An ‘X’ marks the spot. [Fig. 1] In the wake of the storm, military personnel spray-painted each vacated house with this grim tally to account for the evacuation of New Orleans. Most inhabitants of the houses in more prosperous neighborhoods have opted to paint over this reminder, a few still bearing the ‘X’ as if to memorialize the survivors’ experiences. A number of the houses in less affluent neighborhoods also still bear the mark, not out of a sense of shared survival or solidarity, but out of dissent or neglect. Crossed out as they are on the cultural, political and economic spectrum, the residents in less wealthy neighborhoods are tarnished by Katrina’s passage, in a material sense with the destruction of the built environment and its infrastructural support, and in a political sense depicted by the ensuing media distortion. How do the markings on these houses function as a network of signs? Embodying more than visible legacies of catastrophe, these crossed-out networks of urban wreckage signal larger ecological complexities in post-disaster New Orleans and the liminal contingencies of its residents.
In my explorations of New Orleans’s post-traumatic landscape I consider renowned photographer Robert Polidori’s After the Flood images because “photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar, and… an ethics of seeing.”1 Polidori’s photography contracts certain controversy marred with implications of commerce and ideological exploitation at the expense of material desolation experienced by those living in New Orleans. I contrast Polidori’s work with an alternate aesthetic embodied by the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours, thereby refuting the visual framing of Hurricane Katrina in terms of notions of the sublime as a ‘natural’ disaster. I dispute the aestheticizing—also, anesthetizing—effects such photographic frameworks implant on a ‘pliant’ and ‘wounded’ post-traumatic landscape unable to contest the very grounds of its legibility.
Robert Polidori is no stranger to post-disaster stages of fluctuation; his photographic oeuvre evokes multiple geographies ruptured by disaster. His previous work on the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl raised his profile to international stardom in the art world, and his perspective of post-Katrina New Orleans has resulted in another compilation of spectacular post-disaster photographs tersely named After the Flood. Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, introduces the collection with words of praise: “New Orleans after Katrina is an enormous subject for the camera: in the hands of an artist of Polidori’s resolve, it [becomes] a meditation on our culture in decline.”2 Polidori enacts Susan Sontag’s description of photographers of ruin: “From the start, photographers not only set themselves the task of recording a disappearing world but were so employed by those hastening its disappearance.”3 Beyond pictorial renditions of tragedy, who wields the authority to craft such a message? What exactly is in decline here? From decline, depletion and ruin to revival—how do aesthetic responses such as Polidori’s influence the reconstruction of New Orleans after the storm? Readings of a post-traumatic landscape can frame the aesthetics of a disaster without addressing social justice, thus chaining enterprise to ruination.
In reading the city as a text, I approach post-traumatic landscapes through the context of illegibility.4 This approach offers a new way of gauging the politics of representation, since the removal of material objects—and human bodies—from the line of sight negates the proof of their existence. If legibility allows certain readings of the city’s landscape to seem evident and natural, then rupture—in the form of disaster or terrorism—reveals other hidden or unscripted discourses. These previously illegible texts contest dominant discourses of “colorblind” humanist progress and social justice to allow a new space to revitalize and re-inform both the material and cultural production of post-Katrina New Orleans. When we consider the materiality of post-disaster cities, illegibility of takes on ethical stakes. Removing visual and material traces of individual lives denies the precise conditions of existence not only for these ruined sites, but also for those housed in them, rendering many post-traumatic spaces into complex ecologies of (il)legibility.
Many such scenes inhabit After the Flood. The book opens to spreads of a stricken panorama: The mild blue sky sets a scene of destruction anomalous with its clarity and light. In “Tupelo Street” stark devastation draws jagged edges, splintered objects, and vestiges of domestic order struck by the weight of an invisible force. [Fig. 2] The house, front façade cleanly ripped away from the structure, reveals its domestic innards complete with a slanted closet full of colored men’s shirts. The house tilts, favoring its right, devoid of furniture except for an upturned stool near the center. There is no other trace left in the photographic landscape—no ominous overcast sky, no residual flooding; the only traces left by Hurricane Katrina that can be measured in this photograph appear through ruins. That same force is measured in different ways in “View from St. Claude Avenue bridge,” one of Polidori’s first pieces bearing witness to freshly sprayed ‘X’s that mark the houses in photographic testimony of the evacuations that had come to pass. [Figs. 3, 6] The ghostly ‘X’s appear to be final judgment marks, a tally that testifies to the count of invisible bodies trafficked out of New Orleans. In an interview Polidori describes the photographic effect of these scenes as the capture of reality-as-fiction, associating images with literary legibility. He situates the images in the realm of the imaginary where the viewer becomes immersed, where “[reality] will compose the most extreme paradoxes and contradictions and adjacencies.”5 Thus, Polidori’s lens reads the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans as a ghostly fiction.
