Saturday, December 17, 2005

Spirit, this is a fearful place

Two months ago, I posted a piece titled Ghost of New Orleans Future on what the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo's landfall at Charleston, S.C. meant for the future of after . The vision I saw was as bleak as the Dickensian title I chose for the piece, a city with a little crutch in the fireplace corner, without an owner.

Now, at the verge of Christmas, the Picayune discovers the example of Charleston, and couldn't be more please with what they find. I am instead reminded why I chose to echo the warning of Dicken's ghosts in The Christmas Carol, particularly the last of the spirits.

The T-P article A SISTER CITY FLOURISHES mostly gushes about how "the historic city demonstrated that a city can prosper if it takes care to keep its charm as it rebuilds."

Charleston today is a prosperous and vibrant place -- lively, swanky, immaculate. The antebellum houses, with their Palladian windows and long porches, are pristine, many without a flake of paint in sight. The old gardens are clipped and orderly with handsome brick walkways and well-bred hedges. Elegant church spires pierce a diminutive skyline. And King Street downtown -- narrow and intimate and architecturally vivacious -- is jammed with shops and shoppers.

In most parts of town, it would be hard to see any evidence that there was ever a hair out of place, never mind a disaster that rattled this city within an inch of its life.

By nearly every measure, the city is better than ever, stronger than it was before the storm.

A piece in Louisiana Weekly even earlier also looked to Charleston as a model for New Orleans' future. Charles Tidmore, who's become sort of a spokesman for New Orleans, found much to admire in the Charleston model.

But the Charleston outcome, while good for the few owners who homes became worth millions, is not one New Orleans should rush to emulate.

If you manage to wade through all of the T-P's boosterism, and make it to paragraph 50, you begin to hear hints that all is not wonderful in Charleston. According to the Picayune (and as reported covered by Wet Bank Guide two months ago):

The city has become richer and whiter. The suburbs have sprawled more. The historic districts are better preserved and gentrification is a constant threat to poorer neighborhoods. There are more tourists and fewer native-born residents.

As cited here in October, an article from Charleston's own newspaper, is less gushing about the outcome of Post Katrina, development.
Now, neighborhoods south of Broad Street and nearby face a more complex challenge: an influx of wealth so sweeping that it threatens to blur the difference between a living city and a museum.

Nancy Hawk has lived for decades at the southern end of Meeting Street, where tourists stroll among majestic homes.

The trouble is, many of those homes sit dark night after night.

"The houses are just empty. It's just depressing. It's sort of a deadening effect," she said. "It really does affect the feeling of being in a neighborhood, of actually being in a living community."

This same article quotes Frederick Starr, who has written extensively about New Orleans and who has studied similar issues in New Orleans, said the changes are eating away at the life of the oldest neighborhoods in Charleston.

"It becomes dead," he said. "If you really want these places to be around in another 300 years, it had better be a living place and not a dead museum

And the rest of New Orleans? What does Charleston tell us about the neighborhoods away from the beaten tourist path? Far, far down the Picayune article, it tells us

The city's East Side, a traditionally black neighborhood filled with handsome century-old architecture, has successfully resisted gentrification. But in the process it has also resisted restoration. It is one of the rare parts of town where the scars from Hurricane Hugo are still visible -- in boarded-up windows, crumbling porches and abandoned houses.

As I said in October, Charleston is not so much a model for New Orleans as a warning. If the Charleston model is followed, very few from here will be able to afford to live here. Those who return to labor in the tourism industry will return to homes more blighted than they knew before, to neighborhoods the invisible hand of recovery will pass over, or will be forced into far suburbs. The issues of New Orleans schools will at least be resolved, because families with children will be priced out of the market.

The historic city footprint will become a hollow shell, a Williamsburg farce for the people who keep homes there just for Mardi Gras. The people of Lakeview and Gentilly and New Orleans East, those who return, well perhaps they will have to consider moving to an affordable suburb, perhaps to the new development on the old Marcello family property of Churchill Farms, in a lovely KB Home.

I think a tone of Dickensian pessimism is appropriate if this is the future the publishers of the Picayune is offering us post-. The Ghosts of New Orleans Future remains essentially right: it is not the model for New Orleans, but a cautionary vision granted us by the spirits of the season. Ignore them at your peril.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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