Making A Map Of Safety in New Orleans – And Also London

Saftey New Orleans London

If only because of certain statistics, safety should probably be carefully considered by anyone visiting New Orleans when planning their days and nights. Speaking personally, I recently came back from a short trip to the city and have realised that the question of whether what I’m doing is safe or not is on my mind a lot in the city.

I worry about the risk of danger perhaps because I’m often a solo female traveller when there, perhaps because I’m a naturally cautious person, and perhaps because I live in one of the less safe parts of London, so am aware of what urban danger can mean and am naturally on my guard. Yet as well as this pull inwards towards safety and the familiar, I also feel an opposite push because I find that what I have experienced of New Orleans to date makes me yearn to see even more of it, which in turn forces me to think about safety again.

Negotiating New Orleans’ hidden map of safety, danger, and everything in between that must be read alongside regular maps of the city can be hard, even given the fact that after a number of visits and a lots of reading about the city I feel I know its geography relatively well. Doing so is made more complicated by the fact that there is usually not an objective answer to whether somewhere or something is safe.

Safety is a factor not only of the two or three dimensions tracked by map co-ordinates. It is also affected by time. Time of day, and by point in the cycle of seasons, which in New Orleans are not necessarily quite the ones you expect, being also defined by festival calendars and risks of extreme weather.

Then there is also the fact that in New Orleans time runs in another longer cycle that over years and generations turns some locations and neighbourhoods from run-down and potentially more dangerous than average to cool but still slightly edgy, then to gentrified and largely safe, then to touristy and perhaps troubled by crime targeted at tourists, and then sometimes back to the beginning again. Bourbon Street, the French Quarter in general, Frenchmen Street and St. Claude Avenue, for example, are arguably all at different stages of this process, most of which do not unambiguously represent either safety or danger but a changeable balance of some sort between them.

The phenomenon can be seen in other cities – very much including London – but I would say that, for various historical and social reasons, it is particularly noticeable in New Orleans. The upshot of all this is that places you have visited in the city before may not be the same when you visit them again, and by your previous visits you might have even played a very small part in that.

Which leads me to the fifth dimension of safety that we could call something like subjectivity. How much do you know, or think you know, the place you’re in? Do you look and act like a local or like a tourist? Are you by yourself or in a group? Are you female or male? Are you drunk, or tired? And how do you personally define safety?

And when I’m trying to work out whether a new place or activity is safe or not, it is subjectivity that leads me to my solution, as there is often no objective answer. I turn to the technique – which happens to be sort of like an old psychogeographical one – of mapping one city through my understanding of another.

I think about myself in my hometown of London, how I feel about areas of my own city and how I would act there. Yes, there are big differences to factor in. But in general, the tactic has served me well.

Image: Eric Fischer

In this amazing graphic, which is not a crime map, red dots are locations of Flickr pictures, blue dots are locations of Twitter tweets, and white dots are locations that have been posted to both.


Thinking In London About The Flooding In Louisiana


I had what I was going to write this week all planned, but I changed my mind as more and more information and images came through regarding the terrible flooding in Louisiana.

The first thing to say is that I’m hugely saddened by what has happened, particularly the news of the deaths that are reported to have been caused by the flooding, and I send my sympathies and good wishes to all who have been affected.

I have been impressed, but not surprised, by how much the New Orleans community has been supporting those affected by the floods – in terms of cash donations, food and other practical supplies, and emotional solidarity, which I think is also important.

This quote, cited in this article in the Times-Picayune, from Amy Cyrex Sins of restaurant and cookery school Langlois, really struck me: “I think we all know after Katrina what it’s like to be hot, sweaty, wearing the same clothes or someone else’s clothes that have been given to you. There are a lot of people who are tired, but people are really coming together.”

What has surprised me is how little coverage the floods have had in the media elsewhere, particularly in the UK where I live. A notable exception is this article in the  Guardian, which points out that the floods are part of a bigger picture of extreme weather events occurring across the world as a result of climate change.

This article and others making similar points are good reminders that while the Louisiana floods are in some ways very particular to their location, they are also one element of something that is pretty much everyone’s problem and that we shouldn’t be ignoring, in the UK as much as anywhere else. We often now have serious and sometimes life-threatening winter floods in the UK and it takes the huge Thames Barrier to protect London from the powerful waters of the Thames estuary.

Finally, I wanted to flag up that in the many excellent articles I have seen listing some of the ways that people can help with flood relief (thanks are due here to @UtopiaforCynics who sent me some great information), there are also options for people who live outside Louisiana or even, like me, outside the US, so can’t volunteer or contribute food or clothes in person.

You could mail items through an online store. You could make a donation. And there is one donation option that caught my eye in particular. Called the “Nola Pay It Forward Fund”, it’s designed primarily for those in New Orleans to help their neighbouring parishes. But whether you’re thinking from a cultural, environmental or simply human perspective, it’s hard to deny that we’re all neighbours of a sort, so I would say it’s a good way for anyone to help.

Image: Thomas Cizauskas

Why New Orleans Should Host The Olympic Games

Aerial shot of the stadium aglow_169847Four years ago, my home city London hosted the Olympic Games. And, in say 12 or 24 years, I would love to see them come to New Orleans. Here’s why.

