Skip to comments.Restoring the Real New Orleans
Posted on 03/24/2009 7:00:13 PM PDT by Lorianne
Like so many others, I have long been a visitor to New Orleans. In my case, the first visit was 1979, when we studied the city to influence the design of the new town of Seaside. I have been back often for New Orleans is one of the best places to learn architecture and urbanism in the United States. My emphasis on design might seem unusual, but it shouldn't be, for the design of New Orleans possesses a unique quality and character comparable to the music and the cuisine that receives most of the attention.
During those visits, sadly, I did not get to know the people not really. The New Orleanians I met were doing their jobs but not necessarily being themselves. Such is the experience of the tourist.
This all changed when Katrina brought me back in the role of planner. Engaging the planning process brought me face to face with the reality.
Apart from the misconceptions of the tourist, I had also been predisposed by the media to think of New Orleans in a certain way: as a charming, but lackadaisical and fundamentally misgoverned place long subjected to unwarranted devastation, with a great deal of anger and resentment as a result. That is indeed what I found at first; but as I engaged in the planning process I came to realize that this anger was relative. It was much less, for example, than the bitterness that one encounters in the typical California city with nothing more than traffic gripes. The people of New Orleans have an underlying sweetness, a sense of humor, and irony, and graciousness that is never far below the surface. These were not hard people.
Pondering this one day, I had an additional insight. I remember specifically when on a street in the Marigny I came upon a colorful little house framed by banana trees. I thought, "This is Cuba," (I am Cuban). I realized in that instant that New Orleans is not really an American city, but rather a Caribbean one.
Looking through the lens of the Caribbean, New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities. This insight was fundamental because from that moment I understood New Orleans and began to truly sympathize. Like everyone, I found government in this city to be a bit random; but if New Orleans were to be governed as efficiently as, say, Minneapolis, it would be a different place and not one that I could care for. Let me work with the government the way it is.
It is the human flaw that makes New Orleans the most humane of American cities. (New Orleans came to feel so much like Cuba that I was driven to buy a house in the Marigny as a surrogate for my inaccessible Santiago de Cuba.)
When understood as Caribbean, New Orleans' culture seems ever more precious and more vulnerable to the effects of Katrina. Anxiety about cultural loss is not new. There has been a great deal of anguish regarding the diminishment of the black population, and how without it New Orleans could not regain itself.
But I fear that the citys situation is far more dire and less controllable. Even if the majority of the population does return to reinhabit its neighborhoods, it will not mean that New Orleans or at least the culture of New Orleans will be back. The reason is not political, but technical. You see, the lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. Entering the damaged and abandoned houses you can still see what they were like before the hurricane. These houses were exceedingly inexpensive to live in. They were houses that were hand built by people's parents and grandparents, or by small builders paid in cash or by barter.
Most of these simple, and surprisingly pleasant, houses were paid off. They had to be, because they do not meet any sort of code, and are therefore not mortgageable by current standards.
I think that it was possible to sustain the culture unique to New Orleans because housing costs were minimal. These houses liberated people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure.
There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to rehearse music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and time to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time lies in a light financial burden. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be dismissed as laziness or poverty, but as a way of life.
This ease, so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement.
This is the way of living that may now disappear. Even with the Federal funds for new housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now.
If nothing else, the higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb, but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few "paid off" houses. Everyone will have a mortgage, which will need to be sustained by hard work and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.
What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated. The hurdle of drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections the professionalism of it all eliminates grassroots bottom up rebuilding.
Somehow there must be a process whereupon people can build simple, functional houses for themselves, either by themselves, or by barter with professionals.
There must be free house designs that can be built in small stages, and that do not require an architect, complicated permits, or inspections. There must be common sense technical standards. Without this, there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn't mean owing money, it means destroying a culture that arises from lower costs and leisure.
To start, I would recommend an experimental "opt-out zone." Create areas where one "contracts out" of the current American system, which consists of the nanny-state raising standards so expensive and complicated that only the nanny-state can provide affordable housing. The state thus creates a problem and then offers the only solution.
However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently, this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted.
We must return to this as an option.
Of course, this is not for everybody. There are plenty of people in New Orleans who work in conventional ways at conventional times. But the culture of this city does not flow from them; they may provide the backbone of New Orleans, but not its heart.
He's right,IMO, about living debt free and the cost of housing being affected by too much government intervention.
He misses that most people could have more leisure and less debt and less stressful lifestyles if they would simply live within their means ... not a particularly American trait to be sure.
Awww I am sorry but New Orleans has always been a sewer hole. It was terrible before Katrina. Katrina actually did a zillion dollars of improvement.
