(Re)Photography in the American South (Part One: New Orleans)

For a wide variety of reasons, postcards (specifically, antique ones) have been occupying a lot of my mental landscape recently. As I previously mentioned, a large collection of old ones landed in my lap last year. While I’ve been rotating the wheels in the arduous process of cataloging them, I’ve also had the assignment to review Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (2012; University of Illinois Press), an excellent history of that state patched together through postcards from the first half of the twentieth century, land in my lap as well. I’ll keep this blog posted as that unfolds, but for now, the book is providing me with great context for what I’ve been gathering through this particular collection, that of which spans from the early 1930’s through the mid-1940’s. 

The reason I haven’t been able to update this site too much lately was because I happened to be on a road trip across the Gulf Coast recently. Considering how much (Re)Photography has captured my fleeting interest over the past year, I did not miss my opportunity to track down a few of the locations in a few of my postcards and make some attempt to recreate the pictures. Today and Wednesday, I’ll be sharing a handful of arguably successful examples.

ROYAL STREET IN NEW ORLEANS’ FRENCH QUARTER

Postmarked Jan 17, 1941. The Caption: "Royal Street is known throughout the world for it's curio dealers, perfume shops and antique stores where one can find beautiful specimens of old furniture, jewelry, chinaware and ancient firearms. In early Creole days Rue Royal was the main street of the French City and along its narrow thoroughfare are clustered many historical buildings. Every block of Royal Street teems with interest. It is one of the most interesting streets because of the many old homes, priceless wrought-iron railings, quaint courtyards and lovely gardens."

Postmarked Jan 17, 1941. The Caption: “Royal Street is known throughout the world for it’s curio dealers, perfume shops and antique stores where one can find beautiful specimens of old furniture, jewelry, chinaware and ancient firearms. In early Creole days Rue Royal was the main street of the French City and along its narrow thoroughfare are clustered many historical buildings. Every block of Royal Street teems with interest. It is one of the most interesting streets because of the many old homes, priceless wrought-iron railings, quaint courtyards and lovely gardens.”

I’ve gone on record before saying that New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world, crumbling infrastructure, rampant corruption, sauna-like heat 10 months out of the year, and all. I wouldn’t disagree with the postcard’s label on the back declaring it “AMERICA’S MOST INTERESTING CITY” at all; at least, that’s what I call it to anybody who has not yet visited it. There is nowhere on earth I can imagine quite like it. Even outside of the French Quarter (or, as many would argue, primarily outside of the Quarter) you’ll find plenty of unique local flavor, particularly because there won’t be quite as many hundred thousands of tourists devouring it and driving up prices.

That being said, no trip to NOLA is complete without at least a leisurely walk through the French Quarter. Considering how ornate the city has made sure to keep almost all of the structures within the Quarter, it’s easy to forget how many people actually live within that section of the city. I can’t imagine life is particularly easy for anybody in the Big Easy, and especially so for those who live in that hallowed ground between Canal Street to the West and Frenchman St. to the East. Based on my limited experience, one piece of advice I’d give is to take a walk down Bourbon Street just to say you did- and then get the hell off of Bourbon Street. The Quarter actually has plenty of good local haunts that friends there have helped me discover, even along other such touristy thoroughfares like Royal Street. 

Last Sunday, I found myself with a little time to kill before finding a bar in which to watch the World Cup Final, so it occurred to me to pull out the postcard (above) from my bag, take a walk down Royal Street and see if I could spot where that illustration was made back in what I would assume was the 1920’s or 30’s, based on the mailing date of the postcard. I began on Canal Street, stopping into a hotel I once stayed at with my family in the late 90’s. I’d be lying if I said the pull of nostalgia outweighed the lure of functional air conditioning; although a storm had passed before I got to town, the humidity was still thick enough to make me pass out if I’d even tried chasing after a bus. I set down Royal Street for at least six blocks, pacing incrementally to study every lattice-work to compare it to the one on the postcard. I nearly interrupted two different tour guides to ask them if they either recognized the balcony or knew whether Royal had ever had a streetcar line (artists hired to illustrate places for postcards often took certain artistic license to complete their task of selling their employer’s city to outsiders; for all I knew, he/she could have been playing on outsiders’ attraction to streetcars, many of which were starting to disappear from American cities over the course of the 1940’s). In retrospect, I’m glad I chose not to be “that guy” and interrupt the tour guides and all of their patrons.

When I got to the corner of St. Ann, I turned around and looked up. There it was.

Picture 007I had landed upon a new set of challenges. I had no way of knowing if the restaurant owned or had any access to the balcony where the photographer stood when taking the picture on the postcard. The only way was to, as politely as possible, ask. I stepped into Pere Antoine and asked if I could speak to the manager. There turned out to be several around, as they were in the mid-afternoon shift change. One of them, Holly, politely told me how cool the postcard was, and regretfully, the second story were all private residences. The restaurant had access to the balcony, but only managers and nobody from the public were allowed on it. She offered to bring my camera up there and take a picture from that perspective for me, which was very generous. As I prepared to hand it to her, she stopped me and said, “wait a second. Let me find James.” James was the restaurant’s GM, and he nearly flipped when I showed him the postcard. He asked if he could scan it and email it to the restaurant’s owner. I pulled out a few other New Orleans and Louisiana souvenir packets from the late 30’s, and the restaurant’s whole staff eagerly gathered to look through them. James looked at Holly for a few seconds asking almost rhetorically if anyone would really mind if he escorted me up to the balcony. As he went to get his keys, I smiled to myself and thought, repeatedly: ‘This is why you ask. This is why you always ask.’

Picture 009

July 13, 2014.

