Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dual Identity of New Orleans: Unique yet Trite

"I realized that New Orleans might be exotic in some respects but that in others it was exactly like everyplace else." These words were spoken by A.J. Liebling in New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape as he dwelt on and came to terms with the reality of New Orleans situation and status as an American city.

New Orleans, though very unique in certain aspects, has been dragged down over time to come to resemble every other American city. Founded in the 1700's by the French, New Orleans quickly became inhabited by many persons from many diverse cultures. This melting pot of a city was truly a sight to see. Like every other southern American city at this time, New Orleans had slaves. The unique thing about this was that, it was the only city where slaves actually earned money and could save in order to buy their freedom from their masters. Though inequalities did exist, it was not strong enough to hold down the blacks to a point where progress could not be reached. Eventually, they set up a town called Fauborg Treme, which was a predominantly black community. Many black owned businesses and other ventures sprang up and succeeded in this town. They boasted a black-run newspaper, which was written in both Creole French and English. Also, Treme was the breeding grounds for the plot that led to Plessy v. Ferguson. Many great things happened it Treme, but as usual, all good things come to an end.
With the phenomenon of White Flight, New Orleans quickly lost it's footing on the pedestal. No longer were neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds, etc. integrated. Those who had the means to move and escape to the newly developed suburbs were taking advantage of the situation. Construction hit New Orleans hard as it tore apart their cities in order to build highways out into the suburbs. When re-construction of homes went up around the highways, they were built to aide segregation. One side of the highway held black housing facilities and the other side held those for whites. The peaceful, integration that existed in New Orleans would be no more, down even to present time. According to Peirce F. Lewis in New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape he notes that "In New Orleans, as elsewhere, blacks are relatively poor and ill housed, and their neighborhoods are poorly attended by municipal services. Educational levels are low, crime rates high. Meanwhile, whites flee and the proportion of blacks continues to increase, as do the isolation and alienation of a population that sees itself abandoned and abused...typical of city after city across the United States". Also according to Hartman and Squires in "The Social Construction of Disaster: New Orleans as the Paradigmatic American City", New Orleans became "characterized by extreme levels of poverty and racial segregation". And this did not just occur over night it was a "cumulative result of a long history of institutional arrangements and structures that have produced current realities". One of those realities is the way that time has allowed New Orleans to slip away from its exclusive position into commonplace area.
Geographically, New Orleans is very unique. It is situated right on the banks of the Mississippi River (which actually created the city by river deposits and is known as the Crescent City) and started off as a port city for trade. The highest parts of the city are right on the banks of the river and the further you get from the way into the "back of town" the ground actually sinks a couple of feet below sea level. Douglass Brinkley makes mention of this in his book, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and connects it to a present day malady for the city. Because the lower levels are the area which were prone to flooding the most, there was where the settlement of the poor blacks were. Like every other metropolitan city in American, the poorer, under-developed neighborhoods are inhabited by the "poor black underclass". Geographically, there are ways that New Orleans steps out of that unique category and places itself in the realm of the other cities in America.

As if that wasn't enough Hurricane Katina came and made bad situations worse. The vulnerable people of New Orleans, with the weight of the world on their backs, were doomed against the disaster of Katrina. The fact that the city was built by water and in effect surrounded by water was definitely a factor from the city's history that lent a hand in making a bad situation worse. The politics that also go on with racial segregation and such also could have foreshadowed what was going to happen in Katrina concerning the poor black underclass. According to Hartman and Squires in " The Social Construction of Disaster: New Orleans as the Paradigmatic American City", "social capital - a resource most unevenly distributed by class and race" played a big role in the time of Katrina. Though New Orleans will, with time, recover from the face damage done by the disastrous hurricane, the internal damage that took place years ago doesn't seem to be on the up and up. Optimism in that area is very small. The beads are just going to lay where they fall.


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