Can the Soul of a City Survive a Hurricane?

Even before Katrina, New Orleans had a battered reputation and has been rebuilt after floods, pestilences, fires, hurricanes and voracious termites.

But as it recovers from the latest round of devastating floods, some academics and residents are wondering what sort of city a new and reborn New Orleans will become.

The arts, music and unusual mixtures of ethnic cultures that made New Orleans famous worldwide were formed in the shotgun shacks and vernacular cottages in the city’s “Back Swamp” that were blitzed in the storm’s aftermath.

So what will become of these vital cultural breeding grounds? Are they to be left depopulated? And will the 10 percent of New Orleans on higher ground thrive as some sort of sanitized Cajun Disneyland with Preservation Hall and the French Quarter’s jazz nightclubs kept as reminders of what once made New Orleans great? If they are rebuilt, who will repopulate them?

Char Miller, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio who specializes in urban history, said rebuilding flood-prone New Orleans may not make environmental or economic sense, but he’s convinced it’s going to happen.

“We’re a can-do people, so we are going to press ahead with a solution,” he said.

But putting the concrete and wooden parts of New Orleans back together may be the easiest part of any reconstruction. Rebuilding the dynamic culture and alchemy of the city will be far more difficult, he said.

“There are things about our urban culture that are ephemeral _ they can evaporate quite rapidly,” Miller said.

It’s only after they are damaged that people think of the vital role cities play in producing America’s culture, he said.

A century ago, New Orleans became the mixing bowl that produced jazz from Caribbean and Mississippi Delta cultures. Cajun, Zydeco and the Delta blues emerged from its suburbs. The city is the birthplace of Louis B. Armstrong, the site of Tennessee Williams plays and the venue for Anne Rice’s novels.

Miller said that much of the vitality has already been drained from the city and spread out with its evacuated citizens to other parts of the country. He expects the culture influences will shift with the population.

“To see the blinking-out of the lights of New Orleans doesn’t mean those lights can’t go somewhere else,” Miller said. Former New Orleans residents are already enriching cities like San Antonio and Houston, and many former Louisiana residents are finding the schools in Texas so much better that they are unlikely to return, he said.

Some fret that a prolonged construction period will devastate the culture of New Orleans and want a speedy return of residents while the rebuilding is going on. It took more than 10 years to rebuild Galveston, Texas, on higher land after a hurricane killed about 6,000 in 1900. But that city’s industrial base moved to Houston, leaving Galveston a shell of its former self.

S. Frederick Starr, who owns a former plantation house in New Orleans, is urging homeowners to return as soon as possible, in part to block any wholesale bulldozing of neighborhoods. He worries that blue-ribbon committees weighing the future of New Orleans will produce stifling delays and won’t take into account the views of long-time New Orleans residents.

“Culture is not made by commissions and commissars. The best they can do is to follow the Hippocratic Oath and do no harm,” he said. Starr said it’s inconceivable that New Orleans can be brought back without its citizens allowed to make decisions about the future of their properties.

“Can you have a city which is simply a tourist city? The answer is no,” he said.

Starr said that his house wasn’t badly flooded and, after the initial shock of seeing the devastation, that he and his neighbors realized their homes are constructed of insect-resistant Cypress frames that are eminently salvageable. He dismissed frightening stories about toxic mold infesting the houses after the floodwaters were pumped out, and reported that one neighbor already has begun throwing away waterlogged furniture and doing household cleanup work using regular household chemicals.

“Mold is why God invented Clorox,” Starr said. “Of the neighbors I know, 100 percent want to rebuild, to renovate, clean up and restore. All they want is some money to hire people to do that.”

Starr worries that New Orleans developers are hatching much more grandiose plans that could be the death knell for a living city by concentrating on the tourist parts of town and ignoring schools and the human capital.

He said there’s a danger in the spigot of federal funds unleashed on New Orleans, and he noted Louisiana has a troublesome history of corrupt officials ready to take advantage of any opportunity. “There are plenty of local people who are ready to milk any cow that walks by,” he said.

The Crescent City wasn’t so healthy even before the floods. New Orleans lost more than a quarter of its population in the last 40 years, and much of its industrial base had moved to Houston or other cities farther inland. Louisiana rated 47 percent of New Orleans schools as being “academically unacceptable.”

Historic preservationists say New Orleans should try to preserve its culture and neighborhoods along with its grand mansions.

“It’s a delicate issue from a preservation standpoint,” said Robert Allen, a professor of natural resources at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “From an historic-preservation standpoint, place is important,” he said. “There’s an importance of ordinary things.”

Allen said there are many hard decisions to be made about bringing New Orleans back to life. There are some important examples of American architecture among the shotgun shacks and vernacular cottages of New Orleans’ poorer neighborhoods, where musicians like Fats Domino lived. Are just those houses preserved, while neighborhoods of modern houses are built up around them?

“Nobody I’ve talked to wants the poor neighborhoods returned to poverty,” Allen said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)