NEWS Via NOLA: Putting hip on the map: Real estate markets heat up when a neighborhood turns cool

Putting hip on the map: Real estate markets heat up when a neighborhood turns cool

By Richard Campanella
on March 12, 2014 at 9:00 AM, updated March 12, 2014 at 8:25 PM

“Location, location, location,” the real estate adage goes. In fact, a number of complex variables drive the value of land, particularly for residential areas. They range from schools and quality of life, to amenities and safety, to prejudices, perceptions and social status.

In recent decades, a new variant of social status has entered the real estate equation, and it has since transfigured downtown New Orleans and other American cities.

It’s the curious cultural phenomenon known as cool.

Neighborhoods that a decade or two ago were viewed as dirty, dangerous and disregarded now rank among the region’s hottest real estate markets, turned around courtesy of an emerging social charisma that may be described as “hip” or “cool.” Among them are Bywater and adjacent areas down St. Claude Avenue; Faubourg Treme and St. Roch; the Irish Channel; and Mid City. A generation earlier, places like Faubourg Marigny and the Lower Garden District underwent the transformation.

True, these neighborhoods boast other advantages. They have history, architecture, walkability, high topographic elevation and favorable flood zones, not to mention proximity to resources and employment. But they had these advantages years ago, yet few came a-bidding.

What changed is that they became cool on the social scene. And that made them hot — on the real estate scene.

Coolness is elusive, and some might be inclined to scoff at the notion, as it smacks of affectation and brings to mind poseurs. To be sure, coolness is purely perceptual; it is constructed and superimposed, not innate.

But any illusion that can so thoroughly change the character, composition and property value of a neighborhood cannot be dismissed. Coolness is real in its effects, if not in its posturing, and as such, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon, though not entirely unprecedented.

New Orleanians in times past perceived certain spaces within their city to bear a particular dash, and it was based largely on class. The word “fashionable” appears in real estate ads in the 19th century, usually with respect to St. Charles Avenue or the Garden District. Other code words included “genteel” and “stylish.” Vanity Fair explained in 1869 how “the Americans adopt the term of “down-town” for the (Creole quarter), and dignify their own residential quarter as ‘up-town.'”

But fashion, style and dignity are not the same as cool; if anything, coolness sneers at such bourgeois aspirations. Coolness exudes an aloof poise and a confident sense of self-possession; it is never boastful or chatty, but rather vaguely mysterious, unknowable, and, above all, separate and apart from the masses. It explains why celebrities wear sunglasses, and why the smarter ones know to act taciturn and keep themselves scarce.

Coolness constantly needs to be ahead of the mainstream, and if the mainstream catches up, coolness goes elsewhere. “The act of discovering what’s cool,” observed Malcolm Gladwell in an influential 1997 article entitled “The Coolhunt,” “is what causes cool to move on.” As it does, coolness often produces new cultural innovations and explores increasingly edgy terrain. Coolness thus becomes geographical: it occupies certain spaces, disdains others, and seeks new ones when uncoolness approaches.

And that’s when, and where, it affects real estate.

Decades ago, for example, Bourbon Street was considered cool. But when corporate hotels and mass tourism made the strip all too plebian and crass in the 1960s, coolness moved on to new spaces, such as lower Decatur Street in the 1970s, and extended in the 1980s and 1990s across Esplanade onto Frenchmen Street. By that time, the surrounding area, along with the blocks around Coliseum Square, became the city’s coolest “new” neighborhoods. Both were rechristened, one with the revived historical moniker “Faubourg Marigny” and the other with a circa-1960s coinage “Lower Garden District.” Property values rose, renovation broke out all over, the areas gentrified, and coolness spread adjacently.

After Katrina, when a wave of youth from places like New York arrived in New Orleans in search of undiscovered bohemian coolness, they found places like Frenchmen (not to mention Bourbon) all too similar to what they had left behind. So they proceeded to push coolness into new spaces, down St. Claude Avenue, across Rampart and beyond. Those areas are now changing as Marigny and the Lower Garden District did previously.

Lovers of Frenchmen Street now openly worry that their street is “becoming like Bourbon Street,” an explicit fear that uncoolness may be knocking at its door. That’s happened before, too.

When Bourbon Street became uncool, and the white middle class moved en masse to Jefferson Parish, a new cool space popped up rather spontaneously (coolness is hard to choreograph) in the heart of Metairie. It was dubbed Fat City, and it peaked in the late 1970s with more than 70 nighttime drinking, eating, music and entertainment venues.

But in the 1990s, downtown New Orleans had regained the cool advantage, and Fat City soon found itself in a wilderness of uncool, catering to an aging demographic with musical tastes ranging from hair bands to The Yat Pack.

