Daily Archives: February 12, 2016

New Orleans – the newer city

One of the reasons that New Orleans is so different from other American cities is that has always been constrained.  Surrounded by Lake Ponchartrain (to the north) and low-lying swamps and marshes in every other direction, the whole metropolitan area encompasses only around 200 square miles, with a population of 1.2 million – approximately half that of Portland’s.  The constraints on New Orleans used to be even more extreme – the originally-settled areas on the ridges (about eight feet high) were only later supplemented by the close-in drained-swamp residential areas in the 19th century, and the more extensive sprawl (such as it is) is all from the postwar era.  So the center of the city feels compact and manageable, while having very imageable, distinct districts.

When the Americans began to move in after the Louisiana Purchase, they mainly left the Vieux Carre alone, and settled upriver, across Canal St.  Canal St. never had a canal, but it was planned for one, and so it is immensely wide.  It is a wonderful contrast to the rest of the city – you emerge from the narrow confines of the French Quarter to the bright, open expanse of Canal.     DSCF2648

The buildings form a continuous wall, there are streetcar tracks up the center, and a double row of palm trees.  Bright lights, traffic, tourist attractions and hotels – it is an entertaining and exciting space, one that says, this is a big city.  Also a tropical city – with its white facades and palm trees, Canal feels very different from the grey avenues of the north.  DSCF2041p  One of the two streetcar lines runs up Canal, and it is a joy.  The old cars are fabulous, and here as on St. Charles, you ride along experiencing the city as it goes by.  DSCF2034DSCF2822

Canal really comes into its own on Mardi Gras – all the large parades end up here, heading up one side of the neutral ground (median) and back down the other.  The scale of the street works with the large crowds and floats – it reminded me of Broadway in New York with the Thanksgiving parade.  DSCF2277  DSCF2265  DSCF2267

The end of Canal at the River is the center of tourist / convention madness.  Hotels, convention center, casino, aquarium – all the overscaled and blank buildings are here.  It works pretty well- these fairly standard dreadful buildings are clustered and have a minimal impact on the other neighborhoods.  You can just ignore this part of town if you don’t have to go there.  DSCF2032  DSCF2098

The rest of the downtown is blend of good old commercial buildings and standard mid-century towers.  DSCF2537DSCF3789

The more recent towers, spawned by the oil boom, are clustered upriver along Poydras Street.  DSCF3792  DSCF2058Overall, there is balance between the old and the newer – there are not many places where the gigantism and banality of recent decades takes over.  Although New Orleans’s first skyscraper, the Plaza Tower, is truly inept.  It is now empty, with asbestos and mold issues, and lawsuits apparently flying in every direction.  It’s so bad it might be worth keeping.  DSCF2626

Poydras St. is also the location of Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia. It’s a funny little thing – filling in an open space between a skyscraper and a parking lot.  Moore was obviously trying to construct  a place that could be inhabited, unlike the empty modernist plazas built to satisfy zoning ordinances, but the cards were stacked against him.  If the city fabric grew up densely around it, so that you emerged from a street into the plaza, it might work.  But the towers are pulled back, and one sees the Piazza from the outside as a disconnected object, not just as a surrounding screen from the inside.  DSCF2075The detailing is over-the-top Pomo, and is perhaps our best remnant of the movement spinning out of control.  DSCF2077

The elevated highways that ring the business district have done their damage, as everywhere else. The neighborhood of Treme was decimated, and the Uptown area to the west is cut off by a no-man’s land around the freeway.  DSCF2628

While the central business district has largely wiped out the early 19th century buildings there, some do survive, DSCF2633and the mix of old and new shifts as you move uptown, through the Lower Garden District and Central City areas into the Garden District.  DSCF1627

This side of town is served by the other streetcar line, along St. Charles.  The old cars are in fabulous condition, and a miles-long ride is one of the best ways to see the city.  DSCF2858This area is remarkable.  In some ways it looks more like other American cities, in that styles that were current in the late 19th century are all visible, but they are adapted to New Orleans.  There are a lot of Greek Revival houses, their large porticos well-suited to the climate.    DSCF1629DSCF1638  DSCF1657  DSCF1659 The wealth of the builders is apparent – whereas most of New Orleans’s older dense residential neighborhoods were working class in origin, in uptown there are many areas with large houses and big yards.

