October 3, 2005

Impossible to restore the complex culture of New Orleans?

Consider this:
Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a majority-black city. It also was a poor one, and most of the people hardest hit by the storm were both....

It is also a place where French, Spanish, American Indians and West Africans intermarried as far back as the 18th Century. This resulted in a rich cultural heritage and a multiracial, sometimes inequitable society organized along color and class lines.

Now the city's native sons and daughters are speculating on how that complex culture will change in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some even question whether it will survive at all.

"I don't know that you're going to be able to capture the past," said Arnold Hirsch, a historian at the University of New Orleans. "You may come up with something new. You might be able to help the poverty and the problems that became so manifest during the hurricane, and that might be to the good. But it wouldn't be the historical New Orleans."

Read the whole thing.


Eddie said...

It has always been a City evolving and this tragedy will make it even more so. Some of its character will be lost, but new character will be introduced. I suspect much gentrification in the future of New Orleans.

bearing said...

"...But it wouldn't be the historical New Orleans."

This guy has a definition of "historical" that's pretty different from mine.

Hurricane Katrina is --- was --- a historical event. Like other events, it changed New Orleans. It won't be the same as before. That's the story. That is the history. Historical New Orleans --- later on --- will include the story of this mass migration and whatever story is told of the recovery that ensues.

My Boaz's Ruth said...

Is this history something they want kept "Poor" and "inequitable society organized along color and class lines"?

Pat Patterson said...

Is the inference that only in New Orleans that people of different races and cultures intermarry. I guess in the rest of the country people sit around beneath portraits of their ancestors, pure and unsullied, for 30 generations or so. So part of any master plan for NO will include a questionaire checking to make sure that that the percentages of mixed race and culture stay as they were before the hurricane. Unless the planners can move people around, like the Tartars of Odessa, then the repopulation of NO is already taking place. Ready or not!

John A said...

The New Orleans of 2004 was neither the city nor the culture known by Scott Joplin, Bessie Smith (both of whom started working in brothels, if at different jobs), "Stonewall" Jackson, Jean LaFitte, or hundreds of thousands of others.

Adapt or die.

Elizabeth said...

Eddie, I dread widespread gentrification in my city's future.

Pat--you're overreacting. The article cited a specific mix of cultures, that began in the 18th century. It didn't say anything about other geographic areas, or imply anything about any other marriages or cultures.

Elizabeth said...


I'm missing your point. Those figures are all long dead. But their influence on music lives in New Orleans. Do you know any of the musicians who lost their homes in this storm? How about the Dixie Cups, Aaron Neville, Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield Sr., Fats Domino? And there are the wonderful brass bands that come from the streets of Treme and the 9th Ward, keeping alive the hundreds-year old tradition of street music with brass instrument, but evolving with hip-hop: Brass Hop. Check out Rebirth Brass Band for a sample.

New Orleans isn't just its history, but its history is part of the trajectory of art, music, food and culture that keeps the city vital and unique. It's evolving every day. A hurricane hit it, not a cultural disaster.

Reading these comments makes a great argument for why New Orleanians are insisting on local control of the rebuilding of the city.

Pat Patterson said...

Elizabeth-While I can't speak for John, I think that we were both saying the same thing, NO will rebuild and without much concern for its historical uniqueness. I'm not to sure that recreating the same elements that made NO a declining metropolitan area is wise or even realistic. With it usual flair for civic incompetence the city has already started to rebuild without any master plan or check-off chart. Why rebuild a poor city with its enclaves for tourists and the wealthy? What exactly is wrong with gentrification if it brings the middle-class, of all races, back into the city's core? Thus improving NO's tax base, which might create pressure for the kind of political reform that would elect only minor incompetents not the spectacularly bad ones NO has now.

Elizabeth said...

Pat, I don't where to start. You make several unsupported assumptions, so I'll just dive in.

New Orleanians will rebuild, yes, and with concern for the city's historical uniqueness. What grounds do you have to think otherwise? What are reading that gives you the opposite idea?

Rebuilding has not begun, so your statement that it's proceeding with no regard to planning is just factually wrong. Planning is just beginning, and among the people doing that planning are agencies and developers concerned with our "historical uniqueness"--the Preservation Resource Center and Historic Restoration Inc. are among them.

