Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, September 03, 2005

My New Orleans post

I can’t see a way to avoid talking about New Orleans. It slips into every conversation unless you make a conscious decision to stay away from it. The sense of loss spreads like flood waters, seeping into more parts of your psyche as the days go by.

Before you say anything, you have acknowledge the dire suffering of the people stuck in the city, overwhelming black and poor, victims of poverty and a passive daily racism that we gloss over with a lack of overt legal segregation and old-style lynchings. The events of this week accuse our society in many ways. One thing that has struck me is how we have structured a society absolutely devoid of mutualness that would lead to the construction of institutions to can serve people. We issue an evacuation warning, but there is never a thought given to providing buses and a place to stay for those who can’t afford it. We just issue the order and then you’re on your own. It never occurs to us in a collective way that we need to have a government to make sure everyone has the chance to evacuate. I don’t think New Orleans is different from any other city or jurisdiction. This week shows the limits of individualism taken as a principle for governing (or not-governing). Personal responsibility is not enough. A good society also needs mutual responsibility.

In light of this suffering, the trauma these people are living through today and the everyday neglect this crisis reveals, reflections on one’s personal loss in the New Orleans disaster are very self-indulgent. Sad to say, given the pain in the world, the very act of writing about art – ever - is self-indulgent. I do it anyway.

There are so many losses realized or feared in this flood, the aesthetic is one dimension. New Orleans has several fine museums, the Odgen Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and Contemporary Arts Center. I had assumed the worst about the collections, that they had been flooded or were going to be covered in mold in abandoned un-air conditioned galleries, but what I’ve been able to glean from the internet is more encouraging. It sounds like the Museum of Art is on a little hill and has a generator and staff; if they can hold out they may be OK. As I recall, the galleries in the Ogden were on the upper floors and from satellite maps I’m not sure the flooding was too bad right where the museum is. I suppose they have a generator and staff on site but who knows. I’ve seen nothing so far on the Contemporary Art Center in the warehouse district.

Even if the buildings and collections are OK for now, these venues are just like the people, you wonder if they will be able to come back after this all gets cleaned up. Assuming it is possible to get the buildings back on line, there’s still the possibility that the economic disruption of this storm could put some of the institutions out of business. Art organizations do not always have the most solid finances.

The bigger issue comes down to whether the city can return to what it was before given the likely economic fallout. One time I walked into a gallery in the French Quarter and saw one of Richard Painter’s burnt wood paintings on the wall. It is always a pleasure to see a familiar artist like that out of the context I associate them with (in this case Zeitgeist gallery). It is hard to imagine that New Orleans surviving, the walkable city made up of all these living entities, galleries, cafes, and shops tucked together. Even if the buildings survive, I would think the businesses that make the city a living place would take a heavy hit from the sustained loss of commerce. It is the organic quality of businesses and people wanting to be together in a city that vitiate it, unlike the core of so many sunbelt cities.

The greatest potential aesthetic loss is the loss of the city itself, both the architecture and the way people lived in that architecture. Maybe the buildings in many parts of town are fine, and where buildings have been compromised they will be reconstructed as they are, like a European city after the war. That seems more likely in the upscale areas, but part of the pleasure of New Orleans are its stretches of neighborhoods built with a distinct vernacular architecture and urban rhythm. It all seems to go together to sustain traditions, like Mardi Gras and brass bands. Hard to see the money going into rebuilding all the neighborhoods as they are. And even if there is a desire to preserve the architecture of the most visible neighborhoods, will the money be available in an economy increasingly stressed from oil prices, competition, polarization of income, etc. If not, the rebuilding could end up with something not too different from any sunbelt city that has suffered the slow ravages of unchecked suburbanization and urban obsolescence. Another possibility I’ve heard is that redevelopment will be move forward in the most tourist-friendly way possible, resulting in a theme park. Times Square. The best defense against that will be the will of New Orleansites to get back to their city.

Right now the overwhelming sense my wife and I have is that the city just can’t get back to what it was, and that was something to which we both had become very attached. I hope we are wrong.


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