Like so many others, I have long been a visitor to New Orleans. In my case, the first visit was 1979, when we studied the city to influence the design of the new town of Seaside. I have been back often – for New Orleans is one of the best places to learn architecture and urbanism in the United States. My emphasis on design might seem unusual, but it shouldn't be, for the design of New Orleans possesses a unique quality and character comparable to the music and the cuisine that receives most of the attention.
During those visits, sadly, I did not get to know the people – not really. The New Orleanians I met were doing their jobs but not necessarily being themselves. Such is the experience of the tourist.
This all changed when Katrina brought me back in the role of planner. Engaging the planning process brought me face to face with the reality.
Apart from the misconceptions of the tourist, I had also been predisposed by the media to think of New Orleans in a certain way: as a charming, but lackadaisical and fundamentally misgoverned place long subjected to unwarranted devastation, with a great deal of anger and resentment as a result. That is indeed what I found at first; but as I engaged in the planning process I came to realize that this anger was relative. It was much less, for example, than the bitterness that one encounters in the typical California city with nothing more than traffic gripes. The people of New Orleans have an underlying sweetness, a sense of humor, and irony, and graciousness that is never far below the surface. These were not hard people.
Pondering this one day, I had an additional insight. I remember specifically when on a street in the Marigny I came upon a colorful little house framed by banana trees. I thought, "This is Cuba," (I am Cuban). I realized in that instant that New Orleans is not really an American city, but rather a Caribbean one.
Looking through the lens of the Caribbean, New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities. This insight was fundamental because from that moment I understood New Orleans and began to truly sympathize. Like everyone, I found government in this city to be a bit random; but if New Orleans were to be governed as efficiently as, say, Minneapolis, it would be a different place – and not one that I could care for. Let me work with the government the way it is.
It is the human flaw that makes New Orleans the most humane of American cities. (New Orleans came to feel so much like Cuba that I was driven to buy a house in the Marigny as a surrogate for my inaccessible Santiago de Cuba.)
When understood as Caribbean, New Orleans' culture seems ever more precious – and more vulnerable to the effects of Katrina. Anxiety about cultural loss is not new. There has been a great deal of anguish regarding the diminishment of the black population, and how without it New Orleans could not regain itself.
But I fear that the city’s situation is far more dire and less controllable. Even if the majority of the population does return to reinhabit its neighborhoods, it will not mean that New Orleans – or at least the culture of New Orleans – will be back. The reason is not political, but technical. You see, the lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. Entering the damaged and abandoned houses you can still see what they were like before the hurricane. These houses were exceedingly inexpensive to live in. They were houses that were hand built by people's parents and grandparents, or by small builders paid in cash or by barter.
Most of these simple, and surprisingly pleasant, houses were paid off. They had to be, because they do not meet any sort of code, and are therefore not mortgageable by current standards.
I think that it was possible to sustain the culture unique to New Orleans because housing costs were minimal. These houses liberated people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure.
There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to rehearse music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and time to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time lies in a light financial burden. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends – life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be dismissed as laziness or poverty, but as a way of life.
This ease, so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement.
This is the way of living that may now disappear. Even with the Federal funds for new housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now.
If nothing else, the higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb, but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few "paid off" houses. Everyone will have a mortgage, which will need to be sustained by hard work – and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.
What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated. The hurdle of drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections – the professionalism of it all – eliminates grassroots ‘bottom up’ rebuilding.
Somehow there must be a process whereupon people can build simple, functional houses for themselves, either by themselves, or by barter with professionals.
There must be free house designs that can be built in small stages, and that do not require an architect, complicated permits, or inspections. There must be common sense technical standards. Without this, there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn't mean owing money, it means destroying a culture that arises from lower costs and leisure.
To start, I would recommend an experimental "opt-out zone." Create areas where one "contracts out" of the current American system, which consists of the nanny-state raising standards so expensive and complicated that only the nanny-state can provide affordable housing. The state thus creates a problem and then offers the only solution.
However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently, this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough – so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted.
We must return to this as an option.
Of course, this is not for everybody. There are plenty of people in New Orleans who work in conventional ways at conventional times. But the culture of this city does not flow from them; they may provide the backbone of New Orleans, but not its heart.
See the attached file for a polemical draft for legislation that activates the thesis of the above essay.
Andrés Duany is a principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). DPZ is recognized as a leader of the New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to end suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment. In the years since the firm designed Seaside, Florida, in 1980, DPZ has completed plans for close to 300 new towns, regional plans, codes, and community revitalization projects.
Duany is the author of The New Civic Art and Suburban Nation. He is a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Established in 1993 with the mission of reforming urban growth patterns, the Congress has been characterized by The New York Times as "the most important collective architectural movement in the United States in the past fifty years."