In general, as you move out from the city center in any direction, the density decreases, as neighborhoods begin to look more like those in other parts of the country, with detached houses sitting on lots of varying widths.  This happens in places as different as Mid-City,DSCF3558

in 20th century parts of GentillyDSCF3568

and in the Lower Ninth Ward.  DSCF1763

It’s a commonplace that New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the US;  this difference is seen most clearly when you’re near the city center – the house types, the block organization, the streetscapes – these are most different in the Vieux Carre, built before it was part of the US, and in the early 19th-century districts, when the local influences were most strong, and a national building culture hadn’t yet asserted itself.  The outskirts of the city are physically much like other old metropolitan areas, with ranch houses and strip centers.  But the New Orleans difference is apparent in another important way, even out in these newer areas:  in the culture of the city and the tenor of social life.  The way people live here is unlike anywhere else, even out on the edge.  They may have a Costco, but that Costco has an excellent liquor selection.

 

Glen Pitre

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I’ve been pretty good about staying in touch with friends from all the different phases of my life – this trip has included many friends made in high school, college, grad school, New York and Oregon.  But over the years a few good friendships have fallen away, mainly due to circumstance – long distances, people raising kids and getting busy, lack of an internet for staying in touch.  Chief among these friends was Glen Pitre – a dear friend from college whom I  hadn’t seen in 30 years.  Since college I’d been moving back and forth on the New York-Oregon axis, and Glen had been on the Louisiana-Los Angeles axis, so we’d just never intersected.  (Plus Glen has more friends than anyone I’ve ever known, so he probably can’t keep track of all of them.)  So a part of this trip I was really looking forward to was seeing Glen at home in Louisiana, a state I’d also never visited.

Glen and I met our third year in college, where we both lived in Leverett House.  Glen had taken a year off to work on a bicentennial documentary project, and when he returned a lot of his buddies had graduated, so he was looking for new people to hang out with.  Our backgrounds were nothing alike – I was the Catholic school kid from suburban New York, and he was the first Cajun to attend Harvard, having grown up on the bayou in Cut Off, Louisiana (a name I at first refused to believe was real).  We had both grown up messin’ around in boats, and we were probably also united by our majoring in the arts (me in art and architectural history, Glen in visual studies / photography / filmmaking), as we were surrounded by friends who were into government / economics / history.  We liked the same music, and Glen introduced me to Cajun music, including Cajun Country (which is like country music but better, as everything sounds better in French, and you can’t understand how dumb the lyrics are).

We did a lot of things together, such as staffing the house grill on Sunday nights – me cooking while Glen used his superior social skills to placate the customers.  Glen and I even managed to complete an animated movie together our senior year, a three-minute time-lapse film showing the growth of Boston, where he supplied the filmmaking know-how, and I supplied the historical research and physical drawing.  But mostly we hung out talking, occasionally munching on the dried shrimp he kept in his room.  I’d known some gregarious and friendly people in my life, but Glen outdoes them all – he seems to be friends with everyone.  My roommates and I once realized that if everyone sitting in the dining hall were able to knock off everyone else in the room they disliked, at the end Glen would be the only person left.

All this time Glen was steadily moving forward into his career.  He was an excellent photographer, and had free-lance gigs with the Times, the Boston Globe, etc.  When a local politician announced his candidacy for the US Senate, he hired Glen as his videographer (unfortunately, his campaign didn’t last beyond the campaign announcement, where he managed to mispronounce “impotent” a few times during his speech).  As Glen learned filmmaking, he immediately began writing and directing movies about Cajun life, most notably La Fievre Jaune, a dramatization about the 1897 yellow fever epidemic.  Glen made these movies on minuscule budgets, using his family and friends as the actors.  (His father turned out to have talent in this area, and continued on through more films.)  La Fievre Jaune was made while Glen was still in college, and launched him as the “father of Cajun cinema”.

