New Orleans: Black, White, and in Color

November 29, 2013

I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races.  I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.

   
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored.  I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.

One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere.  Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all.  I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t  integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way.  At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town.  I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.

As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out.  And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands.  The level of the musicianship is amazing!  At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.

New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing:  the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place.  The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule.  Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse.  Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.

Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico.  I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.

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Levee is French for raised up.  That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side.  The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation.  The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture.  The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves.  None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.

levy

New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense.  Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.

The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere.  We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river.  (More on that later.)  The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.

jungle

 

crea creole

bywater

In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.

faulkner boney

In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.

cypress

This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics.  The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online.  He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level.  These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level.  Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development.  The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.

This effect is seen in many places around the world:  In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them.  As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters.  When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking.  In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work.  But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!

Oh, and a word about those cemeteries.  Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial.  Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level!  Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.

The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world:  the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley.  In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers.  The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows.  The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side.  New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.

And on a happier note:


At 30,000 feet, again…

July 23, 2012

Last year, I posted about my trip to a work-related conference in San Diego, and my view of the Mississippi River system flooding I saw from the plane:  Well, I’m back.  I flew over the same terrain, and the damage of the flooding was apparent from the air.  You can see how the neat patchwork pattern of the agricultural areas has been smudged with the debris and sediment from last years flood.

Other themes of that post are recurring:  animation for one.  Then I was reading about Muybridge, friend of Leland Stanford, who did the first time-series images of a running horse.  I took a class on programming for Flex – fascinating, eh? – and sat next to a woman who works at Stanford.  Wow!  And at the museum of art, I bought a kit to make a zoetrope.  I just can’t escape myself.  The content for the toy was printed in the Sunday supplements of newspapers in the 1890s.

In my class, as I fiddle with code and talk of servers, map-services, instantiating queries, and so on, I think of the vast industry that has grown up to move large amounts of data, including the cartographic data with which I am concerned, over the Internet to consumers.  Yes, we are ‘consumers’ of map-services.  It’s as good a term as any, but does anyone wonder about how we all got to be consumers…of everything?  I get distracted by the sociology of the IT industry, and lose my place in the flow of the programming…

I took some time off to visit Balboa Park’s museums.  San Diego has something to offer other than sunshine and conventions, but it’s certainly not good coffee!  Next to the San Diego Museum of Art, where I saw a nice exhibit on German Expressionism, I visited the Timkin Museum, for free!  It’s a small collection, but there are a couple of knockout pieces of Sienese art of which I was unaware.  I particularly like the representation of the Trinity in the center of the second piece below, by Niccolo di Tomme. (Click to enlarge the images.)

Then there was this wonderful portrait by an artist I’d never see, clearly influenced by Leonardo, and newly discovered portrait by van Dyck.  The fabric and the hand seem pure Anthony van.

While shopping the museum store, I came upon a book about Yinka Shonibare, MBE, another new one for me.  He was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and now is back in the UK, producing installations, ‘paintings’, and sculpture that are filled with sly and not-so-subtle, but very exuberant, send-ups and skewerings of European culture, colonial and otherwise.  Turns out, his stuff is on exhibit there, so now I have to get back before I return to NJ.


Good morning, Irene

August 27, 2011

Too late, now!

click for info


Delta Blues

May 7, 2011

Scary times these days along the muddiest of waters, the Mississippi River, as it gets ready to top the historic flood levels of 1927.  The article linked above highlights the fears for the Delta area of the river, which is also the home to the blues, that distinctly American form of popular music developed by Afro-American sharecroppers after the Civil War.  The style migrated north with blacks fleeing Jim Crow and seeking economic opportunity, and it hooked up with electricity in the Chicago Style, of which Muddy Waters is one of the most famous artists.  From there, after WWII, it found its way to the UK and southern, white, urban performers such as Elvis Presley, and thence to rock ‘n’ roll, rock, heavy metal, and beyond, and finally back to roots revival.

The Delta area is not the actual fluvial delta of the Mississippi River, i.e, the place where it discharges into the Gulf of Mexico and creates the bird-foot patters of sediment.  It’s actually upstream where the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers converge, including the point where the state boundaries of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas meet.

For an engineer with an interest in hydraulics and geography, there’s nothing like a good flood, and I follow the news stories on them closely.  Those who don’t have my technical interest might find John McPhee’s chapter on the Mississippi in his book, The Control of Nature, compelling.


Blast on the Levee

May 3, 2011

Last night, the Corps of Engineers blew a hole in the Birds Point Levee to allow the Mississippi to discharge into a huge, flat area of farmland.  The outlet is intended to cause the river level to drop, protecting the town of Cairo, IL, and relieving stress on downstream levees during this time of torrential Spring rains.

The image below shows the western levee (yellow line) that forms the boundary of the floodway area which extends eastwards from there to the Mississippi.  The dynamiting of the levee was part of a plan, used once before in the 1930s, after the floodway was constructed in response to the disastrous flood of 1927.

