New York 1835, Chicago 1871, Galveston 1900, San Francisco 1906. To this list of apocalyptic urban disaster must now be added, New Orleans 2005. As evidence slowly becomes available, it is clear that the effect of Katrina on the city is of epic proportions. In many ways, the case of New Orleans is even worse than its historic antecedents. Although the resources being marshaled in the rescue operation are greater—how did they manage before helicopters?—so is the problem; the city is much larger, and its infrastructure more complex and hence more difficult to replace.
Cities are man's greatest creation, at least measured in physical extent, so it is that much more awful to witness their destruction. And it is more than the loss of lives and property, it is also the eradication of a sense of community itself, which, however imperfect, is always a measure of human achievement. In the case of New Orleans, it is also the loss of a distinctive urban fabric. It is—was—a rare example of French city-building in the United States (Detroit, Mobile, and St. Louis are others, but New Orleans is the most fully realized and, until a few days ago, the best preserved). Founded by the French in 1722 and then taken over by the Spanish (who built all those wrought-iron balconies), New Orleans has a cultural and architectural richness that is unique among the bland, sliced-bread cities of the continent.
Many cities have historic buildings, but few have entire historic neighborhoods such as the Garden District and the Vieux Carré, which is one of the country's first legally protected historic districts, second only to Charleston. The narrow streets and alleys form an ensemble of great historical worth. The value of the French Quarter is not merely that it is old and exceptionally charming, with its cathedral and presbytery on Jackson Square, but that it has resisted gentrification and preserved a healthy vulgarity.
It's still too early to tell, but the effect of standing water on wooden buildings for a period of several weeks (or months?) will be calamitous. The loss of historical artifacts will be extensive. In many cases, irremediable. One can't imagine the fate of Metairie Cemetery, for example, or City Park. The unspoken question is, will New Orleans recover? Chicago and San Francisco did, after suffering calamitous fires. Leningrad in 1941 and Warsaw in 1944 underwent horrendous destruction during World War II—much worse than New Orleans—and both were reconstructed. Reconstructed, not merely built anew. Parts of both cities were painstakingly rebuilt over 50 years, rebuilt the way that a survivor's face might be rebuilt after a particularly awful car accident.
Perhaps the better question is whether New Orleans has the means to recover? It is not a rich city, as were Chicago and San Francisco after their great fires. In any case, American big cities are no longer paramount, and they were in the past. Like all cities today, and more than most, New Orleans has a large poor population. It is reliant on tourism, an unreliable industry that will surely be adversely affected by the destruction. If reconstruction is to take place it will require considerable outside resources. Business as usual—even disaster relief as usual—will not be enough.
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