Seven cities primed for an architectural renaissance - New OrleansShare
It would be easy to discuss the city of New Orleans without reference to its history prior to 2005; after all, it’s streets were so thoroughly soaked from just three days of water, wind, and mud, that it seemingly crumbled, instantly, to a state of ruin that it took Detroit decades to approximate. In reality however, Hurricane Katrina was simply one - though perhaps the most affecting - chapter in New Orleans’ long, checkered, and somewhat ironic, history.
Just as the East Coast was coming into its own as an economic engine for the British Crown, explorers founded New Orleans as a French trading post between Lake Pontchartrain and the mouth of the Mississippi River, an isolated starting point for continental exploration and military bulwark against possible British encroachment. But unlike the British, who (on the whole) employed an antagonistic approach in their quest to exert dominion over Native Americans, New Orleans exemplified a certain French pragmatism to accomplish their identical quest for wealth and geographic expansion.
That pragmatism - a tolerance for and even encouragement of racial and cultural inter-relations - contributed first to New Orleans’ quick rise as an important seaport and later, as a wealthy city filled with architectural mash-ups sourced from French Canada, the West Indies, and the Deep South’s distinctly British style. Through it all, including a few decades of Spanish control (when New Orleans’ French Quarter was built, incidentally) and over two centuries of American ownership, New Orleans has lost neither its French heritage (linguistically, architecturally, and culturally) or reputation as a true melting pot.
But the irony lies in the fact that as much as racial inclusiveness enabled and propelled New Orleans’ rise, racial domination maintained New Orleans’ rarefied status. Initially, Native Americans were economic partners, assisting French explorers and trading with fur merchants; similarly, free blacks were relatively common in the city, even managing to create something of a middle class for themselves and (both white and black) settlers who arrived in the wake of the Haitian Revolution.
Over time however, New Orleans also became the primary depot for the South’s economic gravy train, which (perhaps inevitably) resulted in it being a major player in the slave trades as well. The Civil War permanently derailed that train and for a short time, returned New Orleans to a time when racial conflict was at least not officially fostered. Schools were even integrated. When Reconstruction ended however, private animus produced Jim Crow laws that reduced New Orleans to just another southern city defined by racial strife, white flight, and deteriorating economic prospects.
In short, when Hurricane Katrina (then Rita, then Gustav) swept ashore, New Orleans was already buffeted by storms of poverty, crime, and population decline. These problems - as Detroit, Buffalo, and any number of Rust Belt cities can attest - are intractable all on their own. Adding three hurricanes and a disastrously inept response (which I’ve noted, here) to the mix is, to put it lightly, quite unhelpful. Of course the flip side is that as Time’s Sean Hammerle pointed out, Detroit’s decline was long and slow, meaning it had to make a home at the bottom of the barrel before general awareness of its problems began producing corrective action. In contrast, New Orleans had the “fortune” to hit bottom with such sudden, grisly ferocity that it has riveted our attention and leveraged outrage and vague feelings of compassion into a still-strong campaign of rebirth.
Also like Detroit and Buffalo, New Orleans’ architectural renaissance is dependent on a change in economic fortune. When Hurricane Katrina laid waste to thousands of the city’s homes (over 4,000 in the Lower Ninth Ward, alone), many residents simply didn’t return, and if they did, their business or employer still had to contend with the exodus of thousands of other folks. At one point, New Orleans lost 30 percent of its pre-storm employers, with predictable consequences for unemployment and crime rates.
Local and civic-minded (and even art-inclined) entrepreneurs have not been blind to the positive aspects of such an environment. One consequence of damage caused by the storm is that office space and residential real estate are both exceedingly affordable. And since the city lost so much economic activity after the storm, civic leaders are particularly invested in the success of even the smallest, most modest business operations; their good intentions are manifested by a hodge-podge of tax incentives. While it is always difficult to measure the effect of collective attitudes on economic indicators, the business community’s “we’re all in this together” mentality is also pervasive - as it tends to be in places that have gone through exceedingly tough periods.
