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Two ancient French cities. The first, founded by Cadillac in 1701; the second, founded by Bienville nearly seventeen years later. Both predate the republic by several generations. Detroit and New Orleans have followed vastly divergent paths in the three centuries since their founding, but there are some interesting parallels between the two.
Both cities are a little ragged by time, studded with faded remnants of a more prosperous era. Both cities face struggles for new employment generators. Both have suffered cataclysmic devastation of urban fabric, and a precipitous population loss. Both have fabulous renovated buildings casually intermixed with brooding ruins. And both Detroit and New Orleans have some of the most creative and passionate residents in America; determined to maintain an urban lifestyle unique to themselves.
I’m presenting an album of New Orleans photos today, as a way to catch up with my readers and as a mea culpa for my long absence. I was married last month, and that combined with our honeymoon in the Crescent City somehow pulled me away from my blogging duties. You understand.
So what’s going on in New Orleans these days? A lot; in fact the oldest historic neighborhoods have largely recovered from the aftermath of Katrina. I learned that this is because, before the flood “protection” installed in the early twentieth century, residential construction occurred only on natural levees and ridges. In the deltaic floodplain of the lower Mississippi, the highest ground is actually closest to the river. Here’s where we find the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, and Esplanade Avenue; and the Warehouse District, Lower Magazine Street, and the Garden District.
Which isn’t to say that the city doesn’t have a lot of work to do. New Orleans’ biggest employer, the tourism industry, was heavily damaged by the bad publicity after the hurricane. We were received like royalty at every shop or cafe we visited (not that this is all that different than my recollection of pre-storm hospitality!).
We found this month to be a good moment for a relaxing New Orleans getaway, before the intensity of Mardi Gras takes over much of the city in February. New Orleans is currently hosting a terrific contemporary arts exhibition titled Prospect.1, which has been running since November and will wind down on Sunday, January 18th. Featured in the New York Times, this exhibition is housed in high profile settings like the Contemporary Arts Center, as well as abandoned structures and fields in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The organizers have prepared an outstanding wayfinding map, and there is a reliable shuttle service connecting all the Prospect.1 venues.
I also made time for a visit to the Preservation Resource Center on Tchoupitoulas Street.
The PRC is a strong voice for presentation and sustainable urban living in New Orleans, and has been a critical player in the many post-hurricane debates concerning damaged historic buildings.
With more than a dozen staff members, a permanent exhibition and shop space, and a thick monthly magazine, they are a first-class, professional preservation organization. Since I’m sure all of my readers are already members of Preservation Wayne, I would encourage you to support PRC as well.
There is no reason Detroit can’t take inspiration from what’s going on in New Orleans; the rebounding neighborhoods, the entrepreneurs populating historic storefronts, the resurgent music scene, and a civic obsession with art, preservation, and culture. Forget Atlanta and its vapid glassy skyline; this haunting, idiosyncratic city is Detroit’s true southern soul mate.
I’m hopeful that the next several years will see a slow improvement in the fortunes of these two soulful American cities, which share more problems, and more potential, than most other towns in America.