The image of the city as a ruin is an archetypal metaphor that regains new meaning in contemporary times. The photographic portrayal of architectural ruins is a modern phenomenon Sontag intuitively connects with earlier aesthetic decisions: “[The] photograph offers a modern counterpart of that characteristically romantic architectural genre, the artificial ruin.”6 In a review of After the Flood Dieter Roelstraete agrees: “[It] has been said that many buildings look better as ruins.”7 After the Flood takes the form of a stunning photographic montage of New Orleans still inundated by latent waters six months after Katrina’s passing. There is a haunting experience of the sublime in this contemporary tableau, which Roelstraete subsequently observes, “Robert Polidori has a great eye for the sublime beauty… that lies hidden, in waiting, among the wreckage of devastation.”8 The sublime, the romantic concept that gains precedence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, acts a response to naïve, idealistic beliefs placed in the feats of modern man. According to Paul Duro, the fulcrum of this aesthetic experience rests on the “‘cognitive failure’ on the part of the subject, when our ability to express thoughts or feelings is overwhelmed, and when the limits [of reason] are paralysed in the face of an overpowering, opposing, and as it were, oppressive force.”9 Duro’s examination of the visual legacy of the sublime in Western aesthetic discourse asserts that it “came to be understood less as a rhetorical trope than as an aesthetic category in its own right.”10 Gene Ray stipulates, “the feeling of the beautiful simulated that reconciliation with nature missing from modern bourgeois life, and [that] of the sublime was a complex mix of terror and enjoyable awe, triggered by encounters with the power or magnitude of raw nature.”11 The sublime in Polidori’s photographic representations of New Orleans emphasizes the legibility of beauty in the inhuman, in the extraordinary and catastrophic.
The photograph “4235 Albert Drive” presents a tableau that mixes an industrial aesthetic with a nostalgia for the seemingly untarnished past. [Fig. 4] Here, Polidori frames the contrast made by the canal wall in the background with the forlorn scatter of residents’ possessions, such as the white iron bed-frame with girls’ dresses hanging from its rim. A nursery blanket lies abandoned on the dirt and buckled chairs sit at the feet of equally collapsed fences mimicking in miniature the fate of the city’s levees. This image suggests that the naïve comfort New Orleans’ citizens seemed to find in its security architecture, in its canals and levees, falls at the price of blind trust. The school bus smashed headfirst into the canal wall adds to the puerile feeling of nostalgia, a visual rhetoric of innocence lost in the ravages of a natural disaster larger than life. The camera’s eye appears to pass through as a ghostly visitor, a visual trope reinforced by the historical appreciation for the sublime, linked to the tropes of pleasure and terror intertwined through the experience of New Orleans’ wreckage.
The image of “5979 West End Boulevard” is an example of quotidian domesticity interrupted by the unmistakable markings left in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. [Fig. 5] The house with white picket fence could pass as a photographic version of an Andrew Wyeth landscape if it were not for the tree leaning against the house’s rooftop. With its freshly drawn wheel marks on the dirt ground and its grey, overcast skies overlooking a commonplace setting, this image resonates strongly with classic imagery of Middle America. Yet unlike the Regionalist painters who depicted a nation of shared experience, this image of the lonesome house suffocated by the weight of the tree and its environment provokes instead a strong sense of abandonment.12 The cloudy sky bears witness to what has befallen New Orleans as the physical and ideological ruination of a contemporary American city. The visual proof of derelict material culture appears to tally the cost of living in place of the human bodies excised from these photographic representations of disaster.