Jefferson Parish authorities hired a consultant from Manhattan to advise them on how to revive the district. His advice: “create a ‘cluster of cool'” in the heart of Fat City, “where you can really make it look and feel different.”

Managers are trying a similar strategy for the cool-challenged French Market. They’ve been running “Hip Scene, Historic Setting” ads in cool magazines like Offbeat, recruiting earthy craft vendors to counter the beads-and-T-shirts stigma, and piping in the very cool sounds of WWOZ into the flea market like intravenous nourishment for the ailing.

Here and elsewhere, coolness has become an urban planning strategy, and planners today wield its trappings the way their predecessors once plied golf courses and gated subdivisions. “Real” cool, meanwhile, has a mind of its own.

The ever-changing geography of cool has brought with it a cycle of neighborhood change, introducing newcomers and new wealth, sometimes displacing natives and poverty, and making the phenomenon of gentrification one of the most polemical topics in town.

Some would argue that developers and a complicit local government instigate the cool-neighborhood-cum-hot-real-estate cycle, and that may well be true in some cases (such as the Warehouse District and newly christened “South Market District”) and in other cities (such as New York). But I would argue that these forces, in most cases in New Orleans, are eagerly responding to the geography of cool, not initiating it.

Much has been written about gentrification, including by yours truly, and debates about its costs and benefits can be found elsewhere. My interest here is to contend that, while coolness is illusory, its effects upon the cityscape are quite real, and thus can be mapped.

Where is the geography of cool?

To address this question, I devised a technique entailing the distribution of hundreds of points digitally throughout a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map of downtown. Each point was then ranked 0 (uncool) through 10 (very cool) reflecting how that neighborhood, bar, restaurant or venue is generally perceived, based on a wide range of observations, readings, conversations and vibes from the zeitgeist. I then processed the ranked points into a “heat map” and color-coded from red (uncool) to yellow to blue (cool) to dark blue (very cool).

Yes, it’s subjective; of course it’s imprecise; but after bouncing the estimates off a number of people, I found that a general consensus prevailed.

The resulting map, which accompanies this article, does not represent my personal opinions of what’s cool or uncool. Rather, it represents my attempt to estimate everyone else’s opinions, as best as I can discern them.

By no means should readers take offense at areas mapped in red which they think ought to be blue (or vice versa); personally, I am a neutral observer of coolness, and find the entire phenomenon quite interesting

Where would you map coolness? Where do you seeing it going next? What impact will it have? For better or worse, the geography of cool may influence the future cityscapes of New Orleans.

*****

Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane University School of Architecture and a Monroe Fellow with the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, is the author of the newly released “Bourbon Street: A History,” as well as “Bienville’s Dilemma,” “Geographies of New Orleans,” “Lincoln in New Orleans,” and other books. He may be reached through richcampanella.com, rcampane@tulane.edu or @nolacampanella on Twitter.

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via Times-Picayune: Shotgun geography: the history behind the famous New Orleans elongated house

Shotgun geography: the history behind the famous New Orleans elongated house

Few elements of the New Orleans cityscape speak to the intersection of architecture, sociology and geography so well as the shotgun house. Once scorned, now cherished, shotguns shed light on patterns of cultural diffusion, class and residential settlement, social preferences and construction methods.

 

The shotgun house is not an architectural style; rather, it is a structural typology — what folklorist John Michael Vlach described as “a philosophy of space, a culturally determined sense of dimension.”

A typology, or type, may be draped in any fashion. Thus we have shotgun houses adorned in Italianate, Eastlake and other styles, just as there are Creole and Federalist style townhouses, and Spanish colonial and Greek revival cottages.

Tradition holds that the name “shotgun” derives from the notion of firing bird shot through the front door and out the rear without touching a wall. The term itself postdates the shotgun’s late-19th-century heyday, not appearing in print until the early 20th century.

According to some theories, cultures that produced shotgun houses (and other residences without hallways, such as Creole cottages) tended to be more gregarious, or at least unwilling to sacrifice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage.

Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off. When they arrived in New Orleans in the early 19th century, for example, privacy-conscious peoples of Anglo-Saxon descent brought with them the American center-hall cottage and side-hall townhouse, in preference over local Creole designs.

In the 1930s, LSU geographer Fred B. Kniffen studied shotguns as part of his field research on Louisiana folk housing. He and other researchers proposed a number of hypotheses explaining the origin and distribution of this distinctive house type.

One theory, popular with tour guides and amateur house-watchers, holds that shotgun houses were designed in New Orleans in response to a real estate tax based on frontage rather than square footage, motivating narrow structures. There’s one major problem with this theory. No one can seem to find that tax code.

