Katrina has devastated New Orleans, a unique American city, unprecedented and unparalleled in its cultural heritage and central to the history of historic preservation. New Orleans preserved landmarks before almost any other city in North America, and it preserved historic districts before any city here save Charleston. In its integration of architecture and culture it even suggested that preservation was about more than buildings: a blend of music and the peoples and practices of three continents stirred into an intriguing and attracting mix. Now, more of it is gone that we yet know.
The Department of Homeland Security failed its first test in New Orleans, abetting a human tragedy that outweighs any concerns of material culture. It failed even though everybody else saw it coming. My newspaper last Sunday was illustrated with cross-sections what kind of flooding would happen in New Orleans with the expected storm surge. Chicago’s Mayor saw that and offered extensive help to FEMA, which was turned down during Day 1 of the weeklong federal bungle. Turns out FEMA is now run by people with no experience in emergency management. On top of bad management, various government muckety-mucks and their mothers have added fabulous insults to the injuries, treating other people as if they were somehow categorically different. Always a mistake. Today Bangladesh offered help.
We still don’t know how much is lost – the French Quarter, the nation’s second historic district protected in 1937, seems relatively unscathed. The Garden District is some distance from the levee breaks, but the Ninth Ward took the brunt of it, an area of preservation outreach in recent years. See www.preserveneworleans.com for ways to help. Along the Gulf Coast, historic homes in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where Louis Sullivan had his vacation escape, are likely gone. Biloxi. Many places seemingly gone forever.
The magnitude is almost unimaginable, except it was imagined, by FEMA before it had its knees cut off, by New Orleans when it tried to build levees, by everybody’s newspaper last Sunday before the thing even hit.
We live in such an instantaneous society with so little memory that the feeble excuses from Washington seem plausible only if you can’t remember the news you read a week ago. Then again, they encourage you to forget – replace this memory with that one – thanks to spin, which is the same as marketing or propaganda. Fortunately, the debacle now is so big and so visible and graphic that even Rovian spinsters can’t put Humpty back together.
Will New Orleans get put back together? Yes, because there is the historic place, and it seems much of its historic core, and by far more importantly, that strange hybrid culture that simply does not exist elsewhere –a place that fostered the sort of individuality that resulted in stranding and death and looting but also a place that recognizes that society and culture are needed, desperately needed, if any of us are to experience our individuality. They had a parade yesterday. New Orleans won’t be a theme park as some pundit suggested this morning, because the same culture that is freaking out Baton Rouge right now will need a place to go and a place to build. Of course it won’t be the same – nothing ever is. Even for a minute. But it will be New Orleans.
One more note on Dennis Hastert’s ill-advised remarks about bulldozing a city built in a terrible location. All cities are built in terrible locations. Amsterdam? Underwater. Venice? Eternally submerging. Mexico City and Chicago built on swamps and landfill, San Francisco and Los Angeles on fault lines. Cities grow where they are needed based on commerce and transportation, which for most of human history meant as close to the damn water as possible. The fact that the ocean and the river were so close meant that New Orleans had to be there.