Real places, not displacement

Daniel Herriges just returned from a visit to New Orleans, and comes to the same realization that so many of us do intuitively when we visit historic towns and downtowns, namely that “we used to do this everywhere:”

I just got back from a few days in New Orleans, where I stayed—as most tourists to that city do—in the French Quarter. The name is actually a misnomer from the particular perspective of an urban planner: most of the historic architecture in the French quarter dates to a period of Spanish rule from 1763-1801, and much of the urban design suggests a strong Spanish influence.

The French Quarter is one of the North American continent’s most treasured tourist destinations. Tennessee Williams once said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” (Apologies to Cleveland, which I hear rocks.) The Quarter, to many visitors, feels as impeccably master-designed and curated as Disneyland. This perception is understandable but wrong.

It brings me to something I find North Americans in particular need to remind ourselves of. We’re accustomed to environments built at the scale of the automobile, and to places where everything about the buildings suggests impermanence. When we vacation somewhere like the French Quarter, many of us slip into the false belief that a place like this—oriented to the pedestrian, with lavish attention to detail in public spaces and an overwhelming sense of place—is by necessity a tourist destination. It’s a novelty. You visit it, you love it, but who would ever try to replicate it in the places we go about our everyday lives? Impractical, surely. Too expensive, surely. Pretentious, even.

That view says so much about where we’ve gone wrong in how we build—and maintain—our places. …

There’s something I think more of us than not genuinely do crave about a traditionally-developed city built at a human scale. James Kunstler famously observed that Disney theme parks more or less replicate this pattern. So do college campuses and, in their own way, malls.

And of course, countless millions vacation every year in New Orleans and Savannah and Charleston and Santa Fe and so forth. But these places’ historic districts represent a pattern of building that we’ve made so scarce that it is now mostly reserved for tourists, and the very wealthy who can live in such unique neighborhoods. In the vast majority of the places that used to be this way, we’ve torn down half or more of the buildings for parking lots, lost others to disuse, hollowed out the economy in the name of pop-up strip-mall growth on the edge of town.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Visit the French Quarter and marvel at it because it’s the exception. But walk away from it wondering why it isn’t the rule.

In “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” he reads from his poetry at one point (or maybe it’s only in the trailer, I’m not sure) that too much of modernity is characterized not by the human person in any particular place, but by dis-placement, literally un-placemaking as we transform the American countryside into derivative suburbia that has no center, no public square, and at its heart no shared life.

Wendell Berry has been a champion of the traditional life of the American farmer, and we need a champion of the traditional life of the American community—as a place defined by people and the life they share.

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