In the contemporary setting of post-Katrina New Orleans, the sublime is evoked in Polidori’s work as events of extraordinary measure, yet the victims affected by them are absent from the picture, rendered fictional. Duro observes, “the discourse on the sublime ‘should be seen as a technical discourse of the subject: it bridges the incommensurable gap between aesthetic pleasure and ethical action.’”13 The viewer’s ethical positioning illustrates the gap between cultural consumption and political responsibility, especially when one considers how Polidori’s photographic post-traumatic landscapes are aesthetically self-contained and self-enunciated, intended first and foremost as products of beauty to behold. The ruins stand as an enunciated whole that eclipses both images of the former city and imaginings of its possible reconstruction, because the aesthetic impact of the ruins functions as a complete work of art. Polidori’s aesthetic representations reads the post-traumatic landscape through the lens of the sublime as a fiction larger than reality without addressing the clear need for social justice in response to the disaster’s effects.
In his review for the New York Times, John Updike remarks critically, “Polidori, his work makes clear, loves the grave, delicate, and poignant beauty of architecture when the distracting presence of human inhabitants is eliminated from photographs.”14 The victims themselves are illegible; only metonymic traces and echoes of their prior inhabitance are legible as they linger in the premises, a legacy that testifies to the radical, devastating effects of the disaster. These aesthetic readings of post-traumatic built environments legitimize a kind of vacant, gaping beauty through absence and devastation. What these readings avoid examining is, as Ray questions, “whether a sufficiently historicized and demystified category of the sublime would liberate the ‘transformed truth’ of its feeling for the work of mourning and radical politics.”15 The visual emphasis on the entire ruins ‘articulates’ on the behalf of the traumatized bodies absent from the frame, poignantly illustrating the larger fracture between pleasure and ethical action unaddressed in the political reality of post-Katrina New Orleans. Subsequently, Polidori’s photographic portrayal of New Orleans as a post-traumatic landscape points to the aesthetic erasure of bodies as a conceptual failure to render legible the material effects of Hurricane Katrina to those living there. By prioritizing the illustration of sublime ruins, these portrayals also unwittingly romanticize the systemic failure of the modern American city itself as secure built environment and infrastructure.
The photographic representations of disaster unintentionally reveal New Orleans’s socioeconomic vulnerability concealed behind the security apparatus and provide portrayals of the city’s devastated landscapes and material culture that speak as objects in lieu of human subjects. This is the spectacle of the New Orleans post-traumatic landscape; the environment articulates the legacy of the event in a visual rhetoric so strong as to express—in the words of Guy Debord— “estrangement and separation between man and man.”16 It is the lack of social justice in favor of a capitalist message that confirms post-Katrina New Orleans as a site of spectacle.17 As Updike notes, “[who] is this book for? Not the flood’s victims, who could not afford it.”18 Those who would provide visible proof of the social reality of post-Katrina New Orleans have been neatly excised out of the frame. The illegibility of social justice in New Orleans’ post-disaster landscape portrayed in Polidori’s After the Flood is compounded by the commodity overtones found in the book’s material appearance: “It weighs nearly ten pounds and costs $90; a consumeristic paradox hovers over the existence of so costly a volume portraying the reduction of a mostly poor urban area.”19 This aesthetic response to disaster provides both actual and psychological capital as much to the voyeur who wishes to own a piece of Hurricane Katrina as to the consumer who buys the book in an attempt to assuage the possible guilt felt in watching the event’s unraveling. This startling update to contemporary disasters is the immediate recourse to put tragedy into good use by generating capital to respond to disaster.
