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What New Orleans Knows

Lessons from the Big Easy



The radio squawked: “34 Pleasure; 962 Chartres.” Silence.Squawk: “34 Pleasure; 962 Chartres.” It was 6:15 on a February Sunday morning, and I was in a taxicab, leaving New Orleans. Leaving N.O. is not something I do easily. I lived there for eight years, and my personal history as a thirtysomething was closely woven into those mean and lovely streets.

As I sped alongside the musty sidewalks of the French Quarter and under the black and brooding live oaks lining St. Charles, I remembered the thrill of eating my first crawfish bisque and the agony of renovating my first house. I recalled lying in a night-darkened bedroom listening to the siren call of boats on the Mississippi and to the hum of the trolley on its tracks.

The squawk box was alerting cabbies to potential fares, but it reminded me of something else too: Cities have a personal meaning for the people who live in them, but they have another meaning as well. The addresses chanted by the disembodied voice of the taxi dispatcher reminded me that a city is a sensual experience—the eye pleasured by a cornstalk fence, the nose by the smell of coffee—yet a city is simultaneously ripe with a collective history. In New Orleans that history is alive in streets with names like Chartres and Bienville, Melpomene and Clio.

What New Orleans teaches so well is the nature of urbanity. The Crescent City is one of the few American metropoli where the central core and the old neighborhoods are the places to be; it is a city where society frowns on fringe neighborhoods. In that way it’s just like Europe. The only suburb with upper-class curb appeal is Old Metairie, a 19th-century establishment. Even the cemeteries are citified.

Sometimes New Orleans’ urbanity is maintained by means that have a Third World twist. Traffic calming, for example, is not an issue of speed bumps and stop signs. On the secondary streets the N.O. Public Works Department merely allows potholes, which are endemic to a city below sea level, to enlarge to proportions so monstrous that they demand caution. You drive slowly because the alternative is a broken axle. It’s not a technique that’s taught in traffic engineering manuals, but it works.

Periodically some unwise and usually non-native soul tries to speed things up a little. In the 1960s governmental traffic engineers came up with a plan for an expressway all along the Mississippi upriver from the CBD (the Central Business District to outsiders). The press dubbed the resulting fight “the Second Battle of New Orleans.” The fierce struggle made Andy Jackson’s version seem like a frat-house food fight by comparison, and the roadway plan was defeated. To this day the auto traffic for all of uptown New Orleans is serviced by a skewed and pockmarked grid of two-lane streets laid out in the 19th century. This kind of traffic engineering also doesn’t go by the manual, but, like the potholes, it works.

Bourbon Street blues

For all my nostalgia, I have no illusions about life in New Orleans. These days the City That Care Forgot is trying to forget a multitude of problems. It has rebounded since the oil bust of the 1980s, but the poverty rate is still the third highest in the country. The economy is almost totally dependent on oil and tourism, and the poor and the lower middle class work for minimum wages in hotels, bars, and restaurants. The crime rate is horrific, and so is the police department, which is notoriously understaffed and underpaid—and, as a result, corrupt. The cops not only frequently fail to apprehend burglars and murderers, they often are burglars and murderers themselves. Flight to the north has become so epidemic that there is talk of building a second 30-mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to ease the exodus.

New Orleanians do care about one thing besides food. They bestir themselves from their usual torpor for architecture.

During my recent visit the hot item on a front page of the Times-Picayune was the architectural feud between restaurateur Al Copeland—he developed Popeye’s chicken—and novelist Ann Rice—she developed the Southern vampire. Copeland has renovated a building formerly housing a Mercedes-Benz dealership into an upscale restaurant. The style of the makeover is best described as Planet Hollywood-ized; the location is a sadly eroded section of St. Charles Avenue not too far from the Pontchartrain Hotel. Rice expressed her personal outrage at Copeland’s want of taste in a full-page ad in the Sunday T-P. Copeland responded by taking out a two-page ad the next week and by suing Rice for defamation of character.

