peril.
Commentary from national news media ranged wildly from concern about voter disenfranchisement to fear over new storms and their threat to the weakened levy systems. Pundits lauded the charter school system reshaping the city's education landscape and paid very little critical interest to the multi-million dollar privatization of the city's operations.
In 2006 and 2007, from wherever they'd landed across the country, New Orleanians could expect to see their city through the eyes of ravenous headlines like, "Fear in the Air: In Post-Katrina New Orleans The Next Hurricane Already Has a Million Eyes" or "A City Fears for Its Soul: New Orleans Worries That It's Unique Culture May Be Lost."
In a press release on January 25, 2007, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau described the Forever New Orleans campaign as "an aggressive, strategic marketing, public relations and direct sales campaign, designed to celebrate its authentic culture, lure domestic and international visitors back, preserve the city's leading industry (hospitality) and overcome misperceptions about New Orleans among consumers."
The goal was to overlay the pervasive stories of violence, governmental malfeasance, and disenfranchisement with images of a city in the midst of a renaissance. In addition to paying for billboards in target markets over a 12-month period, the rollout included a 30-minute television show dedicated to "showcasing the eclectic nature and vibrant culture of what is still America's most authentic and historic destination."
From the New Orleans Convention and Tourism Board's press releases and quarterly "State of the City" reports from 2007, it's clear that a major goal of the city's campaign was to get New Orleans on many of the "Best of" and "Favorite City for X" lists that are signatures of the tourism space.
When you see the national headlines and commentary that existed at the time, it's not hard to understand why such an extensive marketing campaign felt necessary—both to New Orleans' most powerful residents, and the tourism bureau responsible for bringing industry back into the city. For the press, it seems, New Orleans was fodder for doom and gloom or the occasional uplifting tale of redemption. For New Orleanians, it was deeply personal.
Family members disappeared in the storm. Ancestral ties to land and homes were severed. Years before the conversation about climate change reached its current fever pitch, New Orleans residents were the bellwether of a nation and a world suffering the effects of decades of environmental neglect. However, the execution of the campaign, its aims, and its reach were decided by a branding agency that was almost completely white. This campaign, created by New Oreans-based agency Trumpet Advertising, did not reflect the voices of Black creatives whose cultures and art were the unattributed foundation for the advertisement. And like many of the choices that were made in New Orleans in the early years post-storm, the Forever New Orleans campaign would have lasting effects on the city's Black residents that not even its architects anticipated.
To better understand the creation of the campaign and its impact, I interviewed founder and current Executive Creative Director of Trumpet Advertising, Pat McGuinness, in 2022. He shared how his team and the New Orleans Convention and Tourism Board created the 2007 Forever New Orleans marketing campaign. What became clear as I listened to his account is the gaping hole in the media they were hoping to fill.
"As we thought about the impact of Katrina, and what people were seeing on the network news, every night—that New Orleans was destroyed. There were conversations about why even bring it back, you know, is it worth it? 'It's just gonna happen again,' from lawmakers who lived in Iowa and didn't understand the cultural significance of the city."
He teared up a little when we spoke—a conversation more than 17 years after the storm—as he explained what the disaster awakened in him: a fierce and renewed love for his hometown and a desire to use his skills to bring tourism back to this bend of the Mississippi River.
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McGuinness, who is white, isn't the only person to get choked up as they share their rememberings of this extremely tenuous time in the city and in their own lives. Hurricane Katrina was traumatic, it was catastrophic, and its damage was far more expansive than any casual observer could have understood from afar. The burdens of catastrophe fell unevenly and with disproportionate force on the city's Black and poor residents. That is evident in the extent of damage the city's Black and poor residents had to endure and even their timelines for return (if they were able to return at all).
Yet, the decision-making about what to do in the city—how to revitalize it, how to bring back a populace that had been scattered nationwide, how to honor the dead, and how to repair the deep inequalities the storm bared for the entire world to see—was concentrated in the hands of a much smaller group than those affected.
McGuinness partially sees this predicament as a symptom of the advertising and tourism worlds more broadly: "We've always created work that specifically targeted African American families to come have, you know, a wedding here, just as we did was just as we would do for white audiences," he said. "And I don't remember anything specifically different about that effort, except you have to recognize the importance of all the audiences to your success. So I think everybody was considered in the messaging."
