Sunday, February 25, 2007

"An alternative European civilization"

I finally got to see the American Experience episode about New Orleans thanks to Schroeder’s heads up. From it, I got the impression that while pre-American New Orleans was no utopia when it came to race relations, it was American values that brought the chaos that lead to institutional racism becoming a way of life in this part of the world:

Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Historian: The amalgamation of the Africans and whites created basically one culture where everybody was accepted, belonged. It worked well because people kind of understood class structure. I mean even though you lived next door to somebody didn't necessarily mean that you are socially their equal. But free blacks as well as slaves had a place in society.

Narrator: Into this century-old city of some 7,000 people had come the Americans -- English-speaking, Protestant and accustomed to a rigid line between black and white. They had come pouring south from the eastern seaboard and the Kentucky hill country -- most of them bent on making money, and doing so in the American way.

Lawrence N. Powell, Historian:
We came in and we wanted to impose our ways on an alternative European civilization. We wanted to impose the English language. We wanted to get rid of the local culture. So there was this struggle for the soul of New Orleans.
That’s what is happening now. A struggle for the soul of New Orleans. The Americans have seen their opportunity to do what they couldn’t do 200 years ago. They want to impose their ways on us and get rid of our local culture.

American values have been creeping down here ever since the Louisiana Purchase. The rigid race line. The 40-hour work week. The suburbs. The deterioration of the inner city and the public school system. Everything that makes us less a community and more a group of individuals. Everything that separates us from our family, our friends, our culture. Our tribe is in danger.

From the program:
Narrator: "In a few years," one observer concluded, "this will be an American town ... and everything French will in time disappear." It was a prediction that never quite came true.
It didn’t come true because the pre-American New Orleanians fought it. And the post-American New Orleanians who got it joined the fight. Can we still be the alternative civilization to the American Industrial Empire?

Inspiration, sometimes, comes from unlikely places. And, I found myself inspired this morning by an urban planner whose motives and opinions I had questioned in the past. Andres Duany:
Apart from the misconceptions of the tourist, I had also been predisposed by the media to think of New Orleans as a charming but lackadaisical and fundamentally mismanaged place that had been subjected to unwarranted devastation, with a great deal of anger and resentment as a result. That is indeed what I found at first. But as I engaged in the planning process I came to realize that the anger I witnessed was relative. It was much less, for example, than the bitterness one encounters in the typical California city plagued with traffic. The people of New Orleans have an underlying sweetness and a sense of humor, irony, and graciousness that is never far below the surface. These are not hard people.

Pondering this one day, I had an additional insight. I remember specifically when on a street in the Marigny I came upon a colorful little house framed by banana trees. I thought, “This is Cuba.” (I am Cuban.) I realized at that instant that New Orleans is not really an American city, but rather a Caribbean one. I understood that, when seen through the lens of the Caribbean, New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities. This insight was fundamental because from that moment I understood New Orleans and truly began to sympathize. But the government? Like everyone, I found the city government to be a bit random; then I thought that if New Orleans were to be governed as efficiently as, say, Minneapolis, it would be a different place—and not one that I could care for. Let me work with the government the way it is. It is the human flaws that make New Orleans the most human of American cities. (New Orleans came to feel so much like Cuba that I was driven to buy a house in the Marigny as a surrogate for my inaccessible Santiago de Cuba.)
Emphasis mine.

More:
There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.

This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.
Emphasis mine.

America wants to own us. They want New Orleans to be an American town. We must fight.

19 comments:

MAD said...

I remember visiting Puerto Rico as a 23 year old and being astonished at how remarkably alike San Juan and New Orleans were architecturally. Andres Duany's right on insights represented an epiphany for him and are culturally instructive for all of us. However, I am more optimistic with regard to the city's post-apocalyptic cultural evolution. I believe the storm accentuated the inherent cultural values of our community, and has served to heighten sensitivities towards preservation of an authentic indigenous culture. It will not be easy, but with a larger and more appreciative audience more resources than before will ultimately be brought to bear to institionalize these cultural values.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, po'.

It seems that Mssr. Duany is sort of saying, in the Carribean, people are perfectly satisfied with being poor. That a "low financial carry" enables a lot of free time to live a fuller life.

And maybe that's true. And yeah, there's nothing wrong with that.

But this is America, and in America, the consumerist culture is unrelenting. It's practically our religion. As silly and stupid as it sounds, being poor ain't cool. It's somthing people feel they have to be ashamed of, and that shame, that feeling of no self worth (based on financial self worth), weighs hard on people. Sometimes, it crushes them.

Yeah, it'd be wonderful if people saw the positives of having less. But the commercials don't stop on the tv, the SUVs don't stop rolling down the block, and the people making music aren't singing about the simpler things in life.

But America is about giving everyone a fair shot at moving up in the world. (Even if moving up is about a bigger car, a bigger house, endless pools, etc...) Right now, America is failing to give New Orleans its fair shot.

TravelingMermaid said...

