Journaling New Orleans: Ten Years of the Big Easy in the JUH

 

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Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans, LA“, circa 1899, African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 2014, the literary journal/magazine n+1 released the edited collection, City by City; a series of short vignettes from urban writers reflecting on the state of the nation’s metropolises. To its credit, the anthology included cities like Fresno and regions like Northern Kentucky, so it gave voice to oft ignored metropolitan areas. Moira Donegan’s piece on New Orleans not only serves as an example of the book’s larger whole, it also offers some guidance for understanding the Journal of Urban History’s effort to cover the city since Katrina.

Donegan had moved to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and after graduating from college. She snagged a position working for Americorps at a food bank in the city, but sold merch on the side at music clubs on Frenchman Street to supplement her income and one assumes, to get a broader feel for the city in the process. The city seduces tourists and residents alike, “it tricks you into participating in its own mythology in ways that you don’t expect it to” she confessed. It largely still looks like it does in film. The broad oak lined avenues, the historic buildings, and gas streetlamps are just a few examples.

New Orleans La [Street scene showing 4 children and an African American man watching another African American man with a hurdy-gurdy
New Orleans, LA [Street Scene showing four children and African American man watching another African American man with a hurdy gurdy“, photo by Arnold Genthe, circa 1920-1924, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Donegan arrived just in time to witness Hurricane Isaac and, unsurprisingly, fatalistic locals told her the city would inevitably flood again “worse than it did in 2005.” Though the fatalism of residents seems to stretch back to its founding, as Lawrence Powell and other have suggested, the New Orleans Donegan encountered was a different city in other ways: “the heavy lifting of hurricane recovery was done and the steady push of gentrification had changed much of the city,” she wrote. The Winn-Dixie sold kale, and cupcake-only bakeries now existed. “After Katrina, New Orleans became a place where some people could live as yuppies. When the city was rebuilt, it was rebuilt largely in these people’s image.” Visitors to the Big Easy, she observed, descended on the city for two reasons: “to perform charity or party.” Each shaped its reformation.

The Katrina tours that became so morbidly popular rankled Donegan as much as they did everyone else in New Orleans, but though she wanted to rage at the night for such indignities, the fact was she “didn’t have much claim to.” Her interaction with the Big Easy had been framed by volunteerism and non-profit work, the focus being on solving its pathologies. “This was starting to feel like voluntary rubbernecking … Places are filled with all kinds of self defeating contradictions and in New Orleans one of the most potent was that many of the people who had come to help the city were also hurting it.”

[Large crowd gathered to hear Booker T. Washington speak, with men standing on railroad box cars in the background, New Orleans, Louisiana]
Large Crowd gathered to hear Booker T. Washington speak, with men standing on railroad cars in background, New Orleans, LA“, photograph by A.P. Bedou, circa 1912, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Urban historians hope to avoid falling into such traps; how successful such endeavors are probably depends on numerous factors. Since 2005, Katrina sometimes feels as if it has sucked the air out of any discussion of the city. Scholarship and popular culture understandably focuses on the natural disaster and political tragedy (after all the levees could and should have been fixed). Indeed, beyond those lives lost in its path and the heartbreak of locales who managed to survive, Katrina had national implications. Undoubtedly, numerous works have examined the city’s history beyond Katrina: the aforementioned Powell’s 2012 work The Accidental City, Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness (2014), Emily Clark’s The Strange History of the American Quadroon (2013), and Raushana Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis (2016) among numerous other examples.

Over the past ten years, the Journal of Urban History has, of course, published several essays that relate in some way to 2005, including a special issue in 2009 dedicated to the subject (the Journal of American History did the same in 2007). However, rather than rubbernecking at disaster, the JUH, JAH, and others have tried to use the hurricane to situate the city’s longer history; Katrina as organizing principle rather than a principle unto itself.

Below is a listing of articles and reviews essays published in JUH since 2007. Please keep in mind, you might need to login into your UHA account at urbanhistory.org and then cut and past the link into the browser to access the PDF (this will all depend on your browser, be warned that Safari works about as well you would expect it.)

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A Levee at Night – Electric Light Illumination, Sketches on the Levee, New Orleans“, wood engraving by J.O. Davidson, March 1883, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Journal of Urban History articles 2007-2017

David Benac, “The New Orleans Lakefront: Nostalgia and the Fate of New Urbanism”, Journal of Urban History 41.3 (2015): 388-403.

Farah D. Gafford, “’It Was a Real Village’: Community Identity Formation among Black Middle-Class Residents in Pontchartrain Park”, Journal of Urban History 39.1: 36-58.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Children of Omar: Resistance and Reliance in the Expressive Cultures of Black New Orleans Cultures”, Journal of Urban History, 35.5 (July 2009): 656-667.

New Orleans Jazzman
Jazzman, New Orleans, LA“, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, circa 1980 – 2006, Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Arnold Hirsch, “Almost a Closer Walk with Thee: Historical Reflections on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 614-626.

Arnold Hirsch and A. Lee Levert, “The Katrina Conspiracies: The Problem of Trust in Rebuilding an American City”, Journal of Urban History 35.2 (January 2009): 207-219.

Ari Kelman, “Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Rumors of Levee Sabotage in New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 627-639.

Anja Nadine Klopfer, “’Choosing to Stay’: Hurricane Katrina Narratives and the History of Claiming Place Knowledge in New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 43.1 (2017): 115-139.

Scott P. Marler, “’A Monument to Commercial Isolation’: Merchants and the Economic Decline of Post– Civil War New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 36.4: 507 – 527.

Elizabeth C. Neidenback, “’Refugee from St. Domingue Living in This City’: The Geography of Social Networks in Testaments of Refugee Free Women of Color in New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 42.5 (August 2016).

Danille K. Taylor, “Chocolate City’: Personal Reflections from New Orleans, August 29, 2006”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 668 – 674.

Clarence Taylor, “Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of the Post–Civil Rights Era”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 640-655.

Joe W.Trotter and Laura Fernandez, “Hurricane Katrina: Urban History from the Eye of the Storm”, Journal of Urban History 35.5 (July 2009): 607-613.

 

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Dixieland Jazz Band on Bourbon Street, New Orleans“, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, circa 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Review Essays

Carolyn Goldsby Colb, “Rhythm and Race: Riffs on New Orleans History”, Journal of Urban History 40.1 (2014): 201-206.

Sandra M. Frink, “Searching for the City in the Past: The Many Histories of New Orleans”, Journal of Urban History 35.4 (May 2009): 578-588.

Christopher E. Manning, “Voices from the Storm”, Journal of Urban History 40.2 (2014): 407-414.

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