PD Smith

Delirious New Orleans

Times Literary Supplement, June 26, 2009, p 26

Delirious New Orleans: Manifesto for an extraordinary American city, by Stephen Verderber (University of Texas Press), 252pp. $45. ISBN: 978-0-292-71753-4

Review by P.D. Smith

Simone de Beauvoir visited New Orleans just after the war. She listened to jazz, drank zombies – a formidable New Orleans cocktail – and quickly fell in love with the city and its people. Walking the streets during a storm, she was struck by the city’s vulnerability:

"the old romantic houses seemed so fragile, water seeped into the walls covered with grey-green lichen, and mouldering planks appeared on the point of crumbling like tree-trunks eaten away in tropical forests."

Built between a lake and a river, with swamps on the other two sides, much of the city is below sea-level. French engineers told the city’s founder it was madness to build there. Though the English dubbed it the Wet Grave, it was not even a good place for a cemetery. Corpses buried in the spongy ground rose ghoulishly to the surface, so New Orleanians had to seal their departed into stone tombs, creating a parallel city of the dead.

New Orleans is a city at the mercy of the elements, especially water. During her visit, de Beauvoir was caught in a torrential downpour. She had never seen such rain:

"It was a revolt in the heavens, a convulsion of the earth. The world sobbed in desperation, sobbed to the point of death, yet knowing it could not die, and that it would always have as many tears to shed. . . . We waited for the coming of a final night when the world would be overwhelmed."

De Beauvoir’s storm passed by harmlessly, but in the night and early morning of August 29, 2005, hurricane Katrina brought an unprecedented deluge that did indeed overwhelm New Orleans. The inadequate levees were breached and 80 per cent of the city was flooded. It destroyed 124,000 homes and displaced a million people. The cost of the uninsured damage alone was at least $55 billion. According to Stephen Verderber, "New Orleans suffered as nearly a fatal blow as any American city has ever experienced". The low-lying areas were the worst affected, and these tended to be where the poorest people lived, some of the most disadvantaged in the United States. The median family income here was just two thirds of the national average. As Katrina’s stinking floodwaters slowly receded, they exposed the wounds of a society still riven by deep divisions of race and class. As Verderber says, "it took a natural catastrophe for Americans to wake up to the social and racial condition of America’s cities".

New Orleans, the Big Easy, is an ancient city by North American standards, but it is also one of the most impoverished and poorly governed in America. As Richard Ford wrote just after Katrina had done her worst, New Orleans is "our great, iconic city, so graceful, livable, insular, self-delighted, eccentric, the one Tennessee Williams believed care forgot and that sometimes – it might seem – forgot to care".

In 2005, Verderber had been teaching at the School of Architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans for twenty years. In the months before the hurricane, he had begun photographing his city for a book on the relation between twentieth-century architecture and New Orleans’s "inimitable cultural gumbo", the unique folk or "roots" architecture of this "most African of all cities in the United States". It was, says Verderber, "a genuinely delirious" experience: "delirious behaviour – and by extension, delirious places – after all, had always been elevated to the status of civic virtue in New Orleans".

He had photographed a hundred places by the time the hurricane struck. He returned ten days after the hurricane to find the familiar cityscape transformed: "the mold-infested stench of the toxic waters that engulfed everything in and around my home remains vivid to this day." Much of what he had been documenting had already been destroyed or was threatened by the flood waters. As he surveyed the damage, the purpose of his book changed from a work of documentation, a scholarly essay on architectural form, to an urgent plea to save a culture whose future remains precarious. Verderber’s impassioned account of his unsuccessful attempt to save the modernist "masterpiece" St Francis Xavier Cabrini Church in Gentilly from the bulldozers shows that it is not just the forces of nature that threaten the city. The developers are coming.

Delirious New Orleans begins with a photo essay of before and after photographs documenting signs, murals and roadside architecture: a "colorful, intricately detailed billboard" of a chef stirring a vat of spicy red sauce that had stood on the roof of Baumer Foods since 1954; a larger-than-life sign on the side of a hardware store depicting a girl straddling an immense adjustable wrench ("vintage cheesecake" from the 1950s, says Verderber: "feminists in most large cities would most likely have long ago demanded the removal of a sign like this"); Frostop Drive-Ins with their "iconic" root beer mugs; a mural to rapper Soulja Slim, who was gunned down in 2003; a neon sign for Haydel’s Flowers that was a landmark for over sixty years on South Claiborne Avenue, described here as "sublime" and "a work of art". This sign vanished six months after Katrina, as have many others. Those murals and shop-fronts that remain are etched with a horizontal line from the receding water, like scum in a dirty bath. Verderber’s images, taken just months before Katrina, have a power and a resonance the photographer could not have predicted when he took them.

Just as Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York (1978) attempted to crystalize the essence of New York ("Manhattanism") to grasp the nature of modern urbanism, so Verderber believes there are lessons here for all cities: "New Orleans is undoubtedly among the greatest American cities for the study of architecture and urbanism". As well as providing a superb record of New Orleans’s endangered urban fabric, Delirious New Orleans is also a meditation on "placemaking", something he feels modern architects and town planners have ignored: "buildings are about emotion, memory, and spirit as much as about bricks and mortar". Nothing is more expressive of the spirit of New Orleans than its music, whether it be jazz, hip-hop or gangsta rap. Verderber compares vernacular or folk architecture to pop music in its use of "memorable visual, spatial, and sonic ‘hooks’ not unlike a melody or chorus you can’t shake from your head". Unsurprisingly, in the city of Mardi Gras, it is the "soulful, funky, and hip-hop architecture and artworks" of the predominantly black neighbourhoods that provide the inspiration for New Orleans’s uniquely vibrant built environment. For Verderber, this is "outsider" architecture at its most pure and expressive, "on-our-own" structures that celebrate the everyday, and which are authentic "shrines to the human struggle for self-empowerment".

This architectural musicality, essential to the creation of a sense of place, is particularly evident in the restaurants and cafés of New Orleans. Verderber describes the iconography of eateries, from drive-in restaurants (Popeyes Chicken restaurant chain began in New Orleans in 1972), and the Lucky Dog hot-dog pushcarts that thronged the Vieux Carré in the 1940s but are now disappearing, to the ubiquitous sno-ball stands. The unbearable humidity of New Orleans meant that every neighbourhood had a stand selling those cones of ice flakes covered with flavoured syrup. For Verderber, the sno-ball stand – often decorated with hand-painted murals – is the perfect expression of the musicality that he finds so inspirational in New Orleans, a witty and authentic contribution to the history of American urban folk architecture.

Verderber’s evocative, even loving, descriptions of these structures and artefacts and his striking images create a memorable celebration of the built environment of New Orleans and reflect a deep understanding of place. He hopes his study is not a eulogy but a blueprint for a soon-to-be-reborn city. Murals, billboards, sno-ball stands – these are vital to the soul of New Orleans. He believes that "above all, Katrina magnified the importance of hanging onto that which is authentic in our lives". If New Oreans is rebuilt according to some New Urbanist, neo-nineteenth-century vision of the supposedly ideal middle-class city then this "delirious place" will be truly ruined. Like de Beauvoir, Verderber knows that the soul of New Orleans is unique and fragile. The city has always been a haven for refugees from the blandness of suburbanized America, with its "placeless" malls packed with generic franchises. Whether it continues to fulfil this role in the future will depend on whether the authorities listen to the communities they are supposed to represent and to "preservation warriors" such as Verderber; and whether placemaking triumphs over placelessness.

[NB. This may differ slightly from the published review.]