Anon,
That's the problem with the rest of the U.S. ---- they worry too much about "keeping up", about consuming bigger and better. Not to say there aren't people like that here...there are.
Consumerism is not my religion...and it's not the religion of anyone who is not a lemming. Who is a person who thinks for himself and doesn't live a life to impress others. I don't believe the majority of New Orleanians are too worried about being cool to the rest of the country. We are cool. We don't have to prove it.
At least I'm glad you realize the rest of the U.S. isn't giving us a fair shot. But, don't worry. We can take care of ourselves.

Mark said...

This is not America, not the American of anonymous' civics text fantasy. That nation ceased to exist at some point in our lifetime, and it had as many flaws as it had merits.

New Orleans is not America, not in its soul.

What the anonymous commenter offers us sums up everything that is intrinsically wrong with modern America.

Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take New Orleans.

Schroeder said...

The sense that New Orleans is the northernmost Caribbean city is one that all come around to appreciate after spending enough time here. I'm glad Duany finally understands that now, and is endeared to the idea. It's beautifully expressed. Thanks for sharing (uh ... I'd never pick up Business Week, so yeah, I'm glad you linked to the story).

Schroeder said...

"This is America, and in America, the consumerist culture is unrelenting."

Which is not to say that the path of America is sustainable that it's destiny is assured. At some point, it probably won't be sustainable any longer. We're already witnessing and suffering from the ravages of rampant consumerism. Indeed, although New Orleans hints at a different way of life, it may very well be destroyed by that unrelenting consumerism if we don't get control over global warming and rising sea levels. New Orleans offers not simply the possibility of showing a different set of values, but is burdened with the responsibility of doing so before it's too late.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

I loved that quote, too, and it is an especially good one, the way it turns perceptions around.

But here's something I discuss with my comrades in the kitchen Uptown: infrastructure is different from culture. Culture is how you lay out the roads in your city, infrastructure is how many potholes exist in those roads.

Government effectiveness is different from culture, too. Culture is having Parishes and different legal codes; government effectiveness is how well those Parishes work for the citizens and deliver services.

Culture is having a police force that specializes in crowd control. Culture is having a dozen high schools with marching bands better than most colleges.

I've also heard that an ambulance will show up in Minneapolis 4 minutes after you call in an emergency, anywhere in the city.

You can have that same sort of response in New Orleans, too. It has nothing to do with culture.

Mr. Clio said...

Yeah.

You.

Rite.

As usual, you are on the money in the most articulate manner possible.

And then our friend Dr. Morris provides the blue. And the passion.

bayoustjohndavid said...

I've always thought Duany got a bit of a bad rap, in part because anything that be reduced to a simple concept or label is easy to make fun of and in part because the new community he designed in Florida looked like a new community.

I hope you're right about people getting it. I heard some caller to Jim Brown's show Thursday morning say that he got to visit Moon Landrieu's office and he saw the wonderful plans for new road system that would have made us a modern metropolis like Atlanta or Houston, if the money for those roads hadn't been stolen or spent on other things. Neither he or Brown had a clue about why those roads weren't built, and they both wanted to be like Atlanta or Houston.

Schroeder said...

Uh ... Jim ... uh ... smack ... uh ... Brown ... uh ... it's time for that old fart to quit the public life. He's absolutely useless, and the fact that Clear Channel should pick up a former insurance commissioner who's a convicted liar -- well, maybe he's right for Fox, and those rednecks north and west of New Orleans, but he sure ain't right for New Orleans.

Anyone ever notice how few are the callers from core New Orleans areas on talk show radio stations. Most of them live on the North Shore or Metairie.

How exactly are these stations serving "New Orleans" proper?

Sorry ... soap box.

Sophmom said...

I couldn't help but wonder, watching the PBS show, what New Orleans would be like today had America's Jim Crow laws not infected the pre-existing culture.

Another great post, po' boy. Thanks.

Maitri said...

They want to impose their ways on us and get rid of our local culture.

The problem with the westernization of any culture is that it becomes an either-or proposition. As a living, breathing example of the east-west amalgamation, the only time I've been at true peace with myself is when I realize I am both, I can't help it and the only way I can move forward with my life is to take the best of both cultures and make myself better for it.

We didn't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater then and we don't have to do it now. If they want to impose federal standards of education, transportation, healthcare and other basic things, it's not wrong. But, suburbanization and the strict race lines that the rest of the country lives by is not for us. Let's not take that. But, that doesn't mean strict, efficient machines are bad, either. That's how people GET THINGS DONE, something very hard to accomplish down here.

Work hard, play hard. How's that for a third viewpoint?

Maitri said...

In other words, I'm with Cousin Pat From Georgia.

Puddinhead said...

Just an observation...it's always struck me that those here in New Orleans who are most "defensive" about not changing the New Orleans culture to incorporate any (at all)of the "boosterism" that has helped many other communities (particularly in the South) to flourish financially often seem to be those who are already at or approaching the upper quadrant of the NOLA income spectrum. Much like the US retiree who moves to Costa Rica because with his pension and savings he can live like a king there based on the cost of living. But you only get to live like a king in that kind of situation if you have a whole lot of other folks who are willing to live like peasants to do the grunt work for peanuts.

