What Transport Says About Politics in New Orleans And London


This week I’ve been listening to a radio adaption of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. It has been thought-provoking in many ways, but one quote in particular has stayed in my head. “If you want to find out what this nation is like, you have to ride the rails,” says one character, as runaway slave Cora prepares to begin her journey on the “underground railroad”, which Whitehead has reimagined as an actual railway line.

The radio also prompted to think about links between transport and politics, this time in a New Orleans context specifically, when I heard Leah Chase interviewed on the Food Programme. The famous cook spoke not only about her family’s world-renowned restaurant Dooky Chase, but also about its role in the civil rights movement. Its bowls of gumbo and fried chicken fuelled some of those taking part in the “Freedom Rides” of the early 60s.

New Orleans’ connections with the politics of transport go back even further than this. Homer Plessy, the man at the centre of the Plessy v. Ferguson case that failed to overturn streetcar segregation, came from New Orleans’ Treme neighbourhood.

Treme is also renowned as the birthplace of jazz, which reminded me of a minor political episode in the history of public transport in London. A few years ago, I read in London daily newspaper the Evening Standard that then-mayor Boris Johnson had cancelled a jazz workshop arranged for employees of the city’s bus and train body Transport for London, “just as we have got rid of many other pointless excrescences in the public sector”, he said.

Improvise, the arts organisation that would have run the workshop, would rebuff this description of their work. “Our novel inspiration is the premise that, if we understand more about how jazz musicians communicate, innovate, manage risks, work together, create and sustain change, support and lead one another, then there are valuable lessons for us all as individuals, teams and organisations”, a spokeperson said at the time

To some – Johnson evidently – jazz is just background noise. But, writes Howard Zinn in his People’s History of the United States, “jazz, however joyful, portended rebellion”. Transport is also too often regarded as just a city’s background noise, as an unremarkable means to an end. But it would be a grave mistake to ignore either.

“Listen,” wrote New Orleans music magazine OffBeat about jazz musician Fats Waller. “You can hear [him] everywhere in New Orleans, even in places where there is silence. There is something about his rhythms and melodies that are in the way people walk and horns riff and cars drive and streetcars squeal and cutlery clanks and cast-iron pots simmer.”

In London too – and other places– there are pings from trains and streetcars, a bass note thrum from buses and ferries, and the sound of the movement of many people in different directions. It is the sound, impossible to silence, of transport, the human need for freedom, and the pleasure we take in it.

Image: Terekhova


London And New Orleans Are Patchwork Cities And That Makes Them Strong Cities


I was asked recently where I’m from. I love New Orleans, but I am always just a visitor there. I live in London, but I’m not from there either. I grew up in Cambridge, in the east of the UK, but yet again I’m not really from there. I wasn’t born in Cambridge. Neither of my parents is from Cambridge. They no longer live there and I don’t really have connections there any more.

Where am I from then? I don’t really know. Maybe the places my parents are from, but I only really know these places second-hand, through them. So where?

All of us have different histories and many people would say they absolutely do know where they’re from. But I think it is part of human experience to hold both our histories and a sense of uncertainty about who we are constantly within us. “What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present,” wrote T.S.Eliot in his poem “Burnt Norton”, part of his Four Quartets series.

One of the many threads of Four Quartets is the way in which T.S.Eliot was divided in some ways between London, where he spent much of his life, and America, where he was born. Which brings me to London and New Orleans, two places that – despite the fact that they are not where I am from – feel like home.

These two cities in particular have been made in a pronounced way from what might have beens, tensions and absences, as well as presences. Their role as centres for trade and immigration have given them, and continue to give them, feet in other countries and continents, memories and artefacts of other places, and also a strong consciousness of loss.

Their unusually long, eventful and storied histories mean they must also contend with older versions of themselves – real, disputed and imaginary – around every corner. Their complex and tightly-packed presents means that they are less one cohesive city today than several alternative cities layered and twisted around each other.

Among all this, London and New Orleans must also come to terms with the natural landscapes they have, like many great world cities, dramatically supplanted. But as every storm, oil spill, flood warning, heatwave and freak snowfall shows, these older places have not been not entirely eroded. Any map of London or New Orleans will show you that these cities sit with, not above, their old geography.

All these various complexities, however, do not detract from the presences of London and New Orleans and their sense of what they are. In fact, they are part of what gives the two cities such rich and distinctive identities. In a similar way, I don’t feel that my lack of a hometown by birthright rather than adoption lessens my sense of self. Somewhat paradoxically, it seems the patchwork in our histories, the contradictions and the missing pieces make us what we are, and can make us strong.

Image: Crumpart

How Houses Mark Us In London And New Orleans


The net worth of the average African-American family is around one-tenth of that of the average white US family and that’s mostly down to property, I was told on one of my first visits to New Orleans in summer 2011.

I was taking refuge from the July sun at the Old US Mint. On show inside the building, part of the Louisiana State Museum, was an exhibition on mortgage “redlining”. This is the highly problematic practice, sadly legal until 1968, of excluding residents of certain areas of a city from access to mortgages, often on the basis of race.

Mortgage redlining, the exhibition told me, has had a very tangible effect on household income in America. Much income disparity between black and white American families, I read, “is due to differing rates of home ownership between these two groups and to the generally lower values of homes owned by blacks”.