This capital-driven, instrumentalist approach aligns with the State’s priority of rebuilding the city rather than providing widespread aid and relief to its stricken citizens. The State and media apparatuses’ inability to address the immediacy of New Orleans’ plight in the storm’s wake betrays the historical inclination to materially prepare for and respond to disaster on an infrastructural level rather than to address affective, intangible, and human repercussions that arise from post-traumatic events. After Katrina tears through the guise of systematized, normal security, the engineered bridges and levees, media coverage of the event, and responses from government branches such as FEMA—all prove inadequate and read as the failure to contain nature as once presumed. This is the underside of progress that does not appear in the dialogue of the time, a modernist experience of costly advancement rendered illegible. The misreading of disasters and their destructive potential renders the post-Katrina topography of New Orleans illegible, as witnessed in the media and state letdown in the face of community need. In The Culture of Calamity, Kevin Rozario claims disasters forcibly carve out their own spaces for legibility through the security measures that arise in response to such traumatic events as the modern anticipation of disasters. This leads to the building of security structures and ecologies as a kind of material and visual culture that facilitates the formation of “a decisive structural or ideological component to the American dependency on disasters.”20 The idea of disaster is tied irrevocably with ideas of progress in the built environment as states of simultaneous vulnerability and security. The complex convergence of modern space with security mechanisms is born of the ideology that Rozario calls the ‘catastrophic logic of modernity’: the drive to “apply instrumental reason to the task of making human life on earth safer and more predictable… an ongoing effort to control, or at least manage, nature.”21 The cultural production of disasters conceptually embeds disaster management into the built environment, pointing to how “the power and place of calamity in American culture” has shaped the way the US has undertaken catastrophic events through modern history.22
This historical genealogy, complicit with the modernist agendas, biases, and ideals that shape the built environment as security apparatus, embeds itself into aesthetic renditions of contemporary post-disaster landscapes. The resulting effect is to read disaster itself as a call for progress. In reality, both of these modernist narratives—of disaster and progress—implicate the idea of the built environment in a fixed frame, a dead space of representation. The pejorative implications to the liveness of space and its situated materialities are signs of what Jessica Horton and Janet Berlo call an “instrumentalist approach to a politics of environment.”23 Horton and Berlo protest the danger inherent to such an aesthetic approach that flattens the complexities of a built environment with its intermingling ecologies of the human and the material, which ultimately ignores the possibility of “an equitable geopolitics that [loosens] the grip of anthropocentric nationalisms and devastating neocolonialism.”24 The liveness of New Orleans paradoxically becomes more apparent after the hurricane’s traumatic upheaval, unearthing the ways in which the “material may be the ultimate judge of our ethics.”25
The instrumentalist, capital-driven logic behind the city’s inability to fully redress its inhabitants’ material and political dues ironically aligns with the logic of the alarming emergence of lucrative disaster attractions after the storm. These post-traumatic attractions have precedence prior to Katrina, when the New Orleans tourism industry was a celebration in civic life, good food and music, albeit carefully crafted to be politically innocuous. The “apparently edgy experience of Bourbon Street” that the “mostly white” tourists came to experience was, according to Anna Hartnell, a “show put on by tourist industry workers, most of whom vacate the Quarter at night to return to homes that are in general located on the ‘wrong’ side of Rampart Street.”26 The stage has already been set for New Orleans as spectacle, with tours scheduled and mapped to promote a certain reading of the city as the locus for tourist-based commerce. Hence, the emergence of tour buses focusing on the storm’s impact and offering “disaster tours” of the city finds commercial and historical precedence with New Orleans’ status as a popular tourist attraction.27 Disaster tourism is one of the most visible manifestations of disaster capitalism in practice, a concept first coined by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. She defines it as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”28 Disaster tourism stands here as an admittedly creative vehicle for capitalizing on the disaster of spectacle, channeling contemporary American reactions to disasters as articulated events of tragedy and consumption at once. It is this spirit of capitalistic exploitation that aids in the polemical shaping of imaginative geographies and their constrictive histories, collecting disparate, conflicted readings of the post-traumatic landscape of New Orleans. Hartnell notes that the Katrina bus tours invite participants “to gaze on a bit of living history,” while effectively taking the legibility away from the prior Ninth Ward and lower city residents to promote instead “a business-driven reconstruction program that is currently completing New Orleans’ makeover into a playground for wealthy tourists.”29 How do disaster tourism and its exploitative underpinnings alter contemporary readings of the New Orleans cityscape? Such tours consider only certain high-profile locations that are aesthetically pleasing to signify the city as a whole and has concrete, pejorative repercussions on the social reality of the inhabitants whose lives do not fit into the map of this spectacle-fed New Orleans. Post-disaster tours place those involved in an uneasy ethical positioning because it appears to pay homage to the immediate effects of a disaster without considering the implications it may have on a place’s already extant histories and communities. Disaster-as-spectacle is a “visible negation of life,” where “the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it,” offering visitors to post-Katrina New Orleans portrayals of the splintered environment that are artfully selected, disarrayed, and manicured for effect.30
