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(with acknowledgements to Jane Jacobs).

I don't know New Orleans, hell, I don't know America, I'm a Brit. But being a European means that like most Europeans, I have a bit of a different perspective on the life and death of cities.  And I'm worried about New Orleans.

Disasters don't generally kill cities.  London was ravaged first by plague, then razed by fire, in 1666.  The fire not only burned the thatched, timber-framed houses to the ground, it destroyed the ancient cathedral of St Paul's.  And yet St. Paul's was rebuilt, mostly within Wren's lifetime, and its dome is iconic of the city.  Florence was devastated by flood in 1966, as was Venice, a city built over water.  Although loss of life was small, both cities lost priceless artworks, although many were painstakingly restored.  Both cities are as alive as ever today.

Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki were all destroyed in the second world war.  All are thriving cities today. And Holland survives as a nation below sea-level by virtue of a constantly maintained system of levees and pumps.

So why am I worried about New Orleans?  

The City of London is dead (the Square Mile, the bit with St Paul's and the Bank of England).  It's a nice enough place - during the day, when the pubs are open, and the sandwich bars.  But it's dead at night, because nobody actually lives there.    

Other cities don't exactly die - they just morph into someplace else.  York, for instance, isn't the city I once new and loved.  It's become a movie set for a movie about its own history.
Birmingham lost its middle - dug up and replaced by underpasses and over-passes, all in the aid of solving "congestion".  Which is a bit like saying a party would be great if it weren't for the people.  Glasgow had hideous slums in an area called The Gorbals.  As a teenager in the sixties I used to work with a church holiday scheme that gave kids from the Gorbals a week's holiday in our rural border town.  At fourteen, I couldn't believe the squalor - four kids sharing one filthy bed in one room, parents sleeping in an alcove off the other room, the kitchen.  Ten families sharing one toilet.  No bathrooms.  So the Gorbals were demolished - and families "evacuated" into new housing blocks out in the suburbs, with bathrooms, but no churches, pubs, shops, schools, jobs. The  Gorbals area of Glasgow wasn't healed, it was destroyed.  

Some cities die because they are too pretty, like York, and their people can't afford to live there any more.  Other die because they are too ugly, like Glasgow, and their people are moved into "prettier" places with no soul.

Because the life of a city is its people.  Change the people, you change the city.  Of course all cities will change and grow - because they are alive.  But if you leave people out of the process of change you will kill the city you knew.

That's why I'm worried about New Orleans, even though I've never been there.  All I know is its music, its mythology.  But its music and its mythology are as much a part of the city as the flooded buildings.  More so.  Long ago, when I was doing a masters' in  urban design, I read the RSVP cycles by  Lawrence Halprin.  Studying urban design had been an odd experience for me, being, as a musician, used to thinking in terms of time as much as space, in terms of process as much as product.  And Halprin bowled me over with his concept of the city as a musical score - a rich set of cues for performance, but nothing unless actually  performed.  A jazz score, where the performance itself affects the score, which is always changing - and different occasions produce a different response to the score. A city is a score for the performance of its citizens.  

But without performers there is no city.

The performers of New Orleans are dispersed - all over America.  They are called "refugees" too often, and "evacuees" not often enough.  They are painted as problem, not as a solution. But if New Orleans is to survive (and I mean survive, not merely be replicated in wood and stone and concrete) it needs its performers back. Desperately. The New Orleans diaspora need to be reassured not only that New Orleans will be rebuilt but that they, the performers of the city of New Orleans will be part of that rebuilding process, part of the continuation of their their unique performance.

The score needs to be restored, just as the ancient books and paintings of Florence were restored after the 1966 flood.  The street plan is part of the score, as is the lot structure.  Buildings are less important - damaged landmarks need to be repaired or even replaced, just as Wren rebuilt St Paul's.  What can be salvaged, should be.  But the cycle of the year is also part of the score, the score of New Orleans, of all places. And the restoration plan itself needs to be part of the score, the score of a new performance by the people of New Orleans.  If the people return, as they did to Florence, to Venice, to London, to Dresden, to Hiroshima, and rebuild it, the city can survive.  

Unless Halliburton and co. write them out of the score.

Originally posted to Febble on Wed Sep 07, 2005 at 05:40 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  New Orleans will survive (none)

    I am an architect and, while I have never been to the city, it is too unique, historic, and culturally significant not to.  It will survive because so many believe it must.  The people, performers et al, will return.

    BTW, I recently visited London for the first time and feel, after New York, that it is the greatest city on the planet.

    •  I agree about London (none)
      it's the City of London that is weird.  Although the interesting thing is that it has quite a vigorous half-life - the city churches often have lunchtime services, even when they don't function on Sundays.  Some even have lunchtime concert series. Maybe dead was the wrong word.  Amputated perhaps.

      But I don't see much in the way of reassurance to the evacuees of New Orleans that they will be part of the process of restoration, or even welcome back.  Maybe I'm missing something.

  •  Jane Jacobs (none)
    wrote about the death and life of US cities.  Her latest, on the coming Dark Ages, should be promoted.
  •  It will survive (none)
    because it is a vital port. It grew there because that's where the post HAS to be, and it needs the people nearby. So people will be there for the port, and the city will regrow.

    European Tribune - bringing dKos to Europe
    in the long run, we're all dead (Keynes)

    by Jerome a Paris on Wed Sep 07, 2005 at 07:25:00 AM PDT

    •  I've no doubt (none)
      that there will be a city there.  But will it be New Orleans?  It will only be New Orleans if the citizens of New Orleans are part of the reconstruction process.  And given that so many of the diaspora are poor that means urgent construction of low-cost housing.

      Will that be a priority?

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