Housing was much on my mind at that time. The effects of the global financial crisis, which had its roots in part in the US mortgage market, were still unfolding. Meanwhile, I myself had recently become for the first time both the owner of a London home (a small flat in Hackney) and the holder of a residential mortgage.

Housing has always represented personal trajectories and wider political ones. This is especially true here in the UK. A gathering of people above a certain age in London will often involve a discussion of house prices. UK prime minister Theresa May’s recent admission that home ownership may no longer be an achievable goal for many British people, an issue that is most acute in the capital, has prompted much national soul searching.

As the mortgage redlining exhibition emphasised, housing has a similar significance in the US. You could say this was encapsulated in some ways by Michelle Obama’s comment about her then-home, the White House, last summer. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

During the Obama presidency, the income disparity between black and white families that is so linked to property ownership has narrowed, but not disappeared. Since I visited the redlining exhibition in 2011, the average household income of black US families has risen to represent just over 60 per cent of that of white US families, according to some 2015 figures.

In New Orleans specifically, houses and home ownership have very particular personal and political meanings. The sight of homes marked with “Katrina crosses” by FEMA is one of the most profound symbols of both the personal losses and wider political failures that were part of the often racially-delineated impact of the storm on the city. In the years since Katrina, the effect of rising house prices on the city’s communities, and particularly its black ones, has been much debated.

I have a German friend who thinks that we Londoners are mad to care so much about houses, house prices and home ownership. But in the places where these things mark us in so many ways, willingly or not, it’s hard not to do so.

Image: Shutter Runner

Fried Chicken: Everybody Loves It Including In London And New Orleans


As last week was going to be tough for me, my mother surprised me with an emergency food parcel. This, among other things, contained two chicken dinners. A (potentially) nutritious and tasty food that brings a particular kind of comfort, chicken is everything that anyone might want in a meal. Oh, unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan that is, but more on that later.

Chicken is humanity’s meat. In his book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization”, Andrew Lawler points out that there are more chickens alive today than cats, dogs, pigs, cows and rats combined, and that chicken is eaten on every continent, apart from Antartica (because of the risk they might pose to the penguins).

Pork is popular across east Asia and Europe, but is prohibited under Muslim and Jewish dietary laws. Lamb is particularly beloved of most ethnic groups in the Middle East and is practically the national food of New Zealand and Wales, but is as exotic as reindeer or kangaroo in the US. Beef cannot be eaten by Hindus and has a whiff of English and American nationalism that can leave a bad taste in the mouth today. But in a world where we disagree on so very much, we mostly all agree on chicken, and that very much includes London and New Orleans.

“For London, fried chicken is as much a culture as it is a cuisine,” David Clack wrote in Time Out London. I certainly never walk far after leaving the house before tripping on a chewed-over bone, a result of how chicken shops have thrived in London in recent decades. Clack’s article explains that this is because, as chicken is so popular all around the world, chicken shops have done well amid London’s multiplicity of ethnic communities.

Fried chicken appeals as much to the middle classes as it does to immigrant communities, and has been a bit-player in the saga of London gentrification. Dishes such as wings, chicken burgers and nuggets have followed the hamburger in getting a gourmet upgrade and London has recently seen a spate of posh chicken shop openings, such as Chick n Sours and Wishbone. Tottenham restaurant Chicken Town, meanwhile, represents a laudable effort to produce a healthy and also affordable version of chicken shop food while training up young people from historically underprivileged Tottenham to work in the hospitality industry.

You could say that to examine fried chicken eating in London is to examine London itself. Channel 4 documentary series The Chicken Shop, filmed at Clapham’s Rooster Spot, did just that, claiming to present “a unique portrait of contemporary life, illustrated by fried chicken, the staff who serve it and the customers who buy it”. More recently, “Chicken Connoisseur” Elijah Quashie’s collection of London chicken shop reviews entitled “The Pengest Munch” has gone viral on YouTube. “I genuinely don’t know what life [in London] would be without [chicken shops],” he told The Guardian.

Thanks to a profusion of world-class hyperlocal dishes, fried chicken is not as prominent in New Orleans as it is in London or elsewhere in the South. But people still eat plenty of it, whether in smartish French Quarter restaurant Fiorella’s, or in locally-founded chain Popeyes.

As in London, eating chicken in New Orleans is a window into the city’s culture and history. Chicken has been enmeshed in social rituals throughout New Orleans’ past. Chickens plays a part in some voodoo ceremonies. Slaughtering a chicken is traditionally the climax of the “courir”, the Cajun country version of Mardi Gras. Louisiana was the last US state to ban cockfighting, doing so in 2008.

How fried chicken is eaten in New Orleans today also reflects current social issues, again as in London. In its entry for world-renowned Treme fried chicken restaurant Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a recent edition of the Lonely Planet guide to New Orleans refers to the “offputting” sight of outsiders driving in for a “fried chicken from the ‘hood experience”. Here there are hints, if slight, of issues including gentrification, crime, racism and how the negative effects of an unhealthy diet disproportionately affect the poor. These plague New Orleans, and London too.

But, continues the entry, “the chicken is pretty damn good”. As ever, the meat of this bird can transcend divisions and difficulties through bringing the simple satisfaction of being well-fed. And, it seems, this applies even to those firmly committed to a plant-based diet. Round the corner from where I live in London, and with very long lines, an outlet opened last month serving up – what else? –“vegan fried chicken”.

Image: Thy Khue Ly