Could it be that the French Quarter of New Orleans might have its very own “sister city” — the walled city of Pingyao, in China’s Shanxi province?
- The ancient Chinese city of Pingyao. Photo by Debra Bruno as featured in The Atlantic.
Does this not look eerily similar to the intersection of Decatur Street (left) and N. Peters Street/the French Market (right) in the French Quarter (albeit with the streets and angles being depicted in reverse), looking in the direction of Canal St. (minus the Joan of Arc statue in the green space triangle)? It’s a virtual mirror image of that sliver of our own Vieux Carré.
Similarities between the French Quarter and Pingyao include:
• Tourism as the primary economic driver;
• infrastructure concerns resulting from “hoards of tourists”;
• projects involving the collection of “oral histories” from residents;
• Disneyland facsimiles (New Orleans Square at Disneyland vs. Pingyao being compared to the Temple of Heaven pavilion at Epcot);
• hole-in-the-wall shops offering “reflexology foot massages” (there are at least four in the French Quarter these days);
• music blaring from loudspeakers; and
• concerns of local businesses being overwhelmed by “souvenir shops selling mass-produced junk next to bars and restaurants.”
Consider this: two cities, half a world apart, offering alarmingly identical experiences to their respective visitors… isn’t that homogenization defined?
“‘The exodus of indigenous residents and the loss of confidence in local Pingyao cultural traditions may be the single biggest threat to Pingyao today,’ says UNESCO’s Dr. Du Xiaofan. ‘There are threats that the Pingyao could become nothing but a city full of souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels,’ adds Tongji University’s Shao Yong.” Sound familiar?
The N.O. Tourism and Marketing Corporation, and the N.O. Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Morial Convention Center would still like to increase the number of tourists present daily in our city from the current estimated 24,000 visitors per day to an average of 37,500 per day (an estimated 95% of whom would likely visit the French Quarter). There are concerns that this many visitors would likely have a detrimental impact on the quality of life for the residential population of the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods, resulting in a further decline in the number of full-time residents.
Pingyao’s master plan, however, calls for the implementation of a deliberate reduction in the number of full-time residents to enhance its appeal. What might happen as a mere consequence in the French Quarter (not as a result of our city’s master plan) is an acknowledged and planned course of action in Pingyao, who’s annual tourist influx is a mere one million — not the 13.7 million figure desired for our city, as prescribed by the Boston Consulting Group’s report of 2009.
In MADAME VIEUX CARRÉ by Scott S. Ellis, he references the French Quarter’s early preservationists (Saxon, Irby, Fields, etc.) with the following words:
“What cannot be overstated is that this first band of preservationists left a legacy that ultimately became the economic engine of New Orleans. Their influence was slow and sometimes faltering, and there were reverses along the way. But it was at the smoky, absinthe-informed parties of the 1920s Quarter ‘bohemians’ that the foundations for New Orleans’ modern tourist industry were laid. Long after most primary industry has fled, tourism, in many ways great and small, keeps the city ever so slightly above utter destitution. Most of the oil industry has decamped to Houston, but the hotels stay busy. The high-tech sector may roll its eyes when thinking of Orleans Parish, but the souvenir shops of Decatur Street still turn the goods to each new generation of tourists. This first band scraped a few sparkling shards of ‘charm’ from the gutter and exposed the mother lode of unique character that is New Orleans’, and the Vieux Carré’s, livelihood.”
Ellis’ contention that preservationists birthed the modern tourism industry makes absolute sense, but given the recent Hospitality Zone battle and the ongoing skirmishes between the city’s administration and neighborhood groups, the truly warped part is that it may have been this very impulse to protect and preserve that has sown the seeds for the cultural commodification and destruction of our city’s most cherished traditions and customs.
Lately it could be said that the voracious triplets (the Tourism & Marketing Corporation, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Morial Convention Center) seem to want to cannibalize their parent.
In the French Quarter, cast iron ornamentation, fence posts, and columns occasionally feature ornamental pineapples as part of their decorative motif, a Victorian era symbol of prosperity adopted by our city’s earliest French settlers. Much like Pingyao’s tortoise symbol and its relevance to that city’s current struggles, the preservation of our history and local culture desperately needs an infusion of prosperity in the form of community interest. It bears repeating: we are a community — not a commodity.
Please read the Atlantic’s article about Pingyao and consider the corollaries between this city and our own city’s French Quarter — might Pingyao be the Chinese Vieux Carré?: Can an Ancient Chinese City Pursue Preservation Without Disney-fication?