Using Historic Preservation Laws to Halt the Destruction of 'Porch Culture' in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans
14 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2015
Date Written: July 12, 2015
One Saturday in May, 2014, I visited the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans with a group of my law students. The students had spent Monday through Friday volunteering with pro bono legal service providers throughout the City as part of the Law School’s annual mission trip and were going to spend that Saturday working on some rebuilding projects in the Lower Ninth Ward — an area that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was still struggling to rebound.
While shuttling students between job sites, I was shocked to see a number of newly built houses that looked as if they had been dropped from outer space into the middle of the “Lower Nine.” They had oddly angled roofs with solar panels, swooping overhangs, and, in some cases, the entryways were more than a story above ground. I later learned that these houses had been built by actor Brad Pitt’s organization, Make It Right. They seemed to me to be grotesque caricatures of the Greek revival, Italianate, Creole cottages, and shotgun houses that had previously occupied the landscape. My sentiments were echoed by those of experts who had also made post-Katrina pilgrimages to the Lower Ninth Ward to observe or participate in rebuilding efforts. One architect recounted his dismay: When I visited New Orleans last fall, there was no way to prepare myself for the despair I felt when walking through the Lower 9th Ward, even 6 years after the storm . . . . A vacuum of leadership at every level has left the task of “salvation” to celebrities, and their private celebrity architects — with projects that are an exercise of vanity over practicality. What was most dismaying was seeing “celebrity architecture” masquerading as sustainable housing . . . . Are we seriously expected to believe that a handful of LEED houses will somehow create a template for the future, even while the architecture itself destroys the porch culture that formerly characterized the close-knit social life of the neighborhood? Whose intentions are really more important? I would add to the speaker’s questions an additional one: once the more important intentions are identified, how might historic preservation law aid in effectuating those intentions?
In Part I of this Article, I argue that rebuilding approaches like Make It Right’s — approaches that admittedly seek to “change the way buildings are designed and built” — often fail to adhere to cultural and historical norms. This failure misses an opportunity to preserve the history of a community — one of the essential functions of historic preservation. In advocating for a larger role for historic preservation law in post-disaster rebuilding, I also explore the history of the Ninth Ward, the nature of pre-Katrina activism in this predominantly African-American community, and the role of place and space in that activism, as typified by the role of the front porch and the development of “porch culture.” I explore these issues by harkening back to the roots of African American homeownership in New Orleans — roots that extend to the legacy of real property ownership established by antebellum free women of color. In Part III of this Article, I examine the City of New Orleans’s current historic preservation mechanisms and posit that in instances of complete destruction or widespread devastation, existing historic preservation ordinances and processes must apply not just to pre-designated historic districts, but also to entire neighborhoods. I argue that such a regulatory scheme is necessary to maintain neighborhood integrity in the face of widespread destruction, such as that wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Keywords: property, historic preservation, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Lower Ninth Ward, Porch Culture Porches
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