New Orleans has undergone vast change in the past few decades, and while the obvious focal point of that change was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Katrina was neither the start nor the end of a long, if recent, progression. What has really changed since the 1980’s—certainly since the 1990’s—has been the economic base of tourism and the influence of tourism and the service industry. This, coupled with the post-Katrina realization that much of New Orleans is prone to flooding and other severe damage from a mighty hurricane, has fostered a New Orleans that in some sense is leaner but more focused on its history and the value of that history.
When I lived in Savannah, Georgia, as a student, I was on an architectural tour of a grand home when its owner remarked to our tour group, “What you see in Savannah that’s this old is here for two reasons: because nothing bad ever happened to this city and nothing good did, either.” She was referring to the fact that Savannah was not, as were Atlanta or Columbia, burned and looted in the Civil War, but also that over the course of most of the twentieth century Savannah experienced hard times and its historic district therefore did not see the type of new construction that comes with economic growth. New Orleans has had a similar evolution over time since the Civil War.
I recall walking down Canal Street in New Orleans in 1993 and seeing a storefront in an old commercial building—Friedberg’s Uniforms. I walked in to discover they sold uniforms and related items to merchant seamen. Their real estate was prime, located just towards the river from the Sheraton Hotel, but they had been there for years and catered to a demographic that traditionally came marching up Canal from the Mississippi River when a ship was in port. At this point in time—and I’m only speaking of 1993, not 1953—Canal Street was an odd admixture of shops like Friedman’s serving the maritime business, restaurants, and bars catering to tourists, and retail shops such as sportswear and drugstores for locals who lived in the area. Canal Street had long been New Orleans’ main shopping street prior to the advent of shopping malls. Today, some of this remains but the focus is now mostly on tourism. Drugstores and seemingly endless shops selling sneakers and cameras abound, but the businesses geared towards industry are mostly, if not totally, absent. This in part is due to changes in the industries they serve, for example as nautical charts moved from paper to digital and such industrial services moved online instead of out of old brick buildings occupying prime real estate. Ships chandlers remain, but they are expectedly in more industrial areas such as Gretna and New Orleans’ Elmwood neighborhood, which long has had an industrial base with its various warehouses, wholesalers, and auto body shops. Yet even these neighborhoods are changing, with Walmart Supercenters and Best Buy stores popping up in them, taking advantage of the ability to obtain large parcels of land and the proximity to highways.
Post-Katrina, the city is acute in its awareness of not only the geographical challenges it faces but of the changing climes for industry. The US Navy pulled out of its Naval Support Activity center (the F. Edward Hébert Defense Complex) and deeded the mammoth complex in Bywater to the city which has planned to use it for emergency response staff and is also looking at locating a cruise ship terminal in the area. The Navy announced its plans to close the facility in May of 2005, so the closure was not due to Katrina’s damage to the buildings but due to the Navy’s own budget cuts and efforts to streamline operations.
New Orleans was founded as the French city of Nouvelle-Orléans by the French-Mississippi Company and has retained its French-based identity ever since. Up until the early twentieth century, it was one of the largest population centers in the American South but was gradually surpassed by Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and even Miami by the 1960’s. Since the days of the first settlers, it was apparent that the high water table and proximity to both the Mississippi and Lake Ponchartrain would determine many aspects of life for the city. Famously, digging graves for the departed was in most parts of the city a hopeless cause, and entire cemeteries, such as Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, had to be constructed with above-ground tombs. These “Cities of the Dead” are fascinating to visit but silently speak of the somber tale of how difficult life was in the early days here. Prone to epidemic diseases such as yellow fever, even after death, residents of New Orleans had a struggle in simply being sent to their final resting places. It was not until 1899 that a young Tulane engineering graduate, A. Baldwin Wood, was hired right out of school to design a comprehensive flood control system for New Orleans which became the basis for the system more or less in use today. The concept of flood control has always gone hand-in-hand with that of providing a network of canals and basins for ships to move to port-side facilities and from the Ponchartrain to the Mississippi, a needed measure but also one that has all the more entailed an additional presence of water all around the city.
New Orleans’ role as “America’s most unique city,” as it has been called, with its European flair and celebratory aura of Mardi Gras has drawn in the tourists but somewhat overshadowed its continuing role as a crucial port city and as, next to only Houston, an epicenter for the American oil business. In the West Riverside neighborhood, you can find the impressive Greek Revival-style Marine Hospital, which now is owned by the neighboring children’s hospital and slated for renovation into office space, but was constructed as part of a nation-wide effort to provide health care to merchant seamen—the first federal effort at health services and the basis for all federal public health ever since, including the CDC and NIH. The presence of this campus speaks to New Orleans’ longstanding role as an important seaport, and the structures for the Marine Hospital standing today were mostly built in 1931, at a time when social welfare was a key national concern and industry’s expansion had caused changes in society. New Orleans at this point in history was seen as the ideal of what a leading Southern city could become: the port was a key focus and military bases were located here to take advantage of the strategic location for air and sea forces. Though it would never reach the apex of population it had prior to the Civil War, the concept that New Orleans was a dwindling, left-behind, shell of a city in the early twentieth century before tourism rescued it is simply a myth. What is true, however, is that like many Southern cities, it had closer ties to agriculture longer than its northern counterparts. The land where the Marine Hospital was built, in example, was part of the plantation of New Orleans’ first mayor, Etiene de Bore, and later was developed just prior to the Civil War for a brickyard. It was not until 1883 that the federal government purchased the land for the Marine Hospital and such was a typical trajectory of ownership for much prime real estate in New Orleans: plantation lands to industry to government or residential use.
New Orleans, however, always seems to get saddled with grand projects that outlive their usefulness: the F. Edward Hébert naval facility might fall into this lot, and the 1930’s Art Deco Charity Hospital (another Depression-era health care initiative), which was ruined by flooding during Hurricane Katrina, certainly comes to mind. The fate of this historic, unique, hospital is still up in the air but may cost up to $400 million to renovate according to some plans for non-hospital applications. Yet these twentieth-century innovations should not be seen as failures. The emphasis placed on things like health services in New Orleans allowed Tulane University to develop one of the best tropical medicine and public health education and research programs in the world, while its law school developed one of the leading admiralty law programs in the world thanks to its close association with the port. The physical legacy of the unique problems and triumphs of New Orleans over time should not be forgotten in the wake of today’s tourist economy but realized for its valuable contributions.
It is easy as a tourist to walk through the French Quarter and marvel at the preservation of architecture dating from before the twentieth century and presume this represents the full history of architecture and planning in the city, but it’s really only the first few chapters of a very long book. To really understand this city, the deep and varied roots of its physical construction and the legacy of things like early sugar plantations and defunct hospitals alike have to be understood. Hurricane Katrina neither utterly destroyed nor made anew New Orleans but was a chapter in that same long book. If you walk over to One Canal Place, the 1979 grand multi-use complex that embodies the Central Business District as well as anything, you can find a much older industrial building a few streets over in its shadow: the offices and work space of Dixie Mill Supply, an industrial machine shop supplier. In terms of aesthetics, these two very different structures do just fine in the same neighborhood and embody the overall spirit of survival of this city.