Eulogy for New Orleans
Lost heritage, yet the Vieux Carré remains.
Nouvelle-Orléans, or in English, New Orleans, named in honor of the French regent, was founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne. The selected site, a swampy area on the left bank of the Mississippi south of Lake Ponchartrain, was a good anchorage but was subject to flooding. Two Royal Engineers, Adrien Pauger and Jean Leblond, began work on building a fort, drying the land and protecting the small colony.
When Louisiana was ceded to Spain in 1763, the population numbered nearly 3,200 souls. Less than a century later, New Orleans rivaled New York as the largest port in the nation. The city, dubbed Fun City and sometime later, The Big Easy, was in any case an important center for sight-seeing and pleasure.
New Orleans life revolved around the Vieux Carré, the French Quarter, Canal Street, and the South Levee, the terminus of 150 streets filled with colorful people, merchants’ shops, sailors, smugglers, police and tourists bleary-eyed after a wild night on the town. Creoles, Cajuns (Frenchmen deported by the British from Quebec), former slaves and Spanish-speakers cavorted in a cultural universe of fascinating architecture, rhythmic music and voodoo rites--and of increasingly devastating flooding as the city grew.
Another century went by. The music is transformed into jazz and the architecture became a backdrop for masterpieces like Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The Louisiana metropolis, now protected—in theory—from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi by 460 km of poorly maintained levees, wavers between two temptations: to develop tourism by exploiting its heritage or to protect its heritage in order to reclaim its lost dignity under the tourists’ gaze.
And easy tourism it was: concentrated around the Vieux Carré, tourism developed to the point of rendering the city unbearable to those who despise Disneyland. Refurbished for the first time between 1920 and 1930, the Vieux Carré was widened after WWII and received a partial makeover. Still later, high-rise Louisiana-style hotels came stand side by side with the traditional two-story homes recognized by their colonnades and Spanish-inspired balconies.
The city’s heritage came to be a concern with the creation in 1974 of the Preservation Resource Center (PRC). Thanks to the work of the Center, the perimeter of the old city was established where a multitude of houses of different origins and styles was clustered behind the levees: Creole cottages, longhouses for slaves and traditional American wood frame houses with their shingled façades. A great variety of structures, generous in the use of color and decoration and far divorced from Protestant austerity, had in part been abandoned.
Thanks to the PRC, several quarters had been restored and well-heeled suburbanites were invited to invest in them beginning in 1988 (Operation Comeback) despite the permanent risk of hurricanes and flooding. It is true that New Orleans did not rank first among urban centers expected to be hit with catastrophe. But many agree that the city is gone forever, with the exception of some handsome fragments of the Vieux Carré, which seems to have been spared.