My experience of a bike tour through lower New Orleans provides a contrasting example of tactical engagement that contests the rules of interest-driven, pre-formulated city legibility. While Robert Polidori’s photography evokes landscape imagery of the sublime, the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours’ aesthetic takes on a neo-realist recovery stance on witnessing the day-to-day reality of the reconstruction of New Orleans’ post-traumatic landscape.31 The cultural production of disasters in both of these aesthetic engagements ultimately employs different methods of city reading, but results in similar repercussions when one considers an ethics of seeing. I borrow Michel de Certeau’s figure of the critical pedestrian, or wandersmänner, walking along the post-traumatic landscape to witness the contrast between physical and ideological ruins to interact with it, an act of appropriation that allows “walking to function as a space of enunciation.”32 The critical pedestrian can read the city’s ruins by sifting through the traces of a disaster’s aftermath to combat the ways conventional media and political narratives strive to contain the post-traumatic landscape in discourses of simultaneous conservation and negligence. As such, the critical pedestrian is narrowly separated from his predecessor, the flâneur, or his conceptual opposite, the tourist.33 The former is the urban poet whose “ambulatory gaze” observes the changing landscape of modern, public spaces; he does not intercede with his surroundings, yet permits it to act on him.34 The latter is the contemporary bastardization of the flâneur insofar as the ethical weight the tourist’s gaze seems to impart on his surroundings differs from the flâneur’s observances, and these slight nuances in social positions associated with modern, tactical engagement within the city introduce diverging ethics of seeing.
The flâneur’s gaze eventually gives way from detached perusal to the tourist’s blatant and parasitic consumption, tying voyeurism to the remnants of city ruins.35 Historically dating back as early as the 1840s in New Orleans, tourists “hailing from the working and middle classes, as passive visitors guided by convention, [blended] into the “modern ‘crowd.’”36 The tourist’s very presence evinces a larger cultural economy that feeds upon the landscape and “corrupts the idea of reaching an authentic and totally different culture.”37 For Mike Crang, the cultural production that emerges from tourism operates under a model of ruination: “Paradoxically, a nostalgia semiotic economy is produced, one that is always mourning the loss of that which it itself has ruined.”38 The contemporary tourist reads the post-traumatic landscape by linking it to its impossible, untouched past, which “is always displaced in space or time,” connecting notions of ruins, disaster capital, and the event as spectacle.39 The disaster tours in post-Katrina New Orleans were created with the tourist in mind—to create an ideal experience for those looking to experience sights and sites as aesthetic expenditure. Based on voyeuristic consumption, these disaster tours provide a way to share the city’s history without the guilt and loss experienced by those immediately struck by Katrina.
The tour guides at the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tour are aware of this visual distance; they take the tourism schema and invert it. By allowing the pedestrian to engage actively within the Lower Ninth Ward instead of from a distance in a bus or car seat, the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tour offers a critical approach that pokes at conventional histories surrounding post-Katrina New Orleans, stating:
Life experienced through a windshield is one step away from watching it on TV, but even a bicycle tour can become just a series of sights. We want to deliver a series of stories and lives, from the history and importance of the Lower Nine, the context of the flooding during Hurricane Katrina, and why the revival of this remarkable neighborhood matters.40
The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours embeds itself within the social fabric of the neighborhood, taking into account its built history, the shared fates of its inhabitants, and its politicized exploitation at the hands of the media. The website describes the background history of ‘The ‘Lower Nine’: “One of the worst-hit neighborhoods during Hurricane Katrina, the working-class community of the Lower Ninth Ward had one of the highest homeownership rates in the state of Louisiana before the storm. It was a tight-knit neighborhood, an interconnected community of musicians and blue-collar workers who had survival stamped onto their souls.”41 By allowing the critical pedestrian to engage with the post-traumatic neighborhood directly, to learn the histories that lace over the city’s topography, the bike tours reveal the existing need for social justice.