The advertisements themselves, however, tell a different story. In one ad, the text "Dry? We were never dry." is coupled with the image of a thin white woman sitting on a set of steps, presumably in the French Quarter, contemplatively drinking a glass of red wine as she looks away from the camera. Just out of sight are two horn players, one Black, one white, blurred and apart, but still clearly providing her the backdrop for her to enjoy this moment of luxury and indulgence.
Another ad, perhaps the most widely circulated of the campaign, features the phrase "Soul is Waterproof" emblazoned across the hands, legs, and glasses of a Black trumpeter as they clean their instrument.
Throughout the campaign, Black New Orlenians are alluded to heavily. Their instruments, hands, feet, and even faces are just beyond the camera's reach—an accent, a dash of seasoning that adds to the flavor of a place meant to evoke the white imagination.
The Forever New Orleans "Open to Just about Anything" video features the voice (and presumably musicianship) of New Orleans musical legend, Kermit Ruffins. The two minute and 30 second-long video is perhaps one of the only pieces of collateral in the entire marketing campaign in which Black people's faces are not blurred, diminished, or otherwise pushed to the periphery of the frame. When you consider that a month before the hurricane, Black people comprised 67.3 percent of the city's population, their nominal presence in a national marketing campaign led by the New Orleans's tourism board is confusing, at best.
At worst, it taps into a long history of Black erasure from the story of New Orleans.
In over 300 years of existence, the city of New Orleans has served as the metaphorical melting pot that so much of the rest of the country aspires to be.
As different colonizing forces left their influence and names behind (streets like Austerlitz, Dufossat, and Calliope tell a bit of that story), so too did they leave their musical influences, their foods, and their words. The city is inextricable from its African and Indigenous roots as much as it is from its French, Spanish, Dutch, and later Vietnamese and Filipino influences. There is no modern New Orleans without those many cultures and voices. Still, there is a particular way that Black New Orleans and traditions have been mined and extracted, particularly across the past two centuries, without compensation, equitable access to the benefits, and without credit or decision-making power in the outcomes that influence elicits, which is echoed in the Forever New Orleans campaign. So is the case with the Forever New Orleans campaigns and other similar "rebuilding" efforts that made their way through the city in the years immediately following the storm.
When asked about the Forever New Orleans campaign, many of the New Orleanians I spoke with had never heard of it. However, many of the Black residents did remember that at the same time the city and the tourism board were working to promote the city's cultural influence and revitalize it's image nationally and abroad, many culture bearers in the city—musicians, artists, cultural leaders, and preservers of local history—were entrenched in a legal battle with the police and the city. Tamara Jackson, an advocate, activist, and Executive Director of Silence the Violence, recalls, "It was really daunting, especially because the city had Black leadership. We had a Black mayor, Black police chief, we had a Black DA, and our Black culture was being attacked."
In 2006, Jackson formed and led the New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force, an organization that spearheaded the legal push against the city and the policy forces' policies. The city's mostly Black Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs have existed in New Orleans in one form or another since the mid 1800s, hosting events and providing members with aid for costs like health care and funerals. After Katrina, they were, by their own estimation and most accounts at the time, under siege.
"It was a lot of tension," Jackson said. "The community was already anti-police, which they still are. And then that moment, the relationships were really tense. They were really tense. Even though the chief of police was Black, most of the hierarchy in the district leadership was Caucasian, which created the adversarial relationships."
The crux of the lawsuit was about the ability to parade and second line in the wake of the storm. In January 2006, four months after Hurricane Katrina, Jackson and the other Social Aid and Pleasure Club organizers felt that the city, especially the city's Black residents, needed a place to gather, to remember their culture, and to contextualize a devastating storm in the arc of their long history in New Orleans.
"Second lines, is a place where we pay homage to our ancestral heritage… New Orleans was lost," Jackson said. "The city was really in a dark place. I felt like second lines would bring back some positive energy, get families [and] people back to connect in ways that we had not connected before." And so she planned the first big second line in the city since August 2005.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs rallied to find their members, who were scattered across the southeast and the rest of the country. They found large facilities willing to host people who could not yet return to their homes, and all 54 clubs paraded for the Renew New Orleans Second Line. Jackson, and many others, remember it as a transcendent moment for those Black residents who worried their beloved city might never fully return.
At the conclusion of the parade, however, three people were shot and injured, a fact that was picked up in national media and leveraged against Black culture bearers in their ongoing conflict with the police.