As a Nashvillian, what I noticed about this clash of the titans is that no one ever advocated bringing on the bulldozers. The preservation of the building—1920s nondescript but a solid citizen—was a given. Architecture is worth fighting for in the Big Easy because it is the roux that binds New Orleans’ gumbo of races and ethnicities together. The physical proportions of New Orleans outside the CBD are determined by a dense fabric of low-rise buildings. These stores and houses establish walls for the public spaces—the streets and sidewalks—that are scaled to the body’s comfort zone. The architecture of New Orleans neighborhoods makes the city feel like one big living room.

New Orleans does not do suburbs with the same finesse.When suburbia developed there after World War II, the tax laws and topography—New Orleans’ suburbia is subject to ritual flooding—ensured that they would be outposts for the culturally and socially impaired. In my 19th century neighborhood, a party in the suburbs on the West Bank was treated as an expedition into the heart of darkness. One went across the bridge unwillingly and returned as soon as possible, duty done. New Orleanians were uncomfortable in a place that was intended as a comfort zone for cars.

In the rest of America the suburban lifestyle was sold as an exercise in personal freedom. The lone driver, so the real estate flacks and the traffic engineers said, could live almost anywhere, could hurtle through space at any time. To give just one example, Los Angeles, under the guise of individual liberty, jettisoned its incredibly extensive transit system and developed in its stead an increasingly dysfunctional car system.

The irony is that the personal liberty of the car culture has not enlarged us as a people. We know less about our fellow citizens, and we fear them more. We live atomized lives, trapped within the confines of a steel frame with headlights and a rearview mirror. The large lots, wide streets, and big parking lots have made us seem small. The story of suburbia could be titled “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.”

A bicycle named Desire

Nashville prides itself on being a place from where you can get any place in 20 minutes. What the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t say is that, if you live here, it takes a lot of 20-minute trips to get the kids to school, to go to church, to buy groceries and clothes, and to earn the salaries to pay for it all. A life in Nashville is pieced together by arterials and interstates.

Life in New Orleans, for all its criminality, is not like this. There it is possible—even advisable—to earn one’s daily bread and eat it without hardly ever leaving one’s neighborhood, without hardly ever driving a car. I spent my years there primarily on a bicycle—the city is flat, the grid plan allows you to stay on the sidestreets, and you have no problem parking. The gaps between destinations were filled with pedaling slowly and quietly through leafy neighborhoods looking at architecture.

Moving through New Orleans was, and is, a visually pleasant way to experience history. The gaps between destinations in Nashville are episodes of denial, of ignoring the clutter of signs, the honking of horns, and all the asphalt. With the revision of the Subarea 9 Plan for downtown in the works, there is today much discussion of entrances and gateways, of creating positive first impressions that say Nashville.

Good luck to the design team. I can’t think of any way to get into our city that is not generically ugly and likely to stay that way.

Arriving in New Orleans is another matter. Sure, you land at the airport, get on the interstate, and pass through a suburban landscape that is more hideous than most. But then you take the Carrollton Avenue exit, turn right, and before you know it you’ve hit the “tree line” that stretches to downtown. The live oaks arch overhead, the buildings grow to the sidewalks, the columns and gingerbread appear. New Orleans has arrived.

Nashville will never be like New Orleans, and it shouldn’t be. The vigor of the frontier still quickens the pace of our town-turned-metropolitan-region. Nashville was once the largest English-speaking community beyond the Appalachians and the political center of the southwest territory. In New Orleans English has always been spoken as if it were a second language, and the concept of vigor is more foreign still.

Yet the language of New Orleans has something to say to Nashville. A seminal architecture book of the 1970s was called Learning From Las Vegas. I propose a different script for the 1990s. I’d call it Learning From New Orleans.

The Big Easy has cared enough to preserve its urbanity. We shall have to invent, or reinvent, ours. The task is big. It will not be easy.

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