Not bad. The planter (which James and I attempted to move, unsuccessfully) clearly was not in the photo illustration, and the Desire line (yes, that one) had long been torn out of the street below, and somebody covered the wooden structure with red stucco years ago, but otherwise, the block does not look a whole lot different than it did eighty years ago. James even pointed out that the yellow building on the opposite side of Royal, while the windows had been redone, was still yellow

Thank you again to the enthusiastic and courteous staff at Pere Antoine Restaurant for making this possible. I was more than happy to stay there to drink and watch the second half (and extra time!) of the match. I’ll definitely be stopping back through to say hello the next time I’m back in the Crescent City.

Before I end this entry, I’m going to include these bonus tracks of sorts. I actually had a moment of pause while searching for the postcard balcony (which was located at 741 Royal Street) while passing by a gorgeous building at 700 Royal. It turned out to be a three-story facility that remains one of the most-photographed buildings in New Orleans. After getting back to Knoxville, I checked my archives and was able to dig up a pair of photographs I took on that block in 1998. 

The Royal Cafe at 700 Royal Street in April 1998.

The Royal Cafe at 700 Royal Street in April 1998.

From what I can remember, I took this picture while on a walking tour of the area (the exact kind of tour I would come close to annoyingly interrupting sixteen years later). I remember fixating on the latticework and the hanging planters at the time; the latticework is still beautiful and the planters are no longer there. Also, the Royal Cafe, despite the best songwriting efforts of Mark Eitzel, closed down within the past decade, and I think there’s a tourist shop on the street level now. No idea how the upstairs spaces are being used. 

The 700 Block of Royal Street, April 1998.

The ??? Block of Royal Street, April 1998.

I believe I took this facing Northeast, farther West from that previous photo, considering the direction the cars are facing. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken more candid photos of people at that age; the benign inter-era fashions of the late 1990’s deserved more attention. Anyway, if you look farther down the street (provided this is still Royal Street, which I think it is) you can faintly spot the corner of St. Ann.

It’d be interesting to compare the palimpsest landscape of certain New Orleans neighborhoods to one another, hurricane destruction notwithstanding. Businesses and residents come and go in the French Quarter much like any commercially-zoned area, and like most historically-protected area, the city suppresses any major changes. This dynamic probably formulates the bread and butter of New Orleans more so than any major American city (though that conversation also includes tourist-savvy places like Boston and St. Augustine, the latter of which was enduring a serious septic rooting project when I stopped through there last week).

I’ll keep paying attention to this in my own way on subsequent visits. And there will be subsequent visits, believe me.

Anyway… TUNE BACK IN SOON FOR “(RE)PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH (PART TWO: MOBILE, BIRMINGHAM, AND CHATTANOOGA)” coming Wednesday. 

The New Orleans – New York Times Blog Wars and the McDonaldization of the American City

Friday Reads: Us Savages in New Orleans have Done Been Discovered.

There’s still a contingent of politicians down here that are way too generous to their friends and to their own bank accounts. There’s plenty of institutional racism, sexism, and provincialism to go around. But I see this every where and at least New Orleans fills its cracks with good food, good music, and a lot of friendly people. Believe me, that makes up for a lot.  However, for some reason, we’re attracting a lot of folks who want to turn us into Brooklyn or what Brooklyn has become.”

I’ve noticed a lot of animosity in the blogosphere as of late regarding the New York Times’ treatment of New Orleans as some kind of sub-cultural/human curiosity sideshow (where kale is nowhere to be found; what an atrocity). Sky Dancing Blog has some choice words (and excellent, eclectic sourcing) regarding this surreal cultural condescension. Click the link above and get up to speed.

New Orleans is one city I’ve loved deeply since the first time I visited it in 1997, and perhaps my fascination with her, outside of the music and brain-splittingly good food, has been rooted in its purported lack of shine and grittiness. Also, the whole “no other place existing like it in the world” thing. To use a lazy epithet, what you see is what you get.

This leads us down a major philosophical conundrum when we think about the “livable city:” What happens when the continued urbanization of America (and the entire world, for that matter) produces not necessarily standards but ways of living that hollow out a city’s underlying character? Is this just capitalism running amok and bleeding into a concept not unlike the McDonaldization of the American city?

I’m no expert, considering how I’ve never lived in Brooklyn nor New Orleans (and would be hard-pressed to afford visiting either at the moment), but isn’t there something remarkable enough about a city that’s so notoriously blighted and corrupt yet lovable that you wouldn’t want to change it?

Here’s the rub: this debate has inevitably overgeneralized New Orleans and Brooklyn. Both sides (but mainly the outsider accounts, not to split hairs) treat the former as if it is not a massive unrefined agglomeration of moving/mutating parts, but one homogeneous entity. Perhaps this was the dream of urban re-developers at one point fifty years ago, but that pursuit was abandoned by all but the most die-hard (and loony) urban theorists decades ago.

For all the grief that gentrifiers get, you would imagine that somebody would clue them into Jane Jacobs’ (yet-to-be-disproven) theory of the necessary multiple uses of city blocks. The reason their new neighborhood is so great is exactly because you have new buildings next to the old, the scabs next to the sutures.

I am not claiming any ownership of either city; both New Orleans and Brooklyn represent seemingly divergent ends of the paradigm of urban culture in the United States, and both deserve praise for various facets of their existence, but to try to move one towards the other would be frightening. That being said, I think the most interesting aspect of this whole outrage has been this near-tribal trumpeting of ownership and provincialism (particularly considering how the writer of the blog I linked here admits to not being a NOLA native). Considering how much I’ve taken a shine to Knoxville (for all of its almost-cartoonish shortcomings), I am learning firsthand about what it’s like to adopt and defend an underdog of an American city.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this rant, if it even qualifies as one. If it doesn’t, I have one coming up soon about chili. Enjoy your week, everybody.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.