The gradual descent into the New Orleans evening left me feeling something was amiss . Couldn’t be the Delta Airlines Cabernet (though that was frighteningly bad), or the light turbulence. No, it just didn’t seem like anything was down there, just an occasional lone light to let me know that was ground below, or so I thought. And then, all at once, lights, civilization, and landing. It turns out flying into the city from the west, we descend over the sparsely populated bayou, and then land on the first large enough scrap of terra firma. My fears were allayed, New Orleans was still here
Yeah, it’s all about the water. The past and its patterns of settlement, its present-day struggles to rebuild, and the envisioning of a future here, amidst the rising tides. We spent 2 and a half memorable days in New Orleans, and walked through some of each.
We begin up the Mississippi a bit, Vacherie, Louisiana to be exact, home of the Laura Plantation, seen above. New Orleans was fueled largely by the commerce from plantations such as this that lined both sides of the river. Today , one can tour a number of these stately spreads that are sprinkled around hardscrabble towns such as Vacherie. Laura was a Creole plantation, established by early French settlers, as opposed to those later settled by Americans. It differs from what many conjure as those classic American plantations-in style (more modest and colorful), in design (house was a part-time residence), and in the treatment of slaves (more liberal, sort of).The buildings were constructed in a meticulous post and beam fashion that involved carefully cutting and numbering every piece, and then assembling in a short time. The buildings were a mix of influences, often built by slave craftsman from Africa, incorporating European techniques of brick infill at the walls, and adapting to the local climate with cross ventilation and porches throughout.
This was a sugar cane plantation, and beyond the main house, and interspersed among the fields were the slave quarters- 16′ x 16′ shacks for a family (see photo below. Children were often dispatched for the several mile walk to the main house to get water for cooking and cleaning. The tour ended, and Juan and I stood in the fields, contemplating that unimaginable life, and further, what it must be like for many of the descendants of these plantation slaves to still live in the area. It’s this background that helps set the stage for our next stop
On To New Orleans
The 9th Ward. A forgotten district of New Orleans that has become a buzzword for disaster, government ineptitude, and hope. Originally a cypress swamp, the 9th ward was the last part of New Orleans to develop, and was populated by poor immigrant and African-American laborers who risked the frequent floods to move here. For many years this poor neighborhood suffered from lack of sewerage and water distribution problems, and as recently as 1950, only half the area had been developed. The neighborhood has always been much less dense than other parts of the city.
The neighborhood has been ravaged before by hurricanes, most noteworthy by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. But Katrina was like no other. Here is an amazing graphic of Katrina put together by the New Orleans Time Picayune:
You cross a bridge from New Orleans proper to get to the 9th, and the instant sensation is complete devastation, few buildings, a few pockets of residents. There is the occasional house that appears to have been refurbished, but for the most part, the old buildings have been either removed or sit deserted. Here are a few photos:
So, I think the first thing I thought about when visiting, was why they were rebuilding the neighborhood at all? With hundreds of vacant lots on higher ground, with a city that has shrunk, why not let it go. And I guess that goes back to our first segment, the African- American history here. For many , the 9th was the first and only home some families have had; and in a time when all else was lost, that plot of land was the thing they DID have. Relocation would require government intervention, and after centuries of distrust, and the way most agencies responded to this disaster, why would you put your faith in the government? ( not to mention our government’s sorry history of relocation- re: Native Americans) . I do think with exceptional political will and leadership, that it could’ve been possible, but as we saw while there, that has been lacking in a big way in New Orleans.
I recently attended a lecture given by the authors of a new book, “URBANBuild local global”, which documents their larger planning efforts throughout New Orleans.Here’s a link
Some fascinating ideas on rethinking planning in new Orleans, but having just been there, it just seemed wayyyy to academic and unrealistic- maybe it was the presentation – one where the phrase “building a duplex” is turned into ” making a pluralistic dwelling intervention”. Their proposals for mega-structures that would exist solely to survive the next flood were fascinating, but again, IMHO, it would seem if you’re going to go to all that trouble, it would be easier to plan for a smaller city footprint with areas for storm-driven water-conveyance and storing, all the while retaining the rich texture that exists now in New Orleans.
What IS happening in the neighborhood is the building of new homes. Typically, these homes are being built a half to one floor up, with space for cars and storage below, and some offer novel reinterpretion of the traditional shotgun house and their attendant porches. A number of “name” architects have contributed designs, and as many know, Brad Pitt has been involved in these efforts. Some of the architecture is very interesting, but when, and if, it gets built out, I wonder what this will all look like together. While I love the exuberance of the work, I think a neighborhood full of these homes will be overwhelming. Here’s a look at some new built homes , as well as some to be built.
Celebration and Hope
We stayed in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, between the French Quarter and the 9th ward. The neighborhood sits beyond the madness of the Quarter, and seemed a terrific example of what makes cities great ; a diverse collection of people. This area suffered more moderate flooding, and has bounced back well. The neighborhood was showing its colors; both with the advent of the Mardi Gras season, and the incredible excitement over the Saints appearance in the Super Bowl the following week.
What we did not know when we got there, was that this neighborhood was hosting one of the smaller Mardi Gras parades that weekend. I had not been to a parade before so it was a treat. With a local neighborhood bar as our headquarters, we celebrated with black/white, young/old, straight/gay, men as women/women as men, some tourists but mostly locals . There was a political theme to this parade, and the most prominent politicians in the area, Mayor Nagin and Governor Jindal , took a pounding. 4 years removed from Katrina, and with the ongoing challenges facing the city, one felt the cathartic need for the locals to scream, to vent, to celebrate……..and to hope- not just for a Saints win, but for a better future. And the future has gotten off to a good start – the saints won. Geaux Saints, and Geaux New Orleans!!