New Orleans will come back, though it will take quite a long time. Some folks will never return, though, because the easy life they had before will no longer be possible. Frankly, I don't view this as a bad thing.
The culture that the tourists saw was made possible by people who were working in the entertainment industry, and in the service industries, like hotels, and restaurants. They were working before the storm, and God willing, they'll find work as more businesses re-open. From their wages, they'll be able to buy or build homes, and they can make them as Caribbean, or Cuban, or Creole as they like, they just won't be able to skimp on the electrical and plumbing services, or the structure of the buildings. Maybe these homes will survive the next storm that hits the city, precisely because they WERE built to code.
I visited New Orleans this past September. It is a sh*t hole. Every dollar we spend to rebuild this crappy city is absolute waste.
Hey what was going on? We asked a worker in the hall what was happening and she said there is a big ole hurricane fixing to hit New Orlenes. She said it would be best to get out of town! We packed up, left and headed home (200 miles north).
That night Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi coast.
My first trip to N.O.
“I visited New Orleans this past September. It is a sh*t hole.”
Well be glad to send our “shit” to fill the big dig and help you improve Kennedy land.
If you want to see how *not* to build a special, beloved city, with a unique character all its own, visit the great new cities of the southwest US. They are a great example of “generic” places, of biodegradable buildings and utilitarian design that fails to have any spiritual depth.
From Dallas and points West, cities designed from textbooks for the boom town business efficiency, with little local style or color, and an aversion to history. Few traces of what existed a mere 100 years before remain; and little of what exists today will be there 100 years in the future. Why? Because nobody cares. Why preserve a cardboard box?
And as generic, domesticated cities are built, the people who live in them are like that as well. In 1950, Phoenix had about 50,000 people. Today, 2-3 million. Few were born in Phoenix or owe it any great loyalty as their hometown. Its most unique bit of character is its generic sports teams, full of players from elsewhere. Transitory franchises.
So what of New Orleans? Well, if the city itself can even exist for the next hundred years, without becoming ocean swamp, it might have a future.
But only if it forces itself to embrace its past, but more than that, to elevate its past with nostalgia. This means to create a false past that is grander than the real past. Modern built buildings that *look* historical, but are far better than what actually used to exist.
New Orleans has a renowned music all its own, so it should be cultivated and enlarged, to become a Mecca for artists. It also has fine restaurants whose cuisine could be the cities crown jewels.
An entire part of town might exist as an idealized version of what existed in the days of the late 18th and early 19th Century, to include costumes, historically recreated businesses, etc. A “Fantasyland” historical city for the tourists.
Since the great event of New Orleans is its world famous Mardi Gras, all effort should be made to restore its atmosphere of Carnival, instead of just a drunken orgy. This is by changing it from a drinking game into a participatory event. Simply put, that the public should attend in costume and parade, not just drink and gawk.
Do not take personal. New Orleans is one of the worst cities in America by any measure. That is not a disputable fact. I give that, you have great food.
personal = personally
“New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities”
Nothing like having high aspirations.
Heh - I actually worked in the same building as Morgus (Sid Noel) for a few years. You'd never recognize him without the dirty lab coat and fright wig. :-)
DId you know that Morgus was broadcast in Detroit, too? Kind of appropriate, if you think about it. A big chunk of New Orleans looked a lot like the decayed part of Detroit shown in Gran Torino - and that was *before* Katrina!
There from 65 (right before Hurricane Betsy!) to 93...looked forward to arriving, but knew it was time to let go...
Miss what was good about it, happier in the Intermountain West.
Brother moved back a couple of years ago. Maybe one day, I’ll go down to see what it looks like nowadays. Maybe.
We are just better at urban renewal than Teddy Land, a dead drug dealer is a small price to pay for progress.
I’ve eaten in Boston and I thought Scrod was a description of the food until I found out it was a trash fish.
By the way the only city in the US I have ever been scared in after dark was Boston...a friend of mine and I got off at the wrong MTA station. Here at least I can carry.
P.S. Our politicians probably don’t steal as well as yous, our press just cover’s it better than yours. We could pay for our levee’s if we hadn’t had to give up all of our oil serverence money to your state and others that don’t contribute anything to a national oil policy, except for use. You shouldn’t complain about any other city after the Big Dig, and I understand it’s falling apart. Watch out for falling corruption.
Or French and Native American.
Good food. Beyond that, no thanks. Our corporate HQ had a prime opportunity to leave that sinkhole after Katrina wiped out our offices, but noooooo, they had to stay and commit to restoring that rat nest. Why, is beyond me.