The sensation of seeing the Ninth Ward for the first time on a bicycle gave the strong impression that I was watching a panoramic history unravel before my eyes. The first words the tour guide imparts are not weighty words of poetic justice or emotional baggage, but rather simple, quotidian instructions for riding through traffic. Much of the area surrounding the Ninth Ward has been rebuilt, and the ride up until St. Claude bridge allows the critical pedestrian an idyllic perspective, with the rows of white fences, and the suburban domestic sprawl of houses alongside the curb. The domestic layout of the neighborhoods does not change, but the condition of the dwelling spaces deteriorate at an alarming rate on bicycle. Alongside houses with gaping maws, broken windows, and split rooftops still untended to after more than five years, a few of the more famous housing projects initiated by non-profit organizations stick out in almost surreal juxtaposition. The surreal effect is compounded even further by the fact that the critical pedestrian can read the signs littered all over the post-traumatic landscape: the broken-down, abandoned houses—still, after all these years—and the visible lack of community activity offers a striking comparison to the surrounding neighborhoods that have long since recovered from the storm. The memory of the bike tour takes me through several stages the neighborhood has experienced prior to and after the hurricane, lending the perception that a visual history unravels the greater the distance I cover.
The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours map this trajectory of neglect as a tactical counter-aesthetic narrative of the post-traumatic landscape. [Fig. 7] The aim is to build awareness of the negligence the neighborhood has suffered, even as it acts as the subject of high-profile political, media, and architectural campaigns that return a mere percentage of revenue to the communities they exploit. Acknowledging this manipulative angle, the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours disclaims, “This is not ‘Disaster Tourism’, designed to leave you in awe of the devastation; it is a tour meant to show you the strength of the residents and leave you amazed by their strength and perseverance.”42 The tour starts in the adjacent neighborhood of Marigny by Washington Square then crosses over the St. Claude Bridge to show the rising tide-line of disaster impact through the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard’s Parish, and other surrounding neighborhoods. In focusing on the medium of bicycling, this NGO acknowledges that the best way to read the city is to let the space articulate itself, inviting the critical pedestrian to investigate the post-traumatic landscape intimately. By uncovering precisely what is not covered in the news in the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours offers pedestrians a chance to draw their own readings of the post-traumatic landscape.
The tour guide, Reecy, explains the concrete impressions the disaster has imprinted upon the landscape of lower New Orleans—the ‘X’ marks on the house, the flood water marks that measured the rise in the level of flood waters, etc. She also contextualizes the politics around the rebuilding projects that have persisted over the years past Katrina, such as Make It Right. “Architects Gone Wild”—that is how she describes the swoop of urban planners and architects that had descended upon the Ninth Ward right after the disaster. As replacements for those family-owned houses, the project entails approximately 150 houses under construction, which start at $150,000 subsidized, designed by Frank Gehry. Concerning the Make It Right initiative, Reecy postulates that “when they can go into the open market in twenty years… Those houses will sell for $300,000 each, or more, because Frank Gehry designed them. And then the whole community will essentially turn into a gated community.”43 The lure of a tabula rasa opportunity attracted the attention of celebrities like Brad Pitt to come and rebuild the area in a vision that detracts from the neighborhood’s appearance prior to Katrina. One of the bikers raises the question of aesthetic disparity: “You’ve got to wonder why they’re going from that type of house, style of the house—everything—to something completely off-scale.”44 Reecy ascribes it to “Vanity. Vanity, vanity— ‘Frank Gehry needs you to look at his house and go, ‘Ah, that is a Gehry house!’”45 This inability to acknowledge the dire reality of the neighborhood in favor of a celebrity architect’s cause traces back to the delusions that arise from modernist legacies of disaster. The scenario in the Ninth Ward bodes ill for New Orleans if the social and aesthetic responses that emerge after disaster management prioritizes profit over reform.
