Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Tired of waiting for the city to fix their street, residents of the Irish Channel neighborhood furnished their pothole and listed it as an Airbnb rental. It worked.
Turning potholes into public art is a time-honored way of calling attention to municipal neglect. One Chicago-based mosaicist fills them with colorful tile portraits. A Schenectady designer has planted flowers in her local pits. A British construction worker, using the pseudonym Wanksy, paints penises on torn-up streets. As CityLab has documented, there are many, many ways of using theatrical protest stunts to get the city to pay attention to your rutted road.
But this summer, one neighborhood in New Orleans collectively stepped up the asphalt-installation game when one resident decided to list a local pothole on Airbnb.
“Open air living, with the comforts of rural camping—including a few early-morning yelps from local coyotes,” read the listing for “Homer’s Hideout,” an “Earth house” property posted by James Collier, photographer and denizen of New Orleans’ Irish Channel neighborhood. Collier was inspired by other neighbors who’d already stationed a stuffed Homer Simpson doll in a pink Barbie jeep in the pothole on Washington Street. It had sat unattended for years, despite pleas to the city to fix the street.
Collier posted a link offering to rent out the pothole on Airbnb in the Irish Channel Facebook group, with a request for others to contribute furnishings. Neighbors enthusiastically came through; soon Homer’s Hideout was equipped with a Simpsons-themed living room scene, with a couch, beer can, tree-dangling chandelier, and other make-believe comforts of home. On July 23, Collier’s listing went live.
The accompanying photos of the beachball-sized pothole included a house in the background, which made its true nature vague enough to attract real booking inquiries, according to Collier. “One guy wrote to me saying that he wanted to take his wife, but needed to make sure it wasn’t too rustic,” he said. He turned the guy down—the point wasn’t to scam anyone. “This was just about being a squeaky wheel,” Collier said.
Which is sometimes what it takes to get things done in New Orleans, where locals often complain about both the controversial incursion of Airbnb properties and the oft-ineffectual nature of city services. The battle against potholes is a long and storied tale in this onetime swamp; they’re one of many ways that the forces of watery decay and a local government with a reputation for ineffectiveness express themselves. The localized floods of this summer are another example: The effects of heavy rainfall were exacerbated by what turned out to be a bunch of clogged catch basins and drainage tunnels, including one with a mysterious car parked at its bottom.
But because the Crescent City is a place where les bons temps roulent, New Orleanians also have a reputation for coming up with creative ways to package municipal complaints. Locals may recall the “Sinkhole de Mayo” bash thrown for a 30-foot-wide pit that opened up on Canal Street in 2017. The once-raffish Irish Channel has something of a history of this stuff: Not too long ago, the neighborhood created a “pop-up” patio at the site of a pothole that had consumed nearly the entire width of a street. Both events attracted media attention that spurred the city to actually fill in the inciting holes.
Same with Homer’s Hideout. The Airbnb listing lasted for three weeks, collecting a wave of Instagram likes and social media attention that eventually found its way to the city (which has not responded to CityLab’s requests for comment). On August 14, a crew of city workers showed up to fix the street. “Just talked with the crew that cleared out Homer's Hideout for repair, and they said the awareness created by furnishing the hole helped get them reassigned from curb repairs in Metairie,” Collier wrote on Facebook earlier this month.
But it took another week for Airbnb to finally remove the listing from its platform. “Fake or misrepresented listings have no place in our community and we have removed this listing from our platform,” an Airbnb spokesperson said.
Collier is glad that his street got fixed, but somewhat ambivalent about the lengths he had to go to summon the attention of officials. He also recognizes that New Orleans faces much bigger problems related to maintenance and water. On the other hand, he said, “if you can’t even drive down the street, how much confidence can you have in the other infrastructure here?”