Evidence of that mentality consists in part by the many business groups (a few of which were created before the storm) that are buttressing tax-incentive programs by powering the p.r. campaign for reinvigorating the city and more practically, helping local businesses. Notable non-profits include The Idea Village (est. 2000), which primarily offers advice and grant money (as of mid-2009, 34K hours of advice and over $1.5 million in grants); Startup New Orleans, which has info on local entrepreneurs, and Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans, which fosters social-issue oriented entrepreneurship. There are a number of business incubators as well, each of which provide affordable office and retail space along with a bit of advice, including the Entergy Innovation Center in the Upper Ninth Ward, Entrepreneur’s Row in downtown, Launch Pad in downtown, and IceHouse in Faubourg St. John.
Architecturally, New Orleans’ comeback has been less consistent - or at least less consistently evident during a stroll through neighborhoods - though not for lack of effort. As this graphic aptly illustrates, the storm’s destructive power was overwhelming - and the low-income neighborhoods that suffered the worst flooding also had the least ability to bounce back without substantial help. The need for more affordable housing is consequently huge. Making matters worse, as a recent editorial in The New York Times noted, nearly half of New Orleans residents still make less than $35K and in one parish, an estimated 6,500 people are living in abandoned homes.
One of the most capable, successful groups helping out is The Preservation Resource Center (PRC) of New Orleans, which has spent years tackling historic preservation and affordable housing issues. Since 1974, the PRC has offered preservation advice and education, restored/rehabbed over 100 hundred properties, and managed a revolving fund to assist property owners who can’t afford to pay for improvements on their own. Operation Comeback is a prime example of PRC’s effectiveness; established in the wake of the storm, it couples reconstruction and renovation efforts with a first-time and low-income home-buyer program to repopulate neighborhoods in a way that preserves New Orleans’ character.
Habitat for Humanity and the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects have also maintained a commitment to New Orleans’ redevelopment, five years after the storm, focusing on new/renovated home construction and pro-bono design work. And although many (myself included) have expressed misgivings about some of the results of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation, which is building 150 homes (see above) in the Lower Ninth Ward, it also deserves applause for focusing on the hardest hit (and most dependent on non-profit assistance) neighborhood in the city.
My optimism about New Orleans’ architectural future is driven by a rare confluence factors (enormous charitable support, attention from all levels of government, and civic-minded interest from the business community), each of which are extremely important. But as effective as these may be in remaking New Orleans’ urban fabric, my optimism is tempered by the reality that as things currently stand, New Orleans is in as much danger of environmental disaster now as it was before Hurricane Katrina.
As I noted a few months ago, building (or re-building) a city below the waterline is asking for trouble. But since moving New Orleans is an untenable disaster-avoidance mechanism, it is exceedingly important that public officials don’t throw good money after bad by erroneously thinking that protection is purely a matter of engineering (for instance, by constructing an even higher levee).
Dutch Dialogues has spent over 4 years trying to get public officials to recognize as much, and has even proposed an award-winning plan to minimize the risk of - or damage from - another environmental disaster. Recommendations generally approach the problem of disaster avoidance as a challenge to make New Orleans’ built environment more responsive to its natural environment. Consequently, suggestions include wetland reconstruction projects (to restore the region’s natural buffer zone against storm surges) and permeability improvements within the city (to enhance/quicken drainage of land protected by levees). Although a few public officials have expressed support for Dutch Dialogues’ plan, they have yet to formally adopt its recommendations.
New Orleans is indisputably still dealing with the aftermath of earth’s fury and man’s ineptitude, but it is much farther along than even a year or two ago (case in point: in 2007, FastCompany labeled New Orleans a “Slow City” and in 2009, it was hailed as a “Fast City,” justifying the title in part on one neighborhood - Broadmoor - and its success in restoring 70% of its historic homes since the storm). Besides, the cities in this series were not selected because their architectural renaissance is imminent (i.e., maturing in a month or two), but because recent events suggest that a renaissance is bound to being within the next decade. New Orleans fit that description, even before it won the Super Bowl.
If you are curious about New Orleans start-up scene, Taylor Davidson has a number of helpful links/info here. If you are curious about issues of direct relation to New Orleans’ historic architecture, visit the PRC’s website here.
Related Posts: (1) Seven cities primed for an architectural renaissance - Buffalo; (2) Seven cities primed for an architectural renaissance - Detroit; (3) Dutch Dialogues & Hurricane Katrina prove that hindsight is only 20/20 for a little while; (4) “Make It Right” homes unveiled in New Orleans; some miss memo, make it wrong.
Image courtesy of ventri.