N.O. K.O.’d

I have no interest in going into the politics or sob stories surrounding the disaster in New Orleans, but maybe I might give a brief impression of the city, though I have never visited it, as it disappears either temporarily or permanently. It is one of the three major American cities I would most like to see someday, along with San Francisco and New York, and yet I have the strange impression that this whole catastrophe is unfolding in a foreign land, in a remote Caribbean outpost rather than on American soil. And yes, I fully acknowledge that at least viscerally this is partially if not largely because almost everyone in the photographs and videos is black. But that’s the way it is with New Orleans. I remember thinking just a few days before all this happened that New Orleans has to be the least American metropolis in the country. Charitably one might say that this is because it is a creole or French Catholic bastion in the heavily WASP American South. But in reality what sparked the thought was reading an article about the city’s murder rate, which is something like four times as high as that of any other major American city. And so: culturally exotic, economically and politically almost Third World, a strange place indeed. With such a level of poverty, corruption and administrative incompetence, not to mention all the exhaustively chronicled engineering and geographical follies of the city, is it really such a surprise that it has resembled the fallout of a hurricane in Haiti more than one in Florida? It seems to have been a doomed city from the start.

But of course this is partly why people seem to like the place so much. You can’t find that kind of decayed elegance amidst the bland efficiency of most American cities. Its stagnation, which has helped to seal its doom, is surely also what has helped it to preserve its antiquated charm. New Orleans is no more ludicrous as an urban project than Venice, which similarly owes its beautifully preserved state to the absurdity of its situation. And, quite frankly, New Orleans today may not be much more economically necessary. Sure in the 19th century it made sense to have a big city in the delta for trade, but with the power and reach of global communication today one doesn’t necessarily need a teeming metropolis at every port–things can be controlled more from afar. Since New Orleans hasn’t made itself particularly economically necessary in any other way (the gas and petroleum industries certainly don’t require big population centers), I have a hard time imgaining that the motivation will exist to completely rebuild even if the money could be procured for it. It’s not even of much value as a symbolic statement à la the WTC even aside from the massively greater cost–it probably won’t do much good to make a show of defiance to a hurricane. Sure, there is probably considerable enthusiasm for preserving what can be–no one wants to lose Bourbon Street or Le Vieux Carré–but everything that is worth preserving that hasn’t been so far probably can’t really be recreated in any case. But of course historical tourist New Orleans is the only part of the city that has escaped relatively unscathed, as amazing as it is that the engineering and planning knowledge of two hundred years ago has apparently trumped that of our own times. So it may be that the most desirable part of the city to save is also the only feasible one to maintain–I can’t imagine that even the most thick-headed bureaucrat could manage to leave hurricanes out of their calculations for the future now. I don’t recommend or desire that the city should become Williamsburg or even Charleston, but on the other hand all of this has probably only accelerated a process which was well underway–the signficant reduction of New Orleans as a major metropolis–and so maybe the decline or revival of the city is beyond anyone’s conscious control.

2 Responses to “N.O. K.O.’d”

  1. Dave Says:

    I don’t have the time to go into it at this time, but I have some personal knowledge of New Orleans. I think you have touched upon some things that the hysteria fed media coverage has intirely missed. I don’t know how you have this astounding insght into a place you have never visited.

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