Theme Park, Cookie Cutter and the Bulldozer

There is a very interesting article in the NYT today.

Ouroussoff makes a good case of what indifference can do to the recovery process of cities, in this case New Orleans. In a perfect example of how politicians all over the world are of the same frame of mind….

“The first premonition arose when Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced that the model for rebirth would be a pseudo-suburban development in the Lower Garden District called River Garden. The very suggestion alarmed preservationists, who pictured the remaking of historic neighborhoods into soulless subdivisions served by big-box stores.”

He also puts a large share of the blame on planners, architects and designers

“But politicians and developers are not the only culprits here. For decades now, the architectural mainstream has accepted the premise that cities can exist in a fixed point in historical time. What results is a fairy tale version of history, and the consequences could be particularly harsh for New Orleans, which was well on its way to becoming a picture-postcard vision of the past before the hurricane struck.”

In an article on a very similar theme, Richard Moe at Washington Post writes about how the bulldozers are already ready to raze buildings to the ground in cities and towns affected by Katrina and Rita

He raises concern over

“As attention shifts from rescue to reconstruction in New Orleans, we must answer the question of how, and in what form, the rebuilding will happen. If we get the answer wrong, Katrina and Rita could turn out to be among the greatest cultural disasters the nation has ever experienced.”

Again the politicians and the powers that be, architects, designers and planners need to move fast, otherwise…

“The clock is ticking. City building inspectors in New Orleans are already at work, and The Wall Street Journal quoted one official’s estimate that “the total number of homes . . . that must be bulldozed is around 50,000.” Some demolitions have already taken place–including the totally unwarranted razing of a significant landmark in the history of New Orleans jazz. The rush to demolition is gaining speed, with consequences that could make an already tragic situation even worse.”

Continue reading both the articles below, in their entirity.

New Orleans Reborn: Theme Park vs. Cookie Cutter
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

NEW ORLEANS – Optimism is in short supply here. And as people begin to sift through the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina, there is a creeping sense that the final blow has yet to be struck – one that will irrevocably blot out the city’s past.

The first premonition arose when Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced that the model for rebirth would be a pseudo-suburban development in the Lower Garden District called River Garden. The very suggestion alarmed preservationists, who pictured the remaking of historic neighborhoods into soulless subdivisions served by big-box stores.

More recently, Mr. Nagin contemplated suspending the city’s historic preservation laws to make New Orleans more inviting to developers – evoking the possibility of architectural havoc and untrammeled greed.

But politicians and developers are not the only culprits here. For decades now, the architectural mainstream has accepted the premise that cities can exist in a fixed point in historical time. What results is a fairy tale version of history, and the consequences could be particularly harsh for New Orleans, which was well on its way to becoming a picture-postcard vision of the past before the hurricane struck.

Now, with the city at its most vulnerable, such voices threaten to drown out all others. A forum on Gulf Coast renewal held recently in Mississippi was dominated by champions of New Urbanism, a sentimental and historicist vision of how cities work. Meanwhile, those who favor a more complex reading of urban history – one that embraces 20th- and 21st-century realities as well as the 19th-century charms of New Orleans – risk being relegated to the margins.

The fate threatening the city can be witnessed at River Garden, the mayor’s favored model for the future. A few weeks after the storm, I drove through the development with Wayne Troyer, a local architect who opposes the mayor’s vision. To evoke some of the qualities of a vintage New Orleans neighborhood, the houses are designed in a mix of traditional styles. A ribbon of row houses extends along Laurel Street, their wrought iron rails loose reproductions of those in the French Quarter. Nearby, larger two-family houses are modeled on traditional bungalows, with pitched roofs, shallow porches and shuttered windows decorated in pretty pink, yellow and blue hues. Traditional lampposts, evidently a mandatory feature of pseudo-historic developments, line the streets.

All the hallmarks of a conventional suburban subdivision are here. Telephone wires are buried out of sight, and houses are set slightly farther apart than their counterparts in the real New Orleans to make room for paved driveways. The distancing is meant to afford privacy but suggests wariness instead; the driveways keep people off the street, fostering a sense of isolation.