Orleanians are aware of the need to change factors that create the deeply rooted poverty that blights New Orleans. There's a certain happiness, crass as it might be, that the public schools have been decimated. We hope it means the system can be rebuilt from the ground up. The terrible public education system is a central reason for the ongoing poverty and crime--not the only reason, but it's a big part of that matrix.

Describing New Orleans as being mainly poor with enclaves for tourists and the wealthy is also factually incorrect. Have you ever been to New Orleans? The bulk of the city is made up of mixed-income neighborhoods, and tourists are not roped off in some enclave.

I agree we need to bring more middle class of all races back to the city's core; we may be using the term "gentrification" differently. In my usage, gentrification is for higher income people, not middle class. I don't want to see traditionally middle class neighborhoods priced out of range for working class people. I don't want to see good housing turned into vacation condos for out of towners who show up to get drunk three or four times a year.

If you want to talk about returning middle class and improving the tax base, you have to talk about racism, the racism that drove white middle class people to leave the city for the suburbs in Metairie and across the Lake, so their kids wouldn't have to go to school with black kids. Too many of them don't give a crap about the city's future, so long as they can come in to a Saints game and to puke on Bourbon street.

And what's so much better about their city leaders? I've seen the press making fun of Aaron Broussard's crying about FEMA, about stolen relief supplies, and all kinds of other incompetences in the other parishes. Why single out New Orleans? If you knew anything about New Orleans' politics, you'd know Ray Nagin is a reformer, an honest man, and an effective agent in trying to change the very culture you critique. There's much I don't like about him, but he's not cut from the patronage mold.

I doubt you have a good idea of what is valuable about New Orleans, what is unique, and what is meaningful to those of us who live there. Again, that's why we need New Orleanians planning its restoration. Fortunately, the people who love the city know that.

Pat Patterson said...

What little optimism I had for the rebuilding of NO, after reading Elizabeth's last comment, is now officially dead. It appears that the usual list of suspects is already angling to rebuild NO. Preservationists only to glad to spend someone else's money to save something that probably should have been torn down 20 years ago. Developers that will only be happy to build any project as long as they get paid. All this plannning does is to ensure that it will be expensive and take far longer than is reasonable.
When I said that NO is already rebuilding, I meant that individual property owners are already repairing and making their own plans on how to proceed, thus making any grand city or ward-wide planning impossible, there is no blank slate.
As far as rebuilding NO's education system, good luck, not too many bigger cities have ever pulled that trick off. Racism may indeed be reponsible but unless a stable tax base can improve the schools then the only way to get the middle class back might be to sneak out of the city and kidnap them at night.
NO has a poverty rate of over 23%, it has about 10% of Louisiana's population yet manages to get 16% of the Federal funds available to the state. I doubt if all this new money will be spent any better than before.
Last point, which would be that I was stressing that local governament in NO seemed incompetent not criminal, I singled out NO because the posts and comments were talking about NO. It's too late to claim that other cities are doing the same things, possibly true but those cities didn't parade their incompetents before a national audience.

Elizabeth said...

Pat, other cities indeed parade before the national audience--I was referring to the neighboring parishes, and their officials have been on the news quite often.

You quote the population vs. federal bucks statistics but don't venture any comment on what New Orleans contributes to the state's tax coffers, and to its economy. We have the port, the bulk of the tourist industry, an NFL team that brings in NCAA and NFL playoffs, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest--the rest of the state doesn't contribute as much to the economy; New Orleans' slice of the pie is actually under what it should get, but that's how state legislatures work.

Your descriptions of preservationists is ludicrous, and unsupported. Your disdain for historical architecture is certainly your right, but there's no rational basis for it. Our nation values its history, and much of what it means to be an American has its origins in New Orleans. You offer accusations, but give no reasons or evidence for anyone to believe that preservationists are ripoff artists.

As for those homeowners, they'll have to face long-term changes in how we protect the city for flooding. It's not likely that the lowest-lying areas will be rebuilt; they may turned into flood plains. My concern is not so much that problem, but the specter of carpetbagging developers, with the collusion of insurance companies, buying up damaged homes in areas that will be rebuilt with improved building codes and more flood protections, but not for the people who live there now. Those folks will be out of luck.

I hope not too many other Americans share your misinformation and prejudices against investing in rebuilding the lives of fellow Americans who are just as deserving and important as any other citizen. You don't have to embrace New Orleans' place in history, but you can certainly stop maligning it.