Bicycling home from work, I depart the darkening 21st-century canyons of the Central Business District for the wide-open lightscape of Canal Street. Hotel workers, shoppers and tourists rush past, only barely clearing as the light changes. As the cars turn left from Camp, I head straight, and grit my teeth for the pavement of the French Quarter.
For the next fourteen blocks, I’m back in time. The entire built environment - the ‘tout ensemble’, if you’re an architectural historian - is a monument to some people’s idea of what New Orleans represents. Designated by the State of Louisiana in 1936, the Quarter is one of the United States’ oldest historic districts. Unlike most, it is not overseen merely by a state historic preservation department or even the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Instead, it is under the authority of the Vieux Carre Commission (VCC), which regulates everything from adventurous paint colors to unacceptable shutter sizes with an iron fist.
The VCC’s originalist interpretation of the French Quarter’s architecture and urban design has helped create an internationally known tourist attraction. Professional guides shepherd their flocks like good Catholics to the Stations of the Cross - the Ursuline Convent, Jackson Square, the LaLaurie Mansion. As I speed past, I catch snippets of their stories, and am transported ever so briefly to the city as it is understood by the average visitor.
I make no comment on the tour guides themselves or the stories they tell; I’ll leave that to one of their number, organizer and current Harvard History Design Studio fellow Robin McDowell, whose excellent piece for Antigravity on her experiences as a licensed guide I highly recommend.
If Robin is available, I also highly recommend her services as a guide, which you can learn more about here. Malik Bartholomew’s Know NOLA Tours and the Hidden History Tours, guided by veteran activist scholars Leon Waters and Malcolm Suber, also focus on the lesser-told histories - Black, brown, immigrant, queer, working-class, Indigenous - of these familiar spaces.
But I am not thinking about these people, or these stories, as I bounce on the pavement of Chartres Street. I am thinking now about the people I see. The tourists.
What draws them here? What motivates them to pay people to walk around and learn history of this city? What is it about New Orleans that makes it worth someone’s while, and their money, to learn about the history of an old neighborhood.
Doubtless there are historic neighborhoods in the places each of these people come from. I wonder whether they take guided tours of those places, too. Do they know the famous and infamous figures of their own hometowns? The sites of oppression, of resistance, of creation and destruction? Why do they want to hear someone tell them about a ‘mad’ Frenchwoman who tortured the people she enslaved?
A friend of mine, a Black American, suggested that White people know exactly what we’re doing as we enact 21st-century forms of anti-Blackness and other racialized oppressions. After some thinking on this, I had to agree. I think, based on my experience as an American racialized as White, that everyone of those sun-hat-bedecked, glowstick-wielding tour group members who share my complexion has at least the knowledge of enslavement’s existence, if not a real understanding of its implications.
Some who need to believe that they are White would like to return to the days of rigid state-enforced Black political and economic subjugation. For them, a visit to New Orleans and the River Road plantations is vacation in a Jim Crow pleasure dome, an enslavement-fueled safari into the White spatial imaginary.
And in a sense, it is. Black families’ average household wealth is currently 1/10 of White families’ household wealth, not only in New Orleans but nationwide, facts which can be traced back to the massive labor theft that characterize enslavement and Jim Crow. Disparities in law enforcement practices, educational funding, and health outcomes further emphasize, as former Times-Picayune journalist James Karst recently observed on Twitter, that ‘if we’re only just removing Jim Crow laws, doesn’t that mean we’re still in the Jim Crow era?’
In New Orleans, the history of enslavement and Jim Crow is public. Until recently it has been mostly the story of enslavers and oppressors alone, a fact which has no doubt given much pleasure to the set who desire the clock turned back. Thanks to persistent activism by Black community leaders, the members of the Take Em Down NOLA coalition, and hundreds of everyday New Orleanians who have joined the fight, this is changing.
Paper Monuments exists as part of this conversation, seeking to empower New Orleanians interested in rectifying commemorative injustice to propose remedies. The Slave Trade Marker Project’s plaques, two of which I pass on Esplanade at Chartres as I turn lakeside for home, are a wonderful start. But as I pedal beneath the live oaks, I wonder - what does a just and equitable French Quarter look like? How can the neighborhood’s full stories be told to the benefit of tourists and locals alike? And how can we make it possible together?