"They felt like second lines was the reason for a lot of the trauma and drama in New Orleans was our fault," Jackson said. "They actually put a restraining order on me personally… They made it so uncomfortable for us financially, and just their presence. The police would come out and were really just abrupt and rude to the cultural bearers and the folks who were attending. It was so frustrating that people were afraid to parade."
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Despite Jackson's and others efforts to reunite Black New Orleanians with their city and culture, despite Mayor Ray Nagin's speech about making the city a "chocolate city," despite even the city's desire to rehabilitate it's image using the voices, images, and sounds of the second line as marketing chum, Jackson and her peers faced inordinate opposition. Police would either over-police second line parades that cropped up post-Katrina—for example, changing parade routes at the literal last minute or overcharging certain clubs for the opportunity to parade—or they would purposefully underpolice, leaving organizers and second line attendees vulnerable to violence.
All in all, Jackson remembers the years after Katrina enshrouded in a years-long battle to perform the cultural rites that shaped Black New Orleans for decades, even centuries, before the storm.
You wouldn't know any of this from the marketing and collateral that emerged from the Forever New Orleans campaign. Black musicians, at least their hands and feet, were critical to the campaign, as were cultural leaders like Amenkun and the Black Masking Indians, who headlined in-person events for the campaign held in Chicago and New York City. By Amenkun's account, their culture had been very much segregated in the years prior to the storm to either Black neighborhoods, where white tourists (and locals) would rarely travel to, or the stages of Jazz Fest.
Scholar and anthropologist Dr. Helen Regis says the mostly white organizers tried, from the festival's very inception, to tap into the local culture and make Jazz Fest a place where white New Orleanians and tourists from all over the world could experience New Orleans' Black culture without having to venture into these otherwise verboten places.
"So much of what makes Jazz Fest what it is," Regis, a professor of geography and anthropology at Lousiana State University, said in an interview in March 2022, "is it's inspired by these parades: both the social club parades, the second lines, and Mardi Gras Indians. I mean, that's such the defining ethos of that festival. And it's also a concert. But what makes it really special is these parades and the things that those parades inspire: that sense that you can immerse yourself in the culture and the music through the festival."
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, known by locals simply as Jazz Fest, is an annual event, spanning two weekends in April and May and bringing on average 500,000 people (more than the city's population) and hundreds of millions of dollars into the city. Along with Mardi Gras and French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, which was founded by George Wein, Allison Miner, and Quint Davis in 1970, is among the city's biggest single revenue generators.
"That really created a space—even just locally—for white suburbanites," Regis said. "The children of white flight, the kids who grew up in the suburbs, who didn't choose to be racist, their parents did. But, they were sort of rediscovering the city through the festival. And in a way, having perhaps, their first experience of being in a multiracial space."
It is clear from the many pieces of collateral that compose the Forever New Orleans campaign, that the campaign's architects were drawing on the cultural framework laid out by Jazz Fest's promoters over the decades. In fact, in the absence of actual people in New Orleans in early 2006 (only 47.4 percent of the population had returned by July 2006), McGuinness shared that the campaign used a lot of stock imagery to compensate. The images chosen hearken to the ethos Jazz Fest has perfected over decades: a white and safe experience of an otherwise very Black and (supposedly) dangerous city.
"It's a gated community version of the culture," Regis said, describing the watered-down, whitewashed version of New Orleans that Jazz Fest created. "You buy your ticket, you can have drinks, and you don't have to deal with the neighborhood context, you don't have to think too much about the poverty and the people's real life struggles."
Not only did the Forever New Orleans campaign attempt to call back many of the previous JazzFest frequenters, the campaign also created an image of a new, post-Katrina vacationer they were hoping to attract.
During our interview, when McGuinness described the target market for their campaign, he mentioned a fictionalized persona that he and his team referred to as the "Seekers." According to Trumpet Advertising's records, Seekers were generally 25-54 years old and making upwards of $50,000 a year. Crucial to that fictional traveler's identity is a sense of adventure. McGuinness describes appealing to an almost settler-type, looking for a new home out in the wild west. In targeting The Seeker, the marketing team aimed to seduce a traveler willing to roll up their sleeves and experience all the bounty of a wild, free land. In fact, "voluntourism" was a major and explicit strategy used in the campaign's development.
In an attempt to lure back large conventions and conferences, the New Orleans Convention and Tourism Board's part of the deal was making New Orleans an attractive meeting place by offering company employees a way to "give back" to the presumed down and destitute of New Orleans. Building houses became a means for mostly white spring breakers and celebrities to enjoy the returning tourist and leisure industry while allegedly doing "good" in the city. Brad Pitt's infamous failed housing project coincides with this messaging—as does the wave of many white new faces and "leaders" in the education space in the city.