Glen suggested that after college we might take a break from academic life and do some shrimp fishing – his family had an old boat that was sunk at their dock, and if we could raise it and put in a Chevy engine, we could spend the summer on the water.  When the time came, the price of shrimp was so low that it made no sense to invest anything in the enterprise, and we abandoned the idea.  Sometimes I think about how my life might have turned out differently if the price of shrimp had been higher in 1978.

Glen went back to Louisiana and began all the career threads he’s kept going since then:  photography, filmmaking (both documentary and feature), writing (screenplays, novels, guidebooks, articles, academic chapters), retail (selling Louisiana-related articles through a catalogue store), producing radio documentaries, and designing museum exhibits.  Most of my friends have heard me tell stories about my high school friend Jack, who has had literally at least ten different careers;  Glen is my only other friend who can compete.  The  difference is that Jack has moved all over the world as he’s pursued these lives, whereas all of Glen’s activities have been grounded in his home in Louisiana (except for excursions into Hollywood).  Glen has been teaching filmmaking at LSU for the past year and half, which he said was the longest gig he’s ever had in his life.  When I told him I’d had only two real jobs since grad school, he just stared at me.

Glen and  I got together a few times in the  80s.  He’d come up to Boston or New York on business, stay with me and my roommates, and ask if he could invite his friends over to dinner (and we should invite our friends too).  Then he would spend the whole day cooking – huge amounts of shrimp spaghetti or gumbo – and dozens of people would show up for a big party.  Glen had never lived in New York, but somehow he had more friends there than I did.  (Including a number of girlfriends.  Glen always awed me by being able to pull out his address book wherever he was, and find an old girlfriend to look up, who was always overjoyed to see him again.)  The last time he visited was in 1985 – he had finished shooting his first English-language, big-budget, Hollywood movie,  Belizaire the Cajun, and he was in New York for the editing.  We got to see the first cut in a screening room, and Glen’s stories of writing and directing a large, complex movie were riveting:  you walk onto the set, there’s hundreds of extras (including dozens of horses), the meter’s running, and everyone looks at you to tell them what to do.

While I moved on to teach in Oregon, Glen kept all these careers going, and spent more time in Los Angeles as his screenwriting continued.  He married the charming Michelle Benoit around 1990, and they have mostly worked together since then.  Michelle grew up in West Louisiana, and remarkably, has much the same set of professional skills and interests as Glen – writing, directing, producing, designing.  Perhaps even more surprising than their professional similarities are their temperamental ones – Michelle is one of the few people I’ve ever met who can match Glen’s extreme degree of gregariousness and charm.  She probably would have survived in the Leverett dining hall too.

Together they’ve completed a huge number of projects – feature movies, documentaries, and over 30 museum exhibit installations.  (More detail on all their various projects through the years can be found at their website, coteblanche.com.  It’s really interesting.)  They have great stories to tell of their lives and all the people they’ve met.  (A short story I have to relate because otherwise no one will ever write it down and it’s just too good:  Glen is heading to the bathroom in Los Angeles in a big old movie theatre that’s been converted to a multiplex, so the hallway has a slope.  He’s going a bit faster than he realizes, and as he goes to push on  the bathroom door, it swings open in front of him.  Glen stumbles in, falling on his hands and knees.  He looks up, and sees Mel Brooks holding the door handle.  Mel Brooks looks at him and says, “Pretty good, but you need to work on your timing.”)  I suggested to Greta that she should stick around New Orleans to be Glen’s Boswell;  she rolled her eyes.

