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Saving the Heritage of the Gulf Coast: Preservation as a Key to Hurricane Recovery  

12-09-2015 17:35

Speaking at the Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference, held November 10-12 in New Orleans, National Trust President Richard Moe emphasized the preservation principles that should guide hurricane recovery efforts in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Here is a portion of his speech. The conference was presented by the American Institute of Architects in collaboration with the American Planning Association and co-sponsored by the National Trust and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Let me begin by saying what we all know: Louisiana has experienced one of the greatest human tragedies in the nation’s history. Obviously, the compelling needs of the hurricane’s victims must be uppermost in our minds as we begin these discussions. But Katrina could also be the greatest cultural catastrophe America has ever known. Unlike the floods in Venice and Florence in 1966, when the world rallied to restore cities that are museums of past art and architecture, the Katrina flood interrupted the creative culture of a region where art is still alive and vital—from great food, inventive music, and singular festivals to distinctive architecture, lush landscapes, and lively neighborhoods that nurtured people from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds. That’s what we must restore.

I firmly believe that preserving Louisiana’s rich heritage and distinctive cultures must be one of the fundamental principles that guides our recovery efforts.

Preservationists are sometimes accused of being more concerned about buildings than about people. That certainly isn’t the case here: This is a people issue from start to finish. We have a chance not just to repair damaged buildings but to improve the quality of life for current and future residents of Louisiana. The ultimate goal of our recovery efforts should be to allow displaced people to return to communities that are healthy, vibrant, familiar places to live and work. We want to bring our families, friends, neighbors, and constituents home—to a place that looks and feels like home. That means we must do everything possible to preserve the heritage and character that make Louisiana such a special place.

We can accomplish this by doing two things: First, by saving and using what can and should be saved; and second, by making sure that new development supports existing communities and respects historic character.

The first point — saving and using what can be saved — grows out of the National Trust’s experience in dealing with previous disasters. We’ve learned that the first impulse is almost always to tear down every damaged building. We’ve also learned that this first impulse is almost always wrong. The older buildings that stand in many Louisiana communities have withstood decades — even centuries — of storms before. They’re tougher than we might think, so we shouldn’t call in the bulldozers until we’re absolutely sure there’s no alternative.

What’s needed are conscientious, comprehensive assessments by experts in architecture, engineering, mold remediation, and preservation — people who can examine an older building’s condition, evaluate its historical and architectural significance, and determine the feasibility of saving it. City building inspectors are hard at work in New Orleans, and we have every reason to believe they’re doing a good job — but we need to be absolutely sure that property owners, city officials, and FEMA have all the facts they need to make informed decisions about the future of Louisiana’s older and historic structures. Some buildings will necessarily be lost, but we don’t want any to be unnecessarily lost.

When new construction is called for, it’s important to make sure that it fits. This means insisting that new buildings respect the character of their surroundings and draw on historic architectural styles. It means making sure that new retail development supports existing downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. It means making sure that new development addresses the need for quality affordable housing. It means protecting historic landscapes and open space.

These are not new concepts. Many Louisiana communities already have strong preservation ordinances and design guidelines that allow them to grow without sacrificing their unique historic character. It’s important that the authority of these ordinances not be ignored or hampered in the recovery process. If we undo or undermine the good preservation work that has already been done, we’ll only compound the damage caused by the storms.

Why Preservation Matters Now
You may be asking yourselves, With all the other things we have to worry about, why should we be concerned about preservation? Why is it so important? The answer couldn’t be simpler: Preservation is important because our heritage matters, especially in a place like Louisiana, where cities, towns, and rural areas alike are thickly dotted with structures that are our legacy from the past.

It matters, first of all, because meaningful connections with our past can help us plot a sure course for the future. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying before, but it’s worth repeating: It’s hard to figure out where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from.

At a time like this, when big chunks of people’s lives have been blown flat or washed away, we need to remember what kind of people we are, to remember the struggles and triumphs that we’ve known in the past—and to be sustained and empowered by that memory. Sure, we can learn about our history from books, but reading about it can’t compare with walking through it, living with it. Similarly, we can learn about shared values from our parents, teachers, and ministers — but those values take on a new reality when we can see them embodied in a place.

Another reason why preservation is critically important to recovery is that it’s one of the most effective economic development tools we have.

Heritage tourism has long been a mainstay of Louisiana’s economy. We all know that Mardi Gras draws huge crowds to New Orleans once a year, but the city’s unique historic character also attracts hordes of tourists — and millions of tourist dollars — all year long. Preservation has kept that historic character intact, and preservation can play a key role in getting New Orleans and other Louisiana communities back on their feet.

But the economic benefits of preservation don’t stop with tourism. New construction is materials-intensive, while rehabilitation is labor-intensive: Studies show that $1 million spent to rehab an older building creates more jobs than the same amount spent on new construction. What’s more, most of the money spent on rehab stays in the region, while most of the money spent on new construction flies off to someplace else. Rehab is specialized work — so when it’s combined with job training, rehab can give workers valuable skills that will serve them well for a lifetime. And finally, rehabbing a building instead of tearing it down means that we aren’t wasting the energy embodied in the building materials, and we aren’t sending so much demolition debris off to landfills that are already overburdened.

Here’s the bottom line: Preservation isn’t just good for the soul; it’s good for the pocketbook too.

Finally, preserving our heritage is important because it helps build and strengthen a sense of community. Whether mansions or Creole cottages or shotgun houses, historic buildings contribute to the distinctive character that identifies and defines the places that people really care about. Whether in world-famous neighborhoods like the Garden District or in lesser-known places like Treme and Holy Cross, the presence of familiar older buildings helps foster a sense of pride, helps people feel connected to something meaningful and lasting, something that wind and water can’t destroy.

Historic places are the story of us as a nation and a people — a powerful story written in wood and brick. An understanding of the history and values that we share is part of the cultural “glue” that binds us together, that keeps our society from cracking apart into a thousand pieces. If we’re to meet the challenge of recovery, it’s imperative that we do our best to recognize and safeguard the places that help give us a sense of community. After all, we’re all in this together, and recovery isn’t somebody else’s job. If we lose sight of those facts, we lose our best chance for success.

Partners for Recovery
We all know that the road to recovery will be long and hard, but I hope you also know that you don’t have to travel it alone. That leads me to a very important point. It’s well known that our fellow Americans have a short attention span, and there are signs that the impact of this year’s hurricanes is already fading from the public consciousness. We can’t let that happen. This may be a regional disaster, but it deserves a national response — for as long as it takes. I want to assure you that the National Trust is going to stay here in Louisiana for as long as it takes.

This conference is not about destruction and despair; it’s about hope and determination. It’s not about what we’ve been through; it’s about what lies ahead.

We have an opportunity to build a new Louisiana. That’s an awesome responsibility. If we create something that looks and feels like Florida or Nevada or anyplace else that isn’t Louisiana, we’ve failed. If the new Louisiana isn’t deeply rooted in an appreciation for what has always made this place so special, it’s wrong.

Louisiana never was the kind of place where relics of the past gather dust behind velvet ropes. No, it has always been a vibrant place where a kaleidoscope of elements — from food to architecture to music—come together to create a rich, diverse cultural environment unlike any other in the world.

That’s what we have to bring back.

If we do this job right, the people of Louisiana will get back the place they call home — and America will get back a big, vital piece of its heart.

Publication Date: January/February 2006

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Author(s):Richard Moe

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