Around this time, an appalling cottage industry of bus tours to the lower 9th Ward arose, to show tourists the devastation caused from the storm also arose, drawing an understandable ire and pushback from locals who were barely getting their houses back and were vocally opposed to having their trauma paraded as entertainment.
All of these pushes also coincided with an unprecedented surge in national and regional funding to the city, very little of which ever made it into the hands of the Black New Orleanians whose labor powered hotels and streetcars, even as the New Orleans Convention and Tourism Board were counting on their return. Even less made it into the hands of cultural leaders like the Black Masking Indians, gig musicians, and keepers of history, all of whom created the very foundation of the New Orleans "culture" that vacationers, the tourism board, and even Trumpet Advertising claimed to love so much.
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Mama Jen, a staple in Black New Orleans as one of the women running The Community Book Center, a Black bookstore and cultural space founded in 1983, remembers this time vividly.
"As more of my people started coming back, trying to get their house together and different things of that nature, they didn't have much money," she said. "You know, you were hearing horror stories on insurance companies… jobs were scarce, then income, the 501(c)(3) people, and it kept coming and coming and coming."
Mama Jen characterizes New Orleans—even Louisiana more broadly—as a "slave state," where for the most part, the Black community had to care for itself in the face of concerted white supremacy and governmental neglect. The time after The Storm was no different. Money was coming into the city and the state, but not for Black people. "If you're gonna pay somebody $2 and something an hour, and they have to jump and jig [to make rent.]" she said. "The rent skyrocketed… I mean, the tourism dollars were there, because we were seeing it. But the rent—we weren't getting the tourism dollars. They forgot about the rent."
As for Forever New Orleans, McGuinness says his team sought to pay the Black participants who were a part of the campaign he managed. But so many more Black New Orleans culture bearers were left out of the massive economic haul that the campaign brought in, not only in the immediate aftermath, but throughout the nearly two decades that have followed.
According to The Data Center, a nonprofit based in Southeast Louisiana, "In the New Orleans metro, while minorities represented 43.1 percent of the total population, they owned only 27.1 percent of all firms, and… their businesses received less than 2 percent of receipts in 2007." Nearly a decade later, Black household earning in the city was well below that of white New Orleanians and the nation at large—while white households in New Orleans earned incomes "on par with their national peers," the median income for Black households sat at $29,296, 24 percent lower than that of Black households nationwide, according to The Data Center.
At the same time, New Orleans and Co. and the Forever New Orleans campaign were encouraging people to "Be a Tourist in Your Own Hometown." The question of who could not only profit off of New Orleans' Black culture, but indeed claim it, was being aggressively decided.
The answer was not at all surprising to the likes of Mama Jen, Assetua Amenkun, or even Tamara Jackson: the ability to thrive in the practice of New Orleans culture was expressly reserved for the city's non-Black residents, tourists, and transplants. In this way, while the contours of this singular marketing campaign are shaped to hug the edges of Mississippi River and glide right up to the lip of Lake Pontchartrain, the tool of disaster capitalism is much older and much more universal. It is a model that commodifies culture, while actively dismantling the means for those who practice culture as a sacred ritual to thrive.
When I reached out to New Orleans and Co. (the since-rebranded name of the New Orleans Convention and Tourism Board), I was told by Kelly Schulz, assistant to then-CEO Stephen Perry, that this campaign was a signature in his long tenure at the helm of New Orleans' tourism industry. While Perry himself declined to give comment, Schulz mentioned that he was incredibly proud of the gains made as a result of Forever New Orleans.
But perhaps the most insidious part of a campaign like Forever New Orleans is its ability to be forgotten. The changes witnessed across the city, like rapidly-rising rents, an unrecognizable school system, the displacement of Black and brown residents, can almost be seen as inevitable, or even natural—the result of ever-marching progress, rather than an intentional and strategic design.
It is easy to forget, and even easier to dismiss it as conjecture or conspiracy, that the erosion of Black New Orleans and its cultural centers, mores, and leaders is as much a casualty of policy and the machinations of monied interests as the faulty levees that left the city unprotected in 2005.
Mama Jen, who is fiercely defending her piece of Black New Orleans from a small shop on Bayou Road, wonders, "So, what do we do with our culture? You know, because seem to me every time you turn around white folks got that word culture and they don't know what to do with it."
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