I passed the 100 block of South Rampart Street last night, much as I often do. Each time I drive that route I find myself thinking, “No parking lot, yet.”
A nine-story parking garage was supposed to be constructed on that corner. In order to make room for the structure four buildings needed to be destroyed, most notably, Morris Music, the music store of Louis Armstrong’s friend and mentor, Morris Karnofsky. As a young boy Armstrong worked for the Karnofskys, a Lithuanian Jewish family. More importantly, they helped nurture him and even loaned him the money to buy his first cornet.
Perhaps if Louis Armstrong wasn’t the greatest figure our state has ever produced, perhaps if we hadn’t torn down his boyhood home in the 1960s—long after he was an established international star—perhaps if other landmarks associated with him weren’t already threatened with demolition by neglect, the destruction of these buildings wouldn’t be such a big deal. But it is a big deal for at least two reasons: First, we’ve lost a priceless landmark that could have informed scholars and attracted the ever-important tourists in ways that would both maintain our city’s architectural identity and generate the tourist revenue that seems to be City Hall’s most cherished commodity. Second, we repeated a pattern whereby we demolish architecturally significant landmarks to make way for projects that never get built.
Anybody shopped at the Albertson’s in Central City lately?
Because the destruction of these landmarks happens so often, I see it not as a group of isolated incidents, but as a pattern of behavior rooted in a mentality that is fundamentally at odds with the character of our city. No matter how many times the politicians invoke gumbo or jazz or streetcars, I find very little evidence in their behavior to suggest that they understand the essential function these cultural icons play in maintaining whatever greatness the city can lay claim to.
Rather, what I hear when they speak and what I see when they act is a generic mindset, the kind of thing that you would expect if the brain of a politician from Arkansas or Arizona or Alaska was placed in the body of a politician from New Orleans. Our “leaders” embrace a one-size-fits-all capitalism that destroys our most valuable resources in the pursuit of trinkets that have proven profitable in places that have nothing else to sell but office towers, parking lots, and easy highway access to suburban enclaves.
Why else would you consistently arrest jazz musicians playing our music in our streets for our entertainment?
Why else would you harass Mardi Gras Indians on such a regular basis?
Why else would you try to enforce a noise ordinance on jazz musicians in Jackson Square while allowing Bourbon Street night clubs to blare rock and roll without regard to the decibel level?
Why would you raise the parade fees on second-line organizations to such an extent as to threaten the continued viability of this emblematic parading tradition?
In the case of the buildings in the 100 block of South Rampart, a devil’s bargain was reached in 2000. The city ruled that “the developer of the parking building must replicate the appearance of the demolished building in the design of the new building. Thus, the parking garage structure shall incorporate salvaged ornamentation from the original buildings, as well as replicas of those items that were too fragile or difficult to save, in a design that closely mimics the historic buildings. In addition, the first floor commercial space in the parking garage will incorporate an area to commemorate the history and culture of the site. Plaques will also be installed on the exterior to mark the site and briefly relate its history.”
Facades are, of course, bogus almost by definition. Even one that provides an accurate sense of the building behind it can’t begin to convey the richness of the history destroyed in its creation. But in the compromise that paved the way—quite literally—for a parking lot, there was at least the possibility that passersby would catch a whiff of the time when that block was a cornerstone in our city’s long-forgotten Chinatown.
In the city of New Orleans, there is no consequence if a developer tears down a historic building and then fails to develop the project he tore down the buildings to develop. No mayor in my lifetime has seen fit to secure a performance guarantee to insure that the promised work ever gets done.
Now there is a new proposal for that corner of Rampart Street. The owner, Muckeget, LLC, would like to create a 60-space, surface parking lot on the site. The staff of the City Planning Commission recommended against the surface parking lot, but now the proposal goes before the City Council. If the Council allows a surface parking lot in this location they would be making a mockery of themselves. It’s as if this new proposal assumes that the current city council is too forgetful or too dim to remember the recommendations and reasoning of its predecessors.
I doubt that the City Council will ever value our 19th-century history as much as I do. But I’m cautiously optimistic that a precedent set in the first decade of this century might yet hold sway over the fate of South Rampart.
A filmmaker, barbecue expert and story editor with the HBO series “Treme,” Lolis Eric Elie delivers a keynote address Saturday at the Rising Tide media conference on New Orleans recovery.