In the wake of a catastrophe
Built St. Louis focuses on one city, but my passion for cities, urbanism and architecture ranges much further. The flooding of New Orleans is the largest single disaster to befall an American city in living memory; tens of thousands of homes were ruined or destroyed, over a million people were forced to evacuate, and nearly 1,500 souls perished. An entire metropolis was shut down, and vast amounts of historic architecture were damaged, with some lost forever.
The magnitude, and the importance, of what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina cannot be understated. Failures of government at all levels are ultimately responsible for what happened, and media images have largely failed to portray the extent of the devastation.
New Orleans is a place I felt a special affection for even before the hurricanes. Its decimation is too important a topic for me to bypass simply because it falls outside my site's normal purview.
State of the City
As of December 2006, the metro area has largely rebounded, with an estimated 1.2 million inhabitants now back. Indeed, the suburbs of Kenner and Metarie appeared almost normal as we drove in from the west; only sporadic wind damage and occasional FEMA trailers showed any sign of 2005's disasters.
Furthermore -- and this is very important to understand -- the major tourist destinations came through virtually unscathed. The French Quarter, Fauborg Marginy, the Garden District, St. Charles Avenue, and Magazine Street all sit on the high ground along the Mississippi River. They flooded relatively little, if at all. Hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, and stores are open for business. Bourbon Street still pulses with life and music at night. The gracious mansions and gardens of the Garden District still invite hours of pleasant strolling. Most of the American sector (aka the CBD, downtown) is back to normal.
The only thing really missing is people. These businesses rely on tourism, and until it picks up again, they will be hurting. The best thing you can do for New Orleans is go visit it. If you don't go out of you way to find it, you will hardly see a trace of hurricane damage.
But recovery has barely begun in vast areas of the inner city, which 16 months after the storms is estimated to hold barely half of its original population of 480,000. Some city blocks have been completely scoured away. Others still stand lined with wrecked, ruined, abandoned houses, punctuated with the occasional rebuilding effort.
Order of the City
A quick introduction to New Orleans geography is necessary to understand the layout of the city. Most of the city sits sandwiched between enormous Lake Pontchartrain to the north, and the Mississippi River to the south (see map below). The river flows eastward as it passes the city. As most streets radiated from the river, their directions vary wildly across the city, rendering "north" and "south" largely meaningless; instead the river and lake are used as reference points. "Front" is toward the river. "Back" is toward the lake. "Up" or "uptown" refers to the direction opposite the river's current; "down" and "downtown" mean moving with it.
In addition, the city is sliced up by a number of north-south canals, some for drainage, others for navigation. Most of these empty into Lake Pontchartrain; when the lake's level rose from hurricane-induced storm surge, the water in the canals was forced up to levels that caused failure of the substandard levees that contained them. (A simple gate across the mouths of the canals might have prevented much of the flooding.)
New Orleans is built in, on, and surrounded by swamps. Most parts of the city had to be drained and/or filled in before develoment. Regional maps show the area to be waterlogged, surrounded by major lakes and criss-crossed by canals and bayous. A perusal of a satelite view reveals some amazing lines in the sand, distinct points where the man-made environment comes to an abrupt and near-total halt. City maps show similar patterns on a larger scale: unlike many American cities, New Orleans does not have land for unlimited expansion.
This is not to say that man has had no hand in the areas where houses and streets cease to be; on the contrary, much of the current landscape is the result of a three-hundred-year war between man and nature. Levees contain the Mississippi to its present course, increasing the speed of its current such that it has scoured out a 200 foot deep channel where it passes the French Quarter. A few hundred miles upstream, a massive system of dams and levees keeps the Mississippi from abandoning its current route to the Gulf of Mexico altogether.
Downriver, a vast network of artificial canals connect formerly separate lakes; they also speed the erosion of fragile wetlands, to the point that Louisiana loses about 30 square miles of coastal marshlands every year. The marshes act as a vital buffer zone against hurricanes; their loss exacerbates the problems posed by storms like Katrina and Rita.
I had a scant two and a half days in the city at the end of 2006, and much of that was tied up in more mundane tourist doings (what mortal can resist the allure of the French Quarter?), but my companions and I still managed to do a fast windshield survey of much of the city. The photographs -- largely shot from a moving vehicle -- are not up to my normal standards, but their documentary value is more important than their artistry.
None of these tours is comprehensive; they're a scant introduction to a complex, culturally rich and diverse city. I did not spend much time chatting up the locals, or photographing them; I have relied on media coverage to help fill in some of the gaps. My hope is that these tours will provide a visual sense of both the city's architecture and geography, and the destruction it has suffered.
The skyline and the river.
Streetcar on Canal Street.
Crowds on Bourbon Street.
Cast iron balcony near the Central Business District.
The New Orleans Jazz Vipers, live at a Bourbon Street cafe.
St. Louis Cemetary #1.
Above photographs from November 2004.