12 October 2008

Urbanism Compared: New Orleans

Originating from the erstwhile Chocolate City, I cut my urban studies teeth in the land of the jazz funeral and po-boy. Having lived someplace in the greater New Orleans area from the time of my birth until a few years ago, I have always held the city to be the benchmark by which all urban areas are measured. No longer a resident here, it is always startling to return and be amazed by the full-fledged urbanism which exists in the Crescent City that is sorely lacking elsewhere among the ranks of Southern cities, an urbanism which I took for granted for most of my life but have gained a newfound appreciation for in its absence.

More than any other city in the Deep South, New Orleans is by and far a product of the pre-automobile age. (Given the by and large historically non-urbanized nature of the American South, this is an anachronism in itself.) New Orleans was for decades the South's only truly major city (if Baltimore is not considered to be a Southern city, which only seems fair) and one of the nation's largest urban centers.

Other Southern cities may have their roots in the 19th or even 18th centuries, but the greater part of their urban fabrics are developments of the 20th century, thus assuring widespread automobile influence on their urban form. Even the Crescent City itself sports vast areas of auto-centric suburban style development along its outer fringes; however, as a percentage of the city area, auto-centered development comprises far less territory than in a Baton Rouge, Houston, or Atlanta. (It goes without saying that the outlying suburban parishes are almost entirely a product of the automobile.)

While Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis, etc. owe their survival as viable urban environments to cheap petrol and an auto-centered economy, New Orleans' existence relies on various counterbalancing modes of transportation and trade - shipping, rail, highway, air, and pedestrian. As a port city, all modes of travel must be accommodated to ensure efficient transportation of products and people. As a major tourist destination, a walkable and interesting urban environment is required to attract visitors and permit efficient and inexpensive travel between the closely spaced attractions, shopping/retail areas, and hotels.

The density and liveliness of a major downtown area which is by and large absent from many mid-sized Southern cities (and not a few major ones) is the rule in New Orleans. Granted, downtown has declined substantially in its importance and maintenance over the course of the late 20th century, due to the inevitable automobile influence and the paralyzing incompetence and corruption which waxes endemic to the city's leadership class. However, downtown New Orleans' importance has remained large compared to other cities, and enough of the urban tout ensemble has been preserved for the central core area to remain relevant and active in comparison to its erstwhile upriver neighbor. The difference between the downtown areas of a mid-sized quiet conformist bureaucratic city such as Baton Rouge and a large noisy cosmopolitan metropolis such as New Orleans is the difference between night and day.

Canal Street is the essence of urbanism at its finest. Various transportation modes along this famed wide artery create a central spine for downtown, lined by a mixture of businesses, hotels, and other establishments. Buildings of several stories present a varied but contained streetscape of high density that by its very nature assigns auto-centric functions a secondary role.

Removed in 1964 and re-installed at very high expense to city, state, and federal taxpayers in 2004, the Canal Street streetcar line lends an air of New Orleans charm to the thoroughfare, as well as providing practical transit in classic style. The historic Perley Thomas streetcars from the St. Charles Avenue line normally do not see service here, but serve duty here today as the modern red-colored cars of the Canal line were victims of the Katrina deluge.

It goes without saying that the Vieux Carre is the ultimate expression of the tout ensemble in New Orleans. In fact, the term "tout ensemble" was originally coined to describe the urbanism of this historic district.

Old and new collide as modern downtown skyscrapers hover over centuries old Spanish colonial architecture. (The Vieux Carre is mostly Spanish in architecture due to the great fire of 1777 which virtually destroyed the old French city.)

The contrast may seem jarring, but it is this easy juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern that has lent to the city's versatility over time.

Downtown, known in New Orleans the Central Business District (or CBD), lies on the upriver side of Canal Street adjacent to the Vieux Carre, and is heavily populated by modern office towers such as these - fueled by the oil revenues of the heady flush times of the 1970s and early 1980s, fully byproducts of the automobile age and its propensity for architectural gargantuanism on a large scale.

Even so, I wish Baton Rouge had a few more of these.

That is not to say, however, that the CBD lacks areas of subtle small scale architecture. This is Gravier Street near Tchoupitoulas.

One of the many narrow alley type streets for which New Orleans is famous. This passageway in a forgotten corner of the CBD sports a largely desolate industrial air.

Due to various economic factors, including decline of break bulk shipping, consolidation of petroleum related activities in Texas, suburbanization with its attendant dispersal of office space, general economic decline, a degenerate and corrupt political and socioeconomic leadership, a general sense of moral and socioeconomic malaise among the people within and without the city, and other factors (I could go on but this might take all day), downtown has largely lost its large variety of retail and commercial functions that it possessed until the early 1980s. (Some retail remains, but primarily in the guise of the omnipresent "T-shirt shops" for the tourist crowd and low-end stuff for the remaining population in the city, which today is largely Black and low income.)

What is left is primarily professional offices, but this in itself cannot fill all the built space. What the office sector does not need, then, is for the most part taken up by the requirements of the all-encompassing hospitality sector - that means hotels. And there are many hotels today in the downtown area, large and small. The above photo captures just one of seemingly hundreds.

This substantial edifice, one of the largest of the hotels, is a foreign and unlovely sight in a city that prides itself on its small scale urbanism, and towers uncomfortably over the Canal Street pedestrian.

Gotta love the fascist inspired political advertisement.

Regrettably, the nature of tourism has changed over time. In the past much tourism was legitimate and capitalized on the city's colorful history, Latin-inspired culture, and unique charm. To-day the city has seemingly degenerated into a pseudo-authentic version of Las Vegas, trading its unique culture and history to sell a caricature of itself, where every day is Mardi Gras and the liquor flows freely. The current hospitality paradigm is centered squarely on the dickheadery's favorite recreational activity - uninhibited alcohol consumption and rampant promiscuity.

This new paradigm is centered on what comes closest to a modern Gomorrah on this earth, the world famous Bourbon Street. Never a favorite of mine when I was an actual resident of this burg, here it is in all its scarlet glory, during the evening hours when the hedonists crawl out from their rocks like cockroaches to engorge themselves in the raw pursuit of pure pleasure.

Is this what it's come to, folks? Is this what we have become in the eyes of the world?

The Crescent City. Without the river bend at this location, New Orleans as we know it would not exist.

And with that we leave New Orleans to the aerial sight of the vast urban landscape.


worldculturaleconomicforum said...

Let's not forget that New Orleans has managed, more than most cities, to monetize it's art & culture and turn it into a real economic driver.

Hopefully The World Cultural Economic Forum (WCEF) will showcase this fact, and help lead the way for other cities and nations to follow. If you haven't already made plans to do so, please make not of the event Oct 30 - Nov 1, 2008.

Smart Khan said...
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