As a stipulation, Reecy remarks, “Make It Right [is] the only organization working on a large scale to put people back into houses.”46 This gesture, while much acclaimed, is not sufficient. Once asked if the neighborhood is prepared for the likes of another large-scale hurricane, she answers:
Zero plans for the lower Ninth Ward. No plan at all. There were plans, two years after the storm… They had urban planners go, ‘Okay, here’s a couple of scenarios… we make this area green space.’ Kind of a dirty word here in the lower Ninth Ward now, green space.47
That a certain strain of ‘fashionable’ ecologically-driven social justice finds derision with the inhabitants of the Lower Ninth Ward is dismal, if unsurprising. Reecy’s skeptical reading of the words ‘green space’ as a shallow appropriation of ecologically-minded material culture addresses the attempt to refurbish the neighborhood for a more privileged incoming cluster to displace the previous more impoverished inhabitants. This rhetorical attempt at community development through green branding is not an equitable alternative to the restoration of a security apparatus for the lower Ninth Ward. The contemporary narratives of social justice campaigns invest in eco-materialist interventions within a post-traumatic landscape that render certain unwanted or undesirable demographics illegible in the name of progress. To focus too much on material culture in the aftermath of such a disaster risks the temptation of neglecting the logistics needed to address the very human ecological element that demands social justice. Ultimately, such visual erasure allows for certain responses from the media, state bureaucracies, and humanitarian endeavors not only to be expected but also to be perceived as natural responses to a ‘natural’ disaster. This illegibility ethically conflates humanistic and materialist readings of the post-traumatic landscape, causing those struck hardest by the disaster to compete with the material reconstruction of its establishments, erasing New Orleans’ poor marginalized past in the anticipation of a gentrified, more privileged future.
The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours sheds light on the derivative politics lurking behind such a reconstruction project, and its ideological stance acts as an intervention that starkly contrasts the widely broadcast idea of progress behind rebuilding projects such as Make It Right. The latter draws from neo-realist values behind the incentive for progress, where the post-traumatic landscape reads as a live text situating necessity and improvement as part of the everyday process of recovery, not en masse as fashionable rebuilding projects advertise change, but in uneven growth—in fits and starts. Reecy confirms this when she recounts the interstitial process of rebuilding post-Katrina, “You see the empty houses, but you also see new construction… They start renovating, they start coming home.”48 By offering a different articulation of the event and its resultant social reality, the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours offers an alternative reading of the event and the possibility of a different vision for the city. In painting a tableau where the ideological and material representations of the landscape are entangled, Reecy and other like-minded activists offer innovative ways to engage the community directly, addressing those neglected in Polidori’s photography and the news coverage presented by media and political pundits. The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tour website states, “After the tragedy of Katrina, the television coverage left off this post-script… Through the efforts of residents and volunteers, of governments and charities, the rebuilding of this neighborhood is possible and still underway.”49 In the years following, what ultimately is articulated through the lens of post-Katrina New Orleans? The problematic positioning of the tourist and the critical pedestrian that emerges as a response raises questions about the ethics of seeing, alongside Sontag’s ‘grammar’ of photography. Ultimately, do we have the right to legitimize certain images of catastrophe through legible narratives, and to script certain readings produced to appear more readily than others?
Perhaps beyond the literal ruins of the landscape, what is also in decline is an ethics of looking, an awareness confronting a certain visuality that endorses the proliferation of disaster imagery.50 If that is the case, could it be that people are prepared to see post-Katrina in a state of frozen disarray, in a stasis of ruin? If not, then why does one of the nation’s most attractive destination sites allow neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward to continue appearing in such a state of disarray? What surfaces after Hurricane Katrina is the potential to engage with specific narratives of legibility and offer up alternative readings to conventional narratives of security, the negligent aesthetics of the sublime, and the visual consumption of space as disaster capital. By reassessing the built environment as live space that speaks to its inhabitants, critical counter-readings forego the undergirding cultural ideologies that petrify the post-traumatic landscape into an ossified graveyard of bygone dreams of American Progress.
Beatrice J. Choi is a PhD student at Northwestern’s Rhetoric and Public Culture program. She also holds an MA at NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication and BAs in Communication and International Studies from UCSD. She is currently developing a media ethnography that explores open-source software communities and politicized practices of coding in Brazil. Her research interests include the performance of technology, media theory, and trauma studies.