The path to London 2012 was not an easy one. I have dim memories from my childhood of several unsuccessful Olympics bids from northern city Manchester. As Manchester gave up and London began its bid for 2012, the capital faced keen competition from Paris, which was the favourite to win until right at the end of the process. And when London was declared to be the winner, thanks in large part to the narrative of urban and social renewal it promised, elation was abruptly cut short by the 7 July terrorist attacks on the UK’s capital the next day.

Once preparations for the Games began, a very British sense of self-doubt in our ability to stage such a large-scale event set in. There were worries about further terrorism, but also more mundane concerns such as whether VIPs would get stuck in traffic and whether the city would shrouded in drizzle for three weeks solid.

In the end, it was all fine. The sun shone (sometimes) and the rain mostly stayed away. The event ran pretty smoothly, or at least snaggles were overlooked or forgiven as UK athletes hauled in more medals than ever before and the event as a whole produced its usual astonishing displays of sporting excellence. But for me, and perhaps for many in the UK, the real highlight was the opening ceremony.

Fast-moving, multi-layered, and probably incomprehensible in parts to those who don’t know the UK well, it was widely lauded here and elsewhere as an accurate representation of the best of British culture and, like all other great Olympic opening ceremonies, for showing how the Games are about more than just sport. Aspiration, justice, freedom, unity, peace: these are the kinds of things that the Olympics can represent when they operate at their best.

Which brings me to New Orleans. No, it is not a city most well-known for sport. And there are some serious practical impediments to the prospect of New Orleans 20-something-or-other. When I asked eminent New Orleans geographer and urban commentator Richard Campanella about this idea, he raised some of the key ones: limited space for new specialised sporting venues; extreme heat and humidity; hurricanes.

With respect to Campanella’s good points, others think that the city, like London, could overcome its obstacles. There is a New Orleans 2024 Facebook group, though it is now too late for the city to bid for those Games. Local sports reporter Fletcher Mackel wrote an article in support of the idea of a New Orleans Olympics, pointing out that there are many potential venues already in place and flagging up the city’s strong pedigree of successfully hosting many large-scale sporting (and other) events throughout the year.

These are good arguments, and for me a New Orleans Olympics also has other kinds of compelling logic that go beyond sport. As we saw in London and are seeing in Rio, the Games can bring the world together and New Orleans is one of its cities best-placed to do so. While New Orleans has a distinctive culture that is all its own, this culture has arisen from the way in which it has long been a meeting point for people from all over the globe and its influence stretches far beyond the city’s bounds.

It’s not all been plain sailing, of course. Like London, New Orleans has endured social, political and environmental difficulties over the decades since the founding of the modern Olympic movement. But just as London 2012 marked a culmination of decades of change, regeneration and resurgence in one great world city, an Olympic Games in New Orleans could be a powerful symbol of endurance, momentum and rebirth in another.

Image: Getty Images

Dressing Up And What It Means In London And New Orleans

2016-08-07 21.18.27

This weekend, it was Satchmo Summerfest, a festival held in New Orleans every year in honour of its distinguished son Louis Armstrong. At this same festival a few years ago I gave a talk, about Satchmo, about dressing up in London and New Orleans, and in particular about Mardi Gras Indians and Pearly royalty: bead and plumage-suited carnival celebrants from New Orleans’ African-American communities and silvery button-bedecked Eastenders raising money for charity through entertainment – two great traditions that I would say are comparable in some ways.

But what I remember most clearly now about the occasion was what I wore – a silk shirt as black as a London taxi and a dress the colour of the sky and the water in New Orleans in high summer, a combination of colours that reminded me of the two cities. It seemed important to be wearing the right thing.

In New Orleans, clothes are significant. Take the seersucker suit, that particular marker of Southern gentlemanliness. This menswear classic arguably calls New Orleans home as gentlemen’s outfitter Haspel, one of its most famous purveyors, hails from the city. On a visit to the city during Mardi Gras, I saw this fact parodied in a float from the all-women Krewe of Muses. It depicted former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal clothed in those classic blue and white lines and dubbed him an “In-Sin-Seer-Sucker” – get it?

Then there are hats. Along with a dog and tattoo, they are the one thing that everyone seems to have in New Orleans – and not just gentlemen. The city is full of hat shops: Goorin Bros, Key West Hat Company, La Red Rooster and, oldest and most famous, Meyers on the junction of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue that claims to be the South’s largest hat store. “It’s because of the heat,” one Southern gentleman told me once, but I think it’s about more than that – perhaps a desire for self-elevation in a city with something of an (unjustified) inferiority complex and with a flair for the creation of a sense of occasion that headwear often brings.

In London, there is also a rich tradition of dressing up. In the many communities here where people have historically not had very much, looking your best can be an important sign of self-respect, respect for those around you, and belief in the possibility of transformation. This tradition has surely helped to create the engine of progression and prosperity that London has represented for many.

Take fashion designer Alexander McQueen. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said, a quote that was written on the wall near the start of a recent sell-out exhibition of his work at the city’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He came from a working-class family and was the son of a black cab driver but via London’s world-famous suit-making centre Savile Row became a legend in his field.

I certainly feel uncomfortable going out in London or New Orleans without dressing up a little. Bright black, sky-and-water blue, and often one of my two favourite pairs of earrings (see picture): pink pearls that I’d like to imagine are from some sweet swamp-born oyster; and small silver birds with delicate scratches that could be, if you look closely enough, tiny feathers.