So I spent New Year’s Eve this year in New Orleans, my first time there. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s ever been there will agree with me, that there is really no point in trying to capture with words the ecstasy and strangeness and delight it evoked in me over the 48 or so hours we spent in the city.
But I’ve had some time to reflect upon a few ways in which the city inspired me which are pertinent to this blog:
1 – This is a pretty hackneyed observation, but bears repeating: we haven’t yet learned to properly quantify culture. Everybody knows New Orleans is special, but if you only looked at its statistics you would see no difference between it and other poor, majority-black cities. Urban analysts, especially economists, love to see what a place looks like on paper and how it stacks up against others, in large part because it is A) expensive and impractical to go see a place for yourself and B) because we don’t have the same way of consistently and accurately gathering metrics for things like quality of food or music scene or architectural beauty. I’m as guilty as anyone of this.
One of the things that makes The Death and Life of Great American Cities a lively read is that Jacobs describes in colorful detail the actual physical neighborhoods she profiles, and the people who live and work in them. Now I don’t know if she actually traveled and saw for herself every American city she documented, but if she didn’t, she fools the reader pretty well. The book was comparatively light on statistics compared to qualitative description, and is mercifully free of the Forbes-style rankings our poor cities are subjected to today. After seeing New Orleans for myself, I am reminded: Census, ACS, and other data give only a highly incomplete picture of any place.
2 – The sense of antiquity, especially the preservation of its architectural heritage; the feeling of those very narrow streets in the Vieux Carré, the kind that were ripped up and widened long ago in almost any other city in USA. Detroit is approximately as old as New Orleans, but only a handful of buildings older than the late nineteenth century that survive today, even in Corktown, our oldest neighborhood. After seeing New Orleans, I no longer am so thoroughly convinced that demolition of our abandoned structures in Detroit is the right thing to do, and I have a new appreciation for the work of Preservation Wayne especially given its scarce resources and what’s probably a shoestring budget.
3 – The value of tourism. What really blew me away as I walked around New Orleans was how it was able to sustain what seemed like more unique shops, restaurants and bars than you’d otherwise see in a metro of its size. Are these amenities that its current metro population of a bit over 1.2 million (with a fairly low median per capita and household income) could sustain on their own? Of course not! Residents enjoy a greater range of world-class choices because of all the tourists spending money like drunken sailors. (Or like drunks, period, of which there were predictably many).
4 – The compactness that allowed us to stay on foot most of the time, which is very unusual for the South (of course reminding us that in its long urban history New Orleans has more in common with northern cities than with its southern neighbors).
These factors are inter-related: #4 follows from #2 and then is a catalyst for #3. It has become conventional wisdom — Richard Florida is the first to come to mind — that walkable neighborhoods are key to attracting affluent and educated people (i.e. the kind of taxpayers you want/need in order to maintain public services). This is in the face of a preponderance of evidence that today a majority of affluent and educated people in most metros choose to settle in neighborhoods that are the opposite of walkable. Walkability is a consideration for where to live, yes, but especially for families with kids, it is secondary to public services, safety, car and home insurance rates, proximity of grocery shopping, quality of local public schools, the amount of space you can afford, of course not necessarily in that order.
What struck me in NOLA is something you hear less of from walkability advocates, which is the interplay between walkability and out-of-town tourism. Speaking as a person of relatively modest income in his 20s, though this can be true of travelers in other age groups or income brackets, when I fly in to a large city, I am often seeing it on foot or by public transit since renting and getting around by car is typically prohibitively expensive. I loved Los Angeles and Atlanta, but it was total hell getting around either place; sadly, both cities are more manageable on foot than metro Detroit, which is unremittingly hostile for the budget-conscious car-less traveler. Walkability depends on compactness; it influences how friendly an area is for often car-less out of town visitors; and those tourists help shape the impressions of the outside world upon a place, as friendly or hostile. New Orleans’ richly preserved core is as walkable and compact as any I’ve ever seen, and despite the city’s hard times this has kept loyal tourists coming back and continuing to pump their money into it.
These are just some of the many insights I gained from New Orleans, and my all-too-brief visit there left me with plenty to fill additional posts with. I didn’t get as many good photos as I would have liked, and they are mostly from the Garden District and Riverfront because most of our time spent in Vieux Carré was at night and I suck at night time photography. But I promised a few photos and will try to post a few here later this week.