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What Is New Orleans?
Resilient, a Moveable Feast, and Growing, Slowly

be-new-orleanian-large [1]
Loyola panel discussion well attended, thought-provoking, encouraging

The moderator and panelists presented some very thoughtful and deeply felt responses to the question “What Is New Orleans” at Loyola’s Nunemaker Auditorium Wednesday night. In his introduction, the moderator, New Orleans novelist John Biguenet reminded the audience that in 2006 Republicans in Congress voted down a resolution [2] that would have declared congressional commitment to rebuilding the Gulf Coast. (Biguenet blogged for the New York Times [3] in 2005 and 2006 about the city’s recovery—check out his strong, clear-voiced pieces—and he is profiled [4] in the Fall 2009 Louisiana Cultural Vistas.)

campanella [5]In order of interest, first would be Tulane geographer and demographics whiz Richard Campanella [5] (who actually spoke last), author of the fascinating Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans [6]. (Buy it. Read it. Then buy copies for your friends who are interested in the city’s history and future.) Campanella—originally from Brooklyn, it turns out—is a sort of geography + demographics geek who makes statistics interesting and brisk-paced so your eyes don’t glaze over. To wit: the city’s population, about 450,000 before Katrina, dropped to nearly zero in Sept. ’05, and is about 340,000 now. The population had risen to 200K on the first anniversary (2006), 300K on the 2nd, and 320K by the 3rd anniversary. From the 2nd anniversary to the present, the population has risen by only 40,000 souls.

After presenting statistics on population and ethnic density in various parts of town, Campanella affirmed that New Orleans is enjoying a “brain gain” of talented people who want to be here to help rebuild (and possibly prosper). The city is now more mobile, more international, and (for tragic reasons) is more in the national consciousness than it has been in a long time. Among the consequences of the storm + flood have been greater citizen participation and decentralization of urban planning, public education, and health care (in part because the institutions are not delivering). There have also been some improved efficiencies through consolidation of the levee districts and boards and the tax assessors, among other official functions. He praised the city’s (that is, the citizens’) resiliency, their ability to recover from adversity through adaptation, reinvention, innovation.

susan.saulny [7]Susan Saulny is a New Orleans native whose family roots go way back. She was a reporter for the Times-Picayune and the Washington Post before writing for the New York Times. Ms. Saulny spoke feelingly but with admirable composure of the family members—including elderly aunts and uncles—who have died after being displaced by Katrina. Some, though they were in their seventies and eighties, were determined to return and rebuild. Some were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, or may simply have died of heartbreak. But, on a more hopeful note, she said she likes the slogan (on stickers made by Dirty Coast [8]) “Be a New Orleanian. Wherever you are.” And she recalled Hemingway’s tribute to the city of Paris that gives the title to his literary memoir: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” The same, she said, is true of her native city.

We highly recommend her powerful, sensitive report, “New Orleans Hurt by Acute Rental Shortage [9],” on the homeless living under the Claiborne Avenue overpass and in tents near City Hall in late 2007 when the (all-white) New Orleans City Council was nearing a unanimous vote [10] to allow the federal government to raze 4,500 public housing units before replacement housing had been built. A video [11] accompanies Saulny’s article. (Demolitions continue to this day, most recently at the Lafitte public housing site along Orleans Avenue.) Click here [7] for an index of her NYT articles, and see our posts from that sad time, “Homeless for the Holidays [12]” and “Homeless for the Holidays: Who Would Jesus Evict? [13]

larry.powellTulane history professor Lawrence N. Powell [14] emphasized that much of American history, particularly concerning civil rights, and its culture (esp. music and cuisine) cannot be properly told without examining New Orleans’s role and contributions, the good and the bad. In speaking of New Orleans as an “accidental city,” Powell posited the notion—perhaps to be explained further in his history of the city forthcoming eventually from Harvard University Press—that John Law [15] of “Mississippi Bubble” fame had originally recommended situating the new city of La Nouvelle-Orléans upriver where Bayou Manchac then led from the Mississippi to Lake Maurepas and thence to Lake Pontchartrain and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Law’s plan, says Powell, was thwarted by Bienville’s “seigneurial ambitions”—not to mention the bursting of the speculative venture known as the Mississippi Bubble—and Bienville’s insistence on placing the city at its present location. We will want to read Professor Powell’s history to learn more about this.

“What Is New Orleans” was presented by Loyola University’s Center for the Study of New Orleans [16]. The next event in the series will be “New Orleans in the ’60s: A Time of Change [17]” on Jan. 20, 2010, featuring LSU history professor Alecia Long [18], UNO history professor emeritus Raphael Cassimere [19]; and Kent Germany [20] of the University of South Carolina’s history department.

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