What if New Orleans really is dead?
Inescapably, we were going to get "mourning New Orleans" articles today, and here is a good one by Josh Levin of Slate. And inescapably, too, we're going to get "reports of our death are greatly exaggerated" stories; already, for example, we're being reminded about how rebuilding after disasters is good for the economy.
But I can offer this:
To measure how much people love a city, count how often the city is declared dead. For cities, death is an easy exaggerating metaphor: we say that a city is dead because some part or aspect of it that we loved is gone. So if a city is full of things that people have loved, it's going to get more post-mortems even as -- to the eyes of others -- the same city seems to be thriving. Every new-development debate contains exactly this paradox: A great city, by definition, has no empty space, so if you build something you'll destroy something else, probably something that somebody loves. And so prosperity itself implies death, and hence mourning. That's how big cities are.
Cities take this kind of death in stride, and this is a key to their seeming immortality; they don't just outlive people, they outlive nations and even cultures. Of course, cities can be utterly destroyed in every sense, but it doesn't happen often anymore. Even Hiroshima is still there, in some sense; there are coherent ruins, announcing the survival of a city even through a holocaust that none of us can imagine. To die continually is the nature of real cities.
Hiroshima is still there, but for most purposes that matter to us, it died utterly in 1945 and is a new city with the same name on the same spot. It's easy to say that New Orleans is the opposite: most of its buildings are standing, but it "died long ago" as so many mid-American cities have died, abandoned by the people with the money to build, and has survived as a theme park on the ruins of what it celebrates. But either way, it's the nature of urban death that we can play those games with the word.
When we speak of the death of a city, then, all we really mean is a wound, some change that will always be manifest. And if we really mean death in the permanent sense -- well, that only comes to a city when we stop mourning it. On that score, New Orleans has many great years ahead, and today, I wish it long life.