Old Perspectives on New Orleans
Shannon Lee Dawdy ’88 had seen this all before: city neighborhoods devastated, a daunting job of rebuilding to come. The difference was that previously she had known New Orleans through its historic disasters. This time, she was unearthing the evidence of her favorite city’s troubles in contemporary times.
Dawdy is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago and has done much of her archaeological fieldwork in New Orleans. Between October and December 2005, she served as a liaison between FEMA and Louisiana’s office of historic preservation, helping to develop a database that incorporates historic maps of the city over the last 300 years and pinpoints archaeological sites and significant architecture. She’s also provided advice on how to connect preservation of New Orleans’ physical heritage with elements of its cultural heritage, such as Mardi Gras Indian traditions and jazz.
Dawdy says that being onsite right after Katrina allowed her to grasp “the archaeological perspective, the long-term view, that literally and figuratively, disasters are part of the ecology of New Orleans.” She says past disasters helped the city readapt to its environment. “New Orleans was wiped off the map twice in the eighteenth century,” she notes, “once by a hurricane and once by a fire. There was also a terrible yellow fever epidemic.” After each event, she says, residents rebuilt.
But this time there was a long gap between major disasters, and she speculates that some past lessons were lost. Building onto swampland, for example, is dangerous for a city below sea level, surrounded by a buffer of wetlands.
Spending time with friends in New Orleans has allowed Dawdy to reconstruct more vividly what she calls “the archaeology of emotion” surrounding past disasters. For instance, in the 1990s she excavated a trashpit from a New Orleans home that burned in the fire of 1788. Most of the artifacts she found in the pit were nearly new—they’d hardly been used. The house was very rapidly rebuilt, the contract signed within a week.
Now, following Katrina, she sees that there is a significant emotional context to the way people rebuild their structures and their lives. She tells of friends whose homes were lost to Hurricane Katrina: “They didn’t even want to look at their stuff,” she says. “They threw it all away or paid contractors to come and clear it out. After a disaster, the process of going through things item by item, bleaching, repairing, refinishing, is endless. It keeps one in a state of suspension between disaster and normalcy.”
In terms of historic preservation of buildings in New Orleans, Dawdy is relatively optimistic. “FEMA has been quite conservative,” she says, “erring on the side of repair and restoration” rather than rebuilding from the ground up. She is less sanguine about urban planning. “I’m extremely anxious about the lack of vision and political leadership,” she says. “In a way, the fact that the government can’t be relied on for help means that, difficult as it may be, the distinctive social fabric of New Orleans will be preserved, precisely because of the improvisational, grassroots nature of the approach that will have to fill the void.”