For a while Glen and Michelle moved among New Orleans, Bayou LaFourche and Los Angeles, but in the past few years they’ve consolidated in New Orleans.  In the 1990s they bought a double shotgun house in the Marigny (the historic district right next to the French Quarter), which was configured in various ways to accommodate their living space, their office, and a rental apartment.  They now live in the back half while the front two apartments are for Glen’s mother (when she’s in town from her home in Cut Off), and an Airbnb.DSCF1554

Greta and I showed up in mid-January, and Glen wanted to know if we’d stick around for a week, as the Mardi Gras season was kicking into gear, and he would be having one of his big parties the next weekend when the Krewe de Vieux parade passed by the end of their block.  Remembering Glen’s prior culinary productions, I of course assented, and we moved into his mom’s apartment while she was out of town.   We got to help Glen cook for the party – Greta chopped all the onions for the venison and wild pig sauce picante and the carrot etouffe, and she will now be one of the few people in Oregon who knows any of the secrets of Cajun cuisine. We had an amazing time at this party, meeting many friends of Glen’s and Michelle’s whom we now think of as our friends too.  (The extraordinary lifestyle and people of New Orleans will be another blog post soon.)

DSCF3875The party was held in the vehicle bay of the old firehouse that Glen and Michelle bought about five years ago, which is right across the middle of the block from their house.  They undertook a massive renovation of the derelict 100-year-old building, and it now contains their offices, plus spaces they rent to writers, filmmakers, photographers, etc. (oldfirehousemandeville.)  It is a remarkable compound they have, a quiet enclave in the  middle of a bustling neighborhood, probably the most appealing urban living situation I’ve ever seen.DSCF1890

Greta and I both caught whatever virulent respiratory bug was going around in New Orleans, and were laid low with bronchitis for a week, taking antibiotics and venturing out only for excellent meals.  At this point we had been there for two weeks, and Glen said that since it was only another week until Mardi Gras, it would be silly of us to leave.  We couldn’t believe they didn’t want to get rid of us, but we took them at their word.  Glen’s mom came back to town, so we moved out of her apartment and back into our trailer, which we pushed through the firehouse into the courtyard.  DSCF3557We are now experts on urban camping, and it is the best.  Quiet, yet convenient, with interesting people, superb food and no mountain lions or bears.  No view of the mountains like I have sitting here in Moab, but it’s a good trade-off.

The next week leading up to Mardi Gras was mainly a series of parties being thrown by Glen and Michelle’s friends on the days when parades passed near their houses.  Mardi Gras arrived, and Glen and Michelle were the king and queen of the St. Anthony’s Ramblers, a day about which I’ve already posted at saint-anthonys-krewe and the-panorama-jazz-band-marches, but here is one irresistible photo of Glen leading the parade.  (I’ve since learned from other friends we made in New Orleans that when you need to find a photo of yourself for any reason, it’s hard to find one where you’re not in costume.)
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After this point, we were reluctant to leave New Orleans at all.  One of the best things while traveling this year has been knowing people in strange cities – instead of being a tourist seeing the sights, you have entree into the life of the city.  In New Orleans we had friends-by-association everywhere – we weren’t just getting to hang around with Glen and Michelle, but with their whole world.

But we did eventually have to hit the road.  First we saw a few last things we’d missed, including the exhibit on Katrina at the Presbytere Museum.  (Glen was also the co-director of an IMax movie called Hurricane on the Bayou, and was running two film crews in New Orleans in the aftermath of the flood.)  The exhibit was incredibly comprehensive about the causes, experiences and consequences of the two hurricanes in 2005.  Glen and Michelle designed quite a bit of the exhibit, including the final room, where a multi-media presentation using screens set in windows from demolished houses showed New Orleans residents talking about the meaning of their experiences.  DSCF3477

We spent four weeks in New Orleans, and we can’t wait to go back.  (I’m trying to find some academic conference that happens in New Orleans every year at Mardi Gras.)  It was wonderful to reconnect with such a good friend after so long, equally wonderful to meet his wife (who somehow feels like she’s been a friend for just as long), and wonderful to spend time in a previously-unknown city, that now feels like a home to us too.

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