Yet the most obvious clue that we have entered a surreal world is the sight of empty shopping carts on the lawns. The carts are from the nearby Wal-Mart, which has long since replaced locally owned stores in much of the United States. Today, Wal-Mart’s ubiquitous blank box and blue-and-white sign represent our withdrawal into a sealed, homogenized world.

What is missing from River Garden, of course, are the small-grained details of everyday life, built up over decades, that the development claims to honor.

For Mr. Troyer, the most telling reality is what it stands next to: five stoic brick buildings that are all that is left of the St. Thomas Hope project, affordable housing constructed in the early 1940’s. Their simple forms, topped with slate tile roofs, are the kind of public housing that is typically reviled by public officials these days.

But for Mr. Troyer and many other architects of his generation, the simple three-story structures, set around a small central court, have a human scale that sets them apart from big developments. Whatever their flaws, they reflect a social pact – the promise of decent low-cost housing for every citizen – that was broken long ago, and is not likely to be repaired through a process of urban gentrification.

Yet River Garden is not the worst-case scenario. Driving along the industrial canal a few days later, I came across Abundance Square, a mixed-income residential development. Caked in mud, the development’s barren roads are lined by rows of houses intended to evoke visions of a traditional community. Here, however, the result is the generic suburban formula: houses of identical cookie-cutter design neatly separated by driveways, empty lawns and a grid of privatized roads. The argument for such development, of course, will be that New Orleans needs to rebuild quickly, and standardized housing formulas are better than nothing at all. It is the argument of diminished expectations, one that serves the interests of developers while draining cities of their vibrancy.

The assumption at work here is that the only alternative is to do nothing. But in fact, the way architects think about cities has been evolving for some time now; the question is whether the city is willing to tap the intellectual resources at its disposal. Stephanie Bruno, for example, is the director of the Preservation Resource Center’s Operation Comeback and one of the pre-Katrina heroes. Over the past decade, the center has been restoring early 19th-century vernacular shotgun houses and Creole bungalows in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The project, a rare mix of preservation values and social vision, was part of a broader strategy to resurrect poorer neighborhoods by helping low-income families obtain mortgages to buy the rebuilt homes.

By linking historical continuity to communal self-esteem, it demonstrates that urban revitalization efforts need not be reduced to dull formulas.

Just south of St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward, many of the restored houses look relatively intact from the street, although they are heavily damaged within. Some were restored only recently; in one case a paint can still sits in the middle of a living room floor whose boards are stained by flood waters.

Hearing of the damage, Ms. Bruno says she was overcome by exhaustion. But many of these houses can still be saved. Rather than the softer, more absorbent woods used in newer construction, many of them were built out of cedar, a hardwood that is more likely to survive the flooding intact.

Identifying what can be restored will be painstaking work. It will require the kind of government support – tax incentives, adjustments in preservation and zoning laws – that has become a rarity in a country that tends to equate the interests of business with the public welfare. What Ms. Bruno and others fear most is that these houses will simply be bulldozed in the name of expediency to make way for large-scale development like Abundance Square. (Why, after all, develop a house or two here and there when you can wipe out an entire district, rebuild it, and reap enormous profits?)

Even if many of Ms. Bruno’s humble shotgun houses are saved, the city’s 20th-century landscape – the kind of neighborhoods that mainstream preservationists tend to ignore – is unlikely to find defenders. Built in the city’s bowl, an area that was drained during the city’s expansion in the 1920’s, the Mid City area symbolized the city’s embrace of modernity. Its mix of California-style bungalows and late Victorian houses, now severely damaged, has more in common with the sweeping landscapes of Los Angeles than with the romantic images of the city’s European roots. As such, it is likely to be ignored by local custodians of the architectural past.

To suggest, meanwhile, that the city’s neatly compartmentalized historical styles – shotgun house, Camelback, Creole cottage – can be reconstituted in wholly rebuilt neighborhoods is to endorse a theme park version of the past. It reflects an absurdly reductive historical narrative, one that ignores the reality that conflicting historical strands are what give great cities their vitality.

Doubtless large parts of New Orleans will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. But the best architects working today are as likely to turn to the cavernous Superdome for inspiration as to the spires of St. Louis Cathedral. They understand that a city’s 20th-century inventions – from the bungalows to the canals to the freeways – are as integral to its identity as the 19th-century vernacular.

