Report from New Orleans

Last week I made a quick visit to New Orleans en route to New Mexico. The purpose of the New Orleans stop was to attend the board meeting of US/ICOMOS. But the treat of the day was taking a quick tour of the Holy Cross neighborhood with Patty Gay.

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As anyone who as been at all active nationally in historic preservation knows, Patty is the Executive Director of the Preservation Resource Center, (PRC) the local preservation advocacy and education organization in New Orleans. Well, “advocacy and education” don’t nearly do the organization justice. They have been working for over 30 years to make sure that the historic resources of one of America’s most historic cities, aren’t lost through demolition by bulldozer, demolition by abandonment, or demolition by neglect. And in New Orleans all three represent an ongoing threat.IMG_0613-721775.JPG

There may be no place in the United States where the tangible culture (historic buildings, squares, street patterns) and the intangible (food, music, Cajun and Creole culture, art) are so directly connected. Somehow in that troubled city much of the business and political leadership has never understood that. The “culture” of New Orleans is widely appreciated, but there is too often the self-delusion that the intangible will hang around while the tangible is lost.

So this is the challenge that PRC has been facing for three decades. They haven’t just talked about historic preservation, they’ve done historic preservation. And one of their targeted neighborhoods is Holy Cross. PRC had been working in Holy Cross prior to Katrina. But since then, of course, their efforts have had to be multiplied. In a strong partnership with the National Trust and others, PRC is acquiring, rehabilitating and reselling dozens of properties in the Holy Cross neighborhood and elsewhere.

While you can’t understand the magnitude of the challenge without actually being there, taking a look at the Before and After photos will give you an idea.

One might make the case that the “landmarks” of New Orleans are safe from the wrecking ball. But the quality and character of the city is much more defined by its neighborhoods and vernacular buildings than by monumental structures. That’s why PRC’s major efforts are on the neighborhood level. Why Holy Cross? It is a neighborhood that meets several tests: 1) it is certainly historic with some structures dating to the middle of the 18th century; 2) a compact neighborhood with a great variety of architectural styles; 3) a neighborhood that has suffered from neglect and abandonment; 4) a neighborhood with long time residents (primarily African-American) who are committed to their neighborhood but with scarce financial resources; 5) a neighborhood of affordable housing; and 6) if not PRC, who?

Even though the impact of Katrina on Holy Cross was serious, it was not catastrophic. But residents there were precluded from returning to the neighborhood for six months after the hurricane. Take the best neighborhood in the country, and forcibly vacate it for six months and nothing good can result. But the residents have begun to return. They are occupying and beginning to reinvest in their homes. And the neighborhood is becoming active and vocal — with community meetings nearly every week. And PRC is there — making strategic investments hoping that their projects can serve as catalysts to first stabilize and then revitalize the Holy Cross neighborhood.

One of PRC’s priorities in Holy Cross and elsewhere is economic integration and they are absolutely right in this. After working in inner city neighborhoods myself for 25 years, I’ve reached the conclusion that economic integration is perhaps even more important than racial integration at the neighborhood level. And here’s my argument – make up your own list of what you think is essential for a healthy neighborhood. Put whatever you want on your list. Now find for me a neighborhood that is all poor that has more than one or two of those elements, let alone all of them. There aren’t any. Neighborhoods that are all poor are not healthy neighborhoods, period. That’s why economic integration needs to be a central strategy in neighborhood revitalization and it is a central strategy in Holy Cross.

Another initiative of PRC that includes structures in Holy Cross and elsewhere is the Ethnic Heritage Preservation Program where they identify homes of the legends of jazz in New Orleans. Home of two of the greats – Edward “Kid” Ory and Henry “Red” Allen – have been restored by PRC.

So will New Orleans “come back” after Katrina? Of course. Will it come back to its pre-Katrina days? Perhaps not, or not for a long time. I’ve been in New Orleans four or five times since Katrina, but after my afternoon in New Orleans last week I am absolutely convinced that without PRC literally manning the ramparts, the quality and character of New Orleans would be irretrievably lost.