Naturally, the few hundred people who live and work in the floodway were not pleased with the decision of the Corps, and the plan was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.  Ahem…why were they living there?  The government had purchased flood easements from them.  As this blogger notes

… noted that state and local policy in Missouri, which somehow allowed about 100 houses to be built in the floodway, shares blame.  In the 1980’s I worked as a river scientist in Missouri.  I ran into strong Libertarian leanings, and some of the most hard-core of those folks farm land protected by big Federal levees.  Who want government to leave them alone.

Yes, the feds should spend millions to protect the land, pay for easements, but never, ever carry out a plan that is part of the original purpose of the levees in the first place.  Libertarian sentiment dovetails nicely with self-interest.

Photo by Jeff Roberson/Associated Press


Happy new decade!

January 1, 2010

And a reminder of the last time the numbers rolled over, when we were gripped by Y2K hysteria.  Yep, things are always going to the dogs.  As you know, the End is always nigh! And everything good is disappearing…

Along those lines, we have a pre-New Year’s lament by a less realistic writer who is convinced that, as Yogi said once, “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”  Add this to the growing list of Friedman-esque, the-world-is-flat fantasies that place no longer matters, just because it matters differently than it used to.


Silent Sea, Salton Sea

March 27, 2009

salton_seasized salton_sea_tilapia-791657

When I was in school, I picked off the shelf a copy of Oriental Despotism:  A Comparative Study of Total Power by Karl Wittfogel and learned of his thesis, not widely shared today, that this sort of government has its foundation in something he called hydraualic civilization. These are societies that depend for their existence on huge, government directed irrigation works.  My imagination was set on fire by the notion of what I later termed “Hydrologic Radicalism.”

Today, this sort of radical engineering is not in favor, not after the disasters of the Aswan Dam, the killing and disappearing of the Aral Sea, and the use, re-use, and use-again of the Colorado River until the unfortunate Mexicans are left with only a salty, meagre trickle into the Gulf of Baja California where once a life-giving torrent flowed.  Treaty be damned!

My interest in Big Water, most familiar to the general public via Roman Polanski’s film “Chinatown,” led me to the Salton Sea.

saltonmsnmap2

This enormous inland lake lies east of San Diego on the other side of some mountains the make that entire region a desert.  The Salton Sea submerged the Salton Sink, which was the lowest point in North America before that, a place of honor now held by Death Valley.  When I was a boy, the Sea was still a resort destination in the winter, a place for the Rat Pack glitterati to boat and fish and drink when they tired of nearby Palm Springs.  My interest in it was piqued recently when I read about Albert Frey, an architect who designed in the Desert Modern Style, and built the Salton Sea Yacht Club.

salton_sea_yachtThis modernist paradise has seen better days.  You can see a very nice val_kilmer_deborah_kara_unger_salton_sea_001assortment of ghost town photos of the area on flickr, here.  The decay of the area, precipitous since the 1970s, made it a good setting for the neo-noir film, “Salton Sea,” with Val Kilmer in the lead.  Vincent D’Onfronio plays a meth lab monster who lost his nose to drug snorting and earned the nickname, Pooh Bear.  He’s pretty creepy.

 

caljsiol_sio1ca175_113_017So how did this dead sea come to be?  The satellite image at the top tells the story.  The dense patchwork of rectangles at the north and south end of the Sea are irrigated agricultural fields.  The southern area is known as the Imperial Valley, one of the most productive industrial agricultural sites in the world.   Desert soil is often very rich growing material – to make it bloom, just add water.  Some real estate types had been eyeing the locale for decades when a successful canal building venture was finally launched, and settlers were drawn from across the world to settle and farm the valley.   In the course of building this Garden of Eden, there was a slight miscalculation regarding the construction of the hydraulic gates and barriers.

There was unusually high water in one of the tributaries, and the works failed.  Water will seek a low point, and the entire flow of the mighty Colorado River rushed in with a torrential vengeance.  The cascade created some low waterfalls which were washing away the soil “like powdered sugar,” and they began backcutting the stream bed at nearly a 4000 feet each day, i.e. , the falls were moving upstream at that rate.  Crowds turned out to watch this “cosmical plunge of a great river.”  Parallels to the Biblical Flood and the results of man’s hubris were on everyone’s lips.  The Sink was filling up at a rate of  a half-foot a day.  More than four times the volume of soil removed for the Panama Canal was washed away.  Radical, man!  You can read all about it in this paper I wrote for a master’s level class in geography.

When it was filled, everyone thought the Salton Sea would just evaporate away on its own, but it didn’t.  The drainage from the vast irrigated fields surrounding it, and from some springs to the north of it, kept it filled.  Someone had the bright idea in the 40s to turn it into a desert resort after WWII, and it flourished for a while.  Like the Dead Sea in Israel, however, it has no outlet, and stuff just accumulates in it over time.  This includes salt, fertilizer, pesticide, and other chemcials that feed algae and make life for fish unpleasant.  The large population of fish that grew from some initial stocks began to die off, and the Sea became the stinking stagnant mess it is today.  Plans are floated now and then to clean it up, but prospects are dim as it would be a very big and expensive job, with uncertain results.

Stop by sometime when you’re cruising through So. Cal. and you want to see and smell something different!

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