Could the shotgun be an architectural response to narrow urban lots? Indeed, you can squeeze in more structures with a slender design. But why then do we see shotguns in rural fields with no such limits?

Could it have evolved from indigenous palmetto houses or Choctaw huts? Unlikely, given their appearance in the Caribbean and beyond.

Could it have been independently invented? Roberts & Company, a New Orleans sash and door fabricator formed in 1856, developed blueprints for prefabricated shotgun-like houses in the 1860s to 1870s and even won awards for them at international expositions. But then why do we see “long houses” in the rear of the French Quarter and in Faubourg Treme as early as the 1810s?

Or, alternately, did the shotgun diffuse from the Old World as peoples moved across the Atlantic and brought with them their building culture, just as they brought their language, religion and foodways? Vlach noted the abundance of shotgun-like long houses in the West Indies, and traced their essential form to the enslaved populations of St. Domingue (now Haiti) who had been removed from the western and central African regions of Guinea and Angola.

His research identified a gable-roofed housing stock indigenous to the Yoruba peoples, which he linked to similar structures in modern Haiti with comparable rectangular shapes, room juxtapositions and ceiling heights.

“The shotgun house of Port-au-Prince became, quite directly, the shotgun house of New Orleans.”

Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Haitians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave insurrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi. “Haitian migrants had only to continue in Louisiana the same life they had known in St. Domingue,” he wrote. “The shotgun house of Port-au-Prince became, quite directly, the shotgun house of New Orleans.”

The distribution of shotgun houses throughout Louisiana gives indirect support to the diffusion argument. Kniffen showed in the 1930s that shotguns generally occurred along waterways in areas that tended to be more Francophone in their culture, higher in their proportions of people of African and Creole ancestry, and older in their historical development.

Beyond state boundaries, shotguns occur throughout the lower Mississippi Valley, correlated with antebellum plantation regions and with areas that host large black populations. They also appear in interior Southern cities, most notably Louisville, Ky., which comes a distant second to New Orleans in terms of numbers and stylistic variety.

If in fact the shotgun diffused from Africa to Haiti through New Orleans and up the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, this is the distribution we would expect to see.

Cleary, poverty abets cultural factors in explaining this pattern. Simplicity of construction and conservation of resources (building materials, space) probably made the shotgun house equally attractive to poorer classes in many areas.

Indeed, it is possible that we may be artificially yoking together a wide variety of house types, unrelated in their provenance but similar in their appearance, by means of a catchy moniker coined after their historical moment.

Whatever their origins, shotgun singles and doubles came to dominate the turn-of-the-century housing stock of New Orleans’ working-class neighborhoods. Yet they were also erected as owned-occupied homes in wealthier areas, including the Garden District.

New Orleans shotguns in particular exhibited numerous variations: with hip, gable or apron roofs; with “camelbacks” to increase living space; with grand classical facades or  elaborate Victorian gingerbread. The variety can be explained as a strategy to address market demand with a multitude of options in terms of space needs, fiscal constraints and stylistic preferences.

New Orleanians by the 20th century, as part of their gradual Americanization, desired more privacy than their ancestors, and increasing affluence and new technologies — such as mechanized kitchens, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, automobiles and municipal drainage — helped form new philosophies about residential space.

Professional home builders responded accordingly, some adding hallways or ells or side entrances to the shotgun, others morphing it into the bungalow form. House-buyers came to disdain the original shotgun, and it faded from new construction during the 1910s and 1920s.

A Times-Picayune writer captured the prevailing sentiment in a 1926 column: “Long, slender, shotgun houses,” he sighed, “row upon row(,) street upon street…all alike… unpainted, slick-stooped, steep-roofed, jammed up together, like lumber in a pile.”

Architectural historians also rolled their eyes at prosaic shotguns, and did not protest their demolition, even in the French Quarter, as late as the 1960s.

In recent decades, however, New Orleanians have come to appreciate the sturdy construction and exuberant embellishment of their shotgun housing stock, and now value them as a key element of the cityscape.

Thousands have since been renovated, and the shotgun has experienced a recent revival. Some homes in the Make It Right project in the Lower 9th Ward, for example, were inspired by the shotgun (although rendered in modernist style), and some pre-fabricated “Katrina Cottages” and New Urbanist homes in recently rebuilt public housing complexes are made to look like the shotguns of old.

It’s revealing to note, however, that among the renovations New Orleanians now make to their shotguns is something completely alien to their original form.

They add a hallway.

****

Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture and a Monroe Fellow with the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, is the author of the forthcoming “Bourbon Street: A History” as well as “Bienville’s Dilemma,” “Geographies of New Orleans,” and other books. He may be reached through his website, rcampane@tulane.edu or @nolacampanella on Twitter.