Friday, September 02, 2005

The Silent Saint

It is too early to discuss rebuilding New Orleans when so many lives are still threatened. We should give a short, though conditional, "yes."

But the question has already been asked, and people versed in urban planning like Witold Rybczynski and in punditry like Denis Asstert (sic) have already said a thing or two on the matter. Rybczynksi puts it best when he draws the connection between humans and their physical environment as part of the essential bond that is community.
[I] is more than the loss of lives and property, it is also the eradication of a sense of community itself, which, however imperfect, is always a measure of human achievement. In the case of New Orleans, it is also the loss of a distinctive urban fabric. It is—was—a rare example of French city-building in the United States ... . Founded by the French in 1722 and then taken over by the Spanish (who built all those wrought-iron balconies), New Orleans has a cultural and architectural richness that is unique among the bland, sliced-bread cities of the continent.
New Orleans brings together many strands of global history: the presence of France and Spain, the development of agriculture in the Ohio Valley, the migration of people to and around the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, slavery and the emancipation. Its music testifies to the meeting of cultural influences.

I have said a thing or two about rebuilding German cities at this blog. Each confronted complex problems about what rebuilding meant, not just restoring housing and essential services, but how much of the architectural heritage and public spaces of the old city to restore. Each city made different choices about what to save and what to leave in the rubble based on material and cultural needs. Berlin, east and west, was shaped by competition in the Cold War and, more recently, memorialization oatrocitieses of German history. Munich and, to a lesser extent, Dresden rebuilt as much as possible to their Baroque glories, wiping away evidence of war. Cologne was almost completely replaced. Churches were saved, as if the best that Cologners had to save was their spirituality. Many buildings were partly completed with modern materials, especially glass, emphasizing the destruction of the community. With its extensive devastation anyone could have asked "why rebuild here"?

New Orleans should be rebuilt -- it has rebuilt before, after a fire destroyed nearly nine hundred buildings in 1788. There is every need to have a city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, every need to have a gateway into the Caribbean world. Jazz needs its birthplace. Preliminarily it looks like much of the patrimony has been spared extensive damage.

Ironically, the people who were left behind -- the poor, elderly, mostly African-American -- may suffer from reconstruction. Orleans may be gentrified, replaced by posh homes that are out of reach. Or it can be subjected to a 'new brutalism': erecting of simple, overly modern blocapartmentsts in which no community can thrive. More likely a combination of the two will occur.

Either way, the rebuilding of New Orleans should not be taken as the opportunity to turn it into Main Street, Disneyland. It doesn't need to clean up -- not the image of Storyville, not the experience of the tragedy that has just occurred.


At 10:21 AM, Blogger Brdgt said...

I keep thinking of how Chicago had to rebuild after the great fire (and in particular Bill Cronon's Nature's Metropolis). I also fear the loss of affordable housing as the reconstruction begins. It's hard to think that far ahead, while everything is such a mess now, but like you said, this tragedy also needs to be built into the reconstruction, lest we forget.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger David Sucher said...

Do you folks think it is worth rebuilding if it requires massive and expensive flood control measures? How much will you pay?

It seems to me that much of the city is in a place which current "sustainable growth" thinking would reject out of hand.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Brdgt said...

Honestly I think its absurd to suggest not rebuilding New Orleans.

"How much will I pay?"
Well considering I'm one of those crazy "tax and spend liberals" - whatever it takes.


At 9:06 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

David, I'll have a long answer for you tomorrow. My short answer is: think about the Dutch Economic Miracle.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger David Sucher said...

I'll be curious to hear your answer. "Rebuilding New Orleans" should only be done in the context of flood-proofing it in a way which is sustainable and does not depend on purely structural, hardware means nor on playing dice with the weather e.g. it means, among other things, rebuilding the wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi.

In an ideal world, I'd say, "Sure. We are a rich country. We can do it."

But this not an ideal world and I have no doubt that we will not do a good job of it. I simply don't think the money will be there.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Annie said...

They now have the unique opportunity of doing it right. I am not speaking of the Disneyland New Orleans, but perhaps this time they can construct valid, working flood control.

In ancient times when disaster destroyed cities, the surviors moved onto new geography rationalizing that if it happend once, it could happen again.

I hope that those rebuilding New Orleans will also benefit from this lesson and get it right.


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