In 1988 I moved to a small village in Mexico. The church which is located in the main square defines the town itself. It is a compass and a gathering spot and it is also the manifestation of a dream some say. The original was been built in 1683 and completed by Zeferino Gutierrez in 1880 inspired by postcards from Europe.
My husbands family had moved there in 1968 when there were 6 thousand people. By the time I met him and moved there the population was at about 25 thousand. It was still a small and very personal space. And most everyone at some point in the day met in the park which faced this Church. On Sunday young men and women parade counter clockwise in the square in a courtship dance and each hour of the day was marked with a manual tolling of the bells.
One day the bells began to ring and did not stop. After a full half hour of calamitous ringing I walked to the square to see what was going on. When I arrived I saw a small bobcat and a crowd of furious residents. It seems that the City government had decided that a lower portion of the Church property should be demolished to build a new sales area for the street vendors.
The bells continued to ring and people kept coming. There was no talk about “historic” preservation, instead the talk was about identity and self preservation. It was about ownership and pride and about self determination. It was about a spatial connectedness that would not be destroyed that day. The citizen’s prevailed, the bobcats left and the city officials figured out a way to get the space they wanted and not destroy one tiny bit of the Church.
I always find myself caught in this narrow confine of historical preservation when it is a much larger social and political issue. If we, the citizens, are not given the most basic voice in issues of self determination how will we see ourselves?
These past months as the drone of process took place many of us knew that the day would come when the decision for the LSU/VA hospital would be made public. We knew the day was coming and we knew the endless processes and procedures that took place would have little to no impact on a decision that was made outside of the realm of public input. We were entertained, we were placated and we were lied to. But in the end those decisions were not ours to make for ourselves. The public realm, the private property and the fate of a neighborhood fell to those who will not show their faces, those who seek to make careers, not communities.
Last summer I was in Mexico again. I was a Charity patient here in New Orleans and the care now is so difficult and complicated that I went to the Hospital de Jesus in Mexico City to get my prescription filled. The facade is a pretty ugly contemporary design but the heart of the Hospital is a colonial beauty.
When I asked the nurse about the history of the building she proudly told me it was the first hospital in the America’s and that it had been built by Hernan Cortez. Imagine that, the oldest hospital in the Americas is still a hospital.
Here in New Orleans we pin our hopes on “new” and “state of the art” in the hopes that ultimately it will be our rescue..will this hospital complex be the salvation of New Orleans? Will this lift us out of our economic slump? Will it be the new “pot’s of money”; remember those, the one’s that never materialized? In order to see those cranes we were promised must we go through another season of destruction, demolition and betrayal?
At the end of my trip to Mexico this past summer I went to see some friends in Malinalco. This municipality has about 20 thousand people. It is a small and very poor community. Yet they had this richness of place.
Because the community decided they should save it. And they did.