That insight leaves us better equipped to cope with the issues facing New Orleans in the 21st century. Past and future must learn to live together.

Hold Back Those Bulldozers
Officials are too eager to tear down bulidings in New Orleans.

BY RICHARD MOE
Tuesday, October 18, 2005 12:01 a.m.

As attention shifts from rescue to reconstruction in New Orleans, we must answer the question of how, and in what form, the rebuilding will happen. If we get the answer wrong, Katrina and Rita could turn out to be among the greatest cultural disasters the nation has ever experienced.

On a recent visit to New Orleans, I saw first-hand that the French Quarter and the Garden District are largely intact. That’s good news, certainly, because these areas, with their imposing white columns and lacy cast-iron galleries, constitute the world-renowned public face of New Orleans. But the down-home heart of the city beats in lesser-known neighborhoods such as Holy Cross, Treme, Broadmoor and Mid-City, where officially designated historic districts showcase the modest Creole cottages, corner stores and shotgun houses (long, narrow houses, usually only one room wide with no hallway) that are essential ingredients in the rich architectural mix that is New Orleans. These are the buildings that we saw in those haunting images of battered rooftops dotting a toxic sea, and they are the buildings most at risk. Saving as many of them as possible is essential–and I came away convinced that the vast majority of them can be saved.

In dealing with the Mississippi River floods of 1993, the Northridge earthquake of 1994 and numerous other natural disasters, the National Trust has learned that almost always, the first impulse of local officials is to tear down every damaged building in the name of public safety. We’ve also learned that this first impulse is almost always wrong. Obviously, some historic buildings–perhaps many of them–will necessarily be lost, but we shouldn’t lose more than we have to.

The Gulf Coast is home to a blend of cultures, traditions, buildings and landscapes unlike those found anywhere else in the U.S. Recovery must acknowledge the special character of these places. To do otherwise would be to compound the devastation that has already occurred. The goal of recovery efforts should be to allow displaced people to come home to communities that are healthy, vibrant, familiar places to live and work. It’s a goal that can’t be met by simply calling in the bulldozers and creating vacant lots where neighborhoods used to be.

Many times in recent years, when communities were devastated by earthquakes, floods, tornadoes or hurricanes, we at the National Trust have worked with local officials and our preservation partners to determine the communities’ needs and figure out how we could help most effectively–whether by providing funds or technical assistance. But the unprecedented ferocity of this hurricane season has confronted us with a disaster like none we’ve experienced before, and it calls for solutions like none we’ve developed before.

What’s needed first are conscientious, comprehensive surveys conducted by experts in construction, architecture, engineering and preservation–people who can examine an older building’s condition, evaluate its historical and architectural significance and determine the feasibility or advisability of saving it. With generous funding assistance from the Getty Foundation, American Express Foundation and other sources, we’ve already sent survey teams into Mississippi and New Orleans. The final decision on what buildings can–and should–be saved will be made by property owners, city officials and FEMA, but the work of the survey teams will give them the facts they need to make informed decisions and rational recovery plans.

To turn those plans into reality, we need–and are seeking–targeted sources of federal and state funding for the preservation of storm-damaged structures. Existing tax-credit programs, for example, should be expanded to encourage the rehabilitation of historic owner-occupied residential buildings, which are currently ineligible for these incentives. To supplement funds from insurance companies, FEMA and other sources, special federal preservation grants should be made available to owners of damaged historic buildings, who would agree to rehab their properties in accordance with agreed-upon preservation standards and principles.

The clock is ticking. City building inspectors in New Orleans are already at work, and The Wall Street Journal quoted one official’s estimate that “the total number of homes . . . that must be bulldozed is around 50,000.” Some demolitions have already taken place–including the totally unwarranted razing of a significant landmark in the history of New Orleans jazz. The rush to demolition is gaining speed, with consequences that could make an already tragic situation even worse.

Ultimately, the question of how the Gulf Coast region should be rebuilt is one that its residents must answer. Let’s hope they get the chance to do so before their region’s future is decided for them.

Mr. Moe is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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