A building is an invitation.
In my hometown of New Orleans, nearly 100,000 African-Americans were forced out of the city due to the government and insurance companies’ responses to Hurricane Katrina. Over 10 years later, those citizens haven’t returned. It’s difficult to come home when the policy you paid premiums on for decades won’t pay out. Or when the federal, state, and municipal programs designed to help you are so bound in red tape they’re unusable.
Yet billions of dollars in investments from both the government and private industry have flowed into the city, leading to the construction of new buildings like the iconic and cool 930 Poydras tower or the postmodern condos on the reinvigorated lanes of Freret Street.
It’s a big change from the city I’ve lived in my whole life. If one word could have summed up the New Orleans I knew, it was decay. It seemed that the vast majority of shotgun houses, camelbacks, and Creole cottages were in a perpetual state of disrepair: peeling paint, cracked foundations, missing siding. New Orleans, like many American cities, redlined black communities. Families went into banks for home improvement loans and were summarily turned away.
A building, despite appearances, is a handshake, a warm smile, a kind greeting. The new condos dotting the city may be geometric and austere, they may come in gunmetal gray or industrial silver with the rare brick facade or whimsical exterior staircase to liven up affairs, but these monoliths invite newcomers to put down roots and make this place their home; New Orleans was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation for a time after Katrina. These newcomers enter from all corners of America, but they’re mostly white, young, and urbane, attracted to the kinds of cultural programming one finds in Austin or Brooklyn or Paris. Pop-up restaurants. Yoga studios. Coworking spaces.
Freret Street is only one example of the steady transformation of New Orleans, which includes the welcoming of one group of Americans along with the displacement of another. Freret Street near Napoleon Avenue bisects a neighborhood that was primarily African-American before Katrina.
Back then, there was a venerable soul food restaurant that served local specialties for very low prices. There was an auto shop that repaired tires for less than 10 bucks. There was a bakery where you could buy a birthday cake for slightly more.
Today, no black-owned businesses remain except for a barbershop. But there’s a hip pizzeria that serves Neapolitan pies from an imported wood-burning oven. I’ve never seen any of the men from the barbershop in the pizzeria. The remaining auto shop doesn’t sell used tires, a necessity for low-income people. I’ve never seen any of the men from the barbershop in this garage. The new bakery charges $150 for a 12-inch cake. I’ve never seen any of the men from the barbershop in the new bakery.
This is not to say that there has been no investment in new architecture for native, black New Orleanians. Perhaps the most visible project of the past decade is the Orleans Parish Prison, which sits on the side of I-10 and is impossible to miss when entering town. In a city that is sometimes called “the incarceration capital of the world,” the prison is a marvel, even beautiful. With its imposing stone and glass exterior, it almost looks like an impressive research facility of some kind. In reality, it’s a hand reaching out to New Orleans’s undereducated, chronically underemployed population of African-American males.
New Orleans appears to be undergoing a transformation from a city of workaday deliverymen and jazz parades to something a bit tamer and more predictable. It’s unclear how far the metamorphosis will go. But watch the buildings.