David, I've always had the same vibe as you about Duany, and it was reinforced after hearing him speak during the course of the Gentilly Charrette. New Urbanist tenets are nothing more than common sense, really, but Duany always gets the "Disneyland" rap over Seaside, and that's unfair because what he was really asked to do there was design from scratch a community that is really too small and homogenous to be considered an "urban" community but to use his New Urbanist concepts in doing so.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Let me just speak to one point about how to "incorporate any (at all)of the "boosterism" that has helped many other communities (particularly in the South) to flourish financially. I will use Atlanta as my example, as many folks who propose to change New Olreans "for the better" use the ATL as their example (and then use the wrong examples).

You wanna know why Atlanta is a 'successful' Southern megalopolis? One, they went against all convention in the '50's & early '60's, when New Orleans positively dwarfed the ATL and Birmingham was deeply invested in steel, and built an airport. They sank a lot of capital into that venture, and took a hell of a lot of risk to do it. They went out and sold the airport to the country. They sank money into an airline and secured an air freight contract with the US government. New Orleans and Birmingham laughed at Atlanta.

Then economies of scale changed, steel dropped through the floor, and air travel became the preferred method of getting around. Guess which city won?

Boom. Megalopolis Atlanta.

Two, back in the 80's, the infrastructure in Georgia sucked. Roads full of potholes, rusty drawbridges, two lane state highways. People were sick of it, cause it kinda hurt business that not as much freight as possible could be moved around.

A decision was made, then and there, that our roads were going to rock. We were going to widen and repave roads that could be bigger, and three lane roads that could be smaller. But we needed money for those roads, and we started spending money we had and money we didn't have. Then someone got the good idea about how much free money we could get if we brought the Olympics to Atlanta. People said 'you'll never bring the Olympics to Atlanta.'

Boom. Olympics Atlanta. And oozing billions for road projects.

Now, most of our state roads look like interstates. Our interstates are so big, you could land a B-52 on them without disrupting oncoming traffic. Now, we have a brand new, shiny $550 million bridge in Brunswick, Georgia over a channel 32 feet deep.

That is how Atlanta did what it did. That's where the success comes from - two extremely lucky breaks. And this has caused plenty of problems along the way, believe me. But that's it, luck. If either one of those two events had not happened, Atlanta would be in the same boat with New Orleans and Birmingham, wondering what the hell Las Vegas and Charlotte are doing right.

TravelingMermaid said...

Speaking strictly on an emotional and cultural level....you can have Atlanta.
BTW - do ambulances in Atlanta show up in 4 minutes? Just askin'...

I'm all for progress but with our history and culture cherished and protected. Otherwise, we'll be like every other homogenized American city. Sometimes you have to forfeit practicality for originality....if you're not willing to do that, you don't belong here. Just my opinion.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

That's my point, exactly. You look at all these folks who point to Atlanta as a model. Atlanta's not a model for New Orleans, Atlanta got lucky. Twice.

Georgian cultural desire to have easy access by vehicle to so many places (culture dictating where the roads were built) overwhelmed cultural desire to keep family farms, neighborhoods and communities together. (And oh, how that tore us apart...)

That's not a cultural model New Orleans is willing to accept (at least I hope not).

But once those cultural decisions were made and fought over, Georgia went out and created money out of nothing in order to pay for that decided infrastructure. She got lucky with some very big investments.

That's the model. Not where Georgia and Atlanta put their roads, but how they got the money to build them and maintain them at such a high level.

Originality is the stores on Magazine Street and how that street winds its way from the Riverbend to Canal Street, through some of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the world. Practicality is Magazine Street, free of tooth-chipping potholes.

Slate said...

puddinhead said: "it's always struck me that those here in New Orleans who are most "defensive" about not changing the New Orleans culture to incorporate any (at all)of the "boosterism" that has helped many other communities (particularly in the South) to flourish financially often seem to be those who are already at or approaching the upper quadrant of the NOLA income spectrum."

Boy that sure doesn't describe my household! We are barely holding on some months but chose to move here a few years ago. Chose. We were fed up with so-called American values, and we'd lived in New Mexico for 15 or so years, which is also a bit alternative, but getting more 'Merican every day. We were considering becoming expatriates, but since we have a daughter and grandson, didn't do that.

It seemed after many years of visiting New Orleans, that the one place in this country we could move to and not feel like we were in BigBox country, was NOLA. Even given the storm, even given the other problems, we still feel that way.

I agree that things like potholes and the crime rate need to be addressed. Housing, and all the attendant problems we live with every day here need to be addressed. My fear is that the way some might address them will turn us into Atlanta or Houston, in which case I'd have to start thinking about moving to San Juan or Amsterdam and I don't want to.

My grandson asked me the other day if I was going to live here til I died. I said yes. He breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Good."

I'll be in the fight with you, po' boy.

cehwiedel said...

This post will be included in today's edition of the Carnival of Hurricane Relief. See:

http://www.cehwiedel.com/cohr/

If you have recent photographs that you would be willing to allow CoHR to use as banner illustrations for the homepage, please let me know.