Roberta Brandes Gratz’s latest book, We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City, is a holistic urbanist triumph. A steady and clear mapping of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans and the subsequent havoc that the BP oil spill played on the region, Brandes Gratz establishes a new touchstone for the urbanist chronicler.
Brandes Gratz begins her book with a metaphor, but not just any metaphor. The Louisiana live oaks trees mirror the tenacity of New Orleans residents and reflects recovery with its fundamental use as a shade tree in the steamy region. Gratz’s power is that she has melded all the factors that make a city great: small, domestic-scale issues such as the need for fair housing, the operation and ethos of a thriving hospital, and the pros and cons of powerful educational institutions, along with the politicians and developers. This gumbo (sorry, couldn’t resist) of characters and institutions made for a remarkable rise from the ashes of Katrina. Brandes Gratz’s deft manipulation of the many scales of life in New Orleans brings a gravitas to the stories.
Brandes Gratz’s voice is one from the trenches of New York City activism, and her outlook on the series of events that shaped New Orleans after the storm brings to light some shocking consequences, including the apparently needless closing of the city’s historic and very well-run Charity Hospital, in an effort on the part of LSU to build a new suburban hospital outside the city. This and the demolition of sound and community-linked public housing units expose the city’s leaders as still working through the racist and classist issues of the 1950s. Both Charity Hospital and the public housing in Algiers were assessed as buildings able to be rehabilitated. RMJM/Hillier found that Charity, if renovated, would come in under budget because of how well-built the original building was. The Algiers housing units were well known as exemplary housing for the poor. Both were shuttered in an opportunistic attempt to place New Orleans’ problems out of sight and out of mind in the wake of the storm.
What Brandes Gratz does best is deep and thoughtful research; these types of urban issues should be heard. By pairing the Algiers housing with the issue of Charity Hospital, she creates a new era of historic preservation for Modernist institutional structures that New Orleans’ citizens are eager and willing to craft. Sadly, both projects lack a happy ending.
Neighborhood by neighborhood, Brandes Gratz gracefully analyses the particulars of demographics, identifies the small and large forces that bear down on the area, and then celebrates the highs and lows of the journey after the storm. Her manner of observing all types of neighborhoods makes this an invaluable text for urbanists. She debunks many myths about the neighborhoods in the Lower Ninth Ward. Evidently CNN reported that the income in the area was below the poverty level at the time of the storm. The reality is that it had an 80% owner occupancy rate, with 70% retirees. This demographic brings the income stats down, but doesn’t illuminate the very stable nature of the neighborhood – the Lower Ninth Ward is traditionally middle class.
Brandes Gratz’s other great success in her writing is the illustration of the metaphorical “handshake” that the natural world and the urban fabric make in New Orleans. From her original metaphor of the live oak tree to her extraordinary description of Bayou Bienvenue reclamation efforts, a new sustainable urbanism is defined.
As a major fan of New Orleans who followed the trails and trials of NOLA resident friends and colleague through recovery, I can honestly say that this is the book the citizens of New Orleans deserve and, in their invincible way, can use to create the city that they want.
Event: Oculus Book Talk: We’re Still Here Ya Bastards
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.21.15
Speakers: Roberta Brandes Gratz, Author, We’re Still Here Ya Bastards; and Gabriel Smith, FAIA, LEED AP, Director, Thomas Phifer and Partners
Organized by: AIANY Oculus Committee