Friday, September 09, 2005

Descending into Disney

The United States is a nation where we value the new over the old. It is an integral part of the national psyche of a collection of people who’s one unifying event was this: our ancestors left behind the old in the place of their birth, and built anew from the ground up.

Our greatest monuments are those we built ourselves: whether it’s the Golden Gate Bridge or the president carved into the face of Mount Rushmore. And every day, we erect new monuments to what Americans are, and litter the landscape with yesterday’s styles.

In a place set apart, on the edge of the continent, people in one of the oldest settlements have taken a different view. People in New Orleans have treasured the past, and the ways brought to that city from Europe and from Africa. Perhaps it was the ready communication with Europe and the world via the port. Or maybe the city’s founding long before 1776 and it’s separation from the United States until the Louisiana Purchase, when a well established Creole population quickly learned to resent the new American arrivals.

Whatever the cause, it has made us a place and a people apart. That has been the City’s greatest attraction to all who come to visit. It is what has made the City the birthplace of music and food and unique folk culture that make it one of the most valuable cultural artifacts in the world.

Perhaps it is that same insularity that places us in our current predicament. The people of American think they know NOLA, but they don't. They know a postcard travelogue place, a thin veneer of what the city is.

Perhaps this is whyover half of people surveyed by the Associated Press say the City should be rebuilt on “higher ground.” I’m not as angry at those people as I would have been even a day or two ago. These are people who think “city” and see the vast tracts of suburban sprawl around them. That sort of community can be built anywhere, they reason. Why would anyone want to recreate it in the bottom of a bowl, waiting for the next hurricane to strike?

Even those who have visited us have not really seen the city, and that is why they don’t understand. Take a mental cab trip from the old Moissant Field to your downtown hotel. The first impression is the vast sprawl of Kenner and Metairie. This, they reason, could be built anywhere. By the time they reach the city proper, they mostly see the crumbling industrial frontage of the Pontchartrain Expressway. This, they know say to themselves, certainly could not be missed by anyone.

They hear on the news that the French Quarter is still there, and occupied by hundreds of the colorful people they have seen or read about, who refused to leave, people hanging out in bars that never close. They hear the Uptown they know, along St. Charles Avenue, has survived the storm. Surely, they reason, this should be preserved. But the rest of it is no more historic than, and interchangeable with any place else in the United States.

What they have missed is the real city. They have not been into areas filled with small and unique homes: the ubiquitous 19th century shotguns with the frilly gingerbread; the older Creole cottages settling comfortably on their piers; the odd shaped corner stores built in the oblique angles of a city were half the streets run perpendicular to a sinuous river.

They have not seen a city of neighborhoods where people have lived for hundreds of years in much the same houses, in much the same way, only recently disturbed by the homogenizing influence of cable television and satellite robot radio, or the rattle of automatic weapons. What they don’t know is that it is these very neighborhoods that make the City of New Orleans. They are the roux, both dark and light, without which the rich gumbo cannot be.

Imagine if you will a New Orleans without Mardi Gras Indians; without neighborhoods where young boys actually want to learn to play the trombone, so they can march proudly at the head of the parade; without the little neighborhood restaurants where Creole cooking was perfected before we gave it to the world; without the little bars where every generation of musicians have played for a circle of friends and neighbors before they took our music into the world.

Yes, the City was crushingly poor. In recent years, it has been plagued by rampant and violent crime. The media gleefully reports on poor people from all over town who are relieved to have been taken out of their neighborhood, as if rescued by the hand of God. Those backwater neighborhoods that made the City possible were threatened by a tide greater than any that the Gulf can throw at us.

But if these people are not encouraged to return, if it is not made possible for them to return, then in no sense can the city be rebuilt. Certainly the Disney Company or perhaps the Las Vegas casino companies, can make a place where tourists will enjoy themselves. Look at Disney. It celebrates our past by building an ersatz main street, a fake frontier, and even a fantastic future. Consider the pyramids and Big Bens and Venetian piazza of Las Vegas. While not Jazzville, right there on the river with steamboats and daily Mardi Gras parades, featuring the media’s most popular characters of the day?

Would that be New Orleans? Will young men live in boarding schools in the Florida Parishes and be bussed in to tap dance on Bourbon Street? Will the colorful characters of the downtown neighborhoods be college kids from Nebraska in costume? Perhaps it would be an improvement, if traditional jazz and NO R&B replaced the karaoke bars along Bourbon Street, if artists from Cleveland took up stations along Jackson Square and displaced the fortune tellers. The shops in the quarter closest to Bourbon Street certainly couldn’t get any worse under the right sort of management.

There are men of wealth sitting in their generator powered, air conditioned houses, sipping cold beer delivered by oil company helicopters to the greens of Audubon Park golf course, who are plotting a newer, cleaner, better city, populated by a better class of people, or so reports the Wall St. Journal (subscription required, so I’ve only seen the teaser).

Think of the property values along Canal Street since the street cars were returned. Imagine a central city full of McMansion recreations of the better sort of Uptown homes, with the odd plantation thrown in for good measure. Imagine a downtown full of new skyscrapers filled with the workers occupying those new homes! New Orleans could again be the Queen of the South.

But it would not be New Orleans.

I am terribly frightened that the evacuation of the city is a pretext to bring in the bull dozers and much of the city to rubble and weeds. I am even more frightened by the visions of what might replace those neighborhoods.

Will Gen. Honore’s be our General von Cholitz, who ignored Hitler’s order to burn Paris rather than surrender it intact to the Allies? Imagine the loss if he had not. Imagine the loss if New Orleans is razed.

It would be an act of cultural genocide , a word I choose carefully and mindful of its terrible implications. It would be the ethnic cleansing of an alien other perched on the edge of America. It would be a crime not much different from that of the Taliban when they chose to demolish the ancient cliff Buddhas.

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