The Holocaust Memorial in New Orleans

The Holocaust Memorial in New Orleans

Walking the green strip of Woldenberg Park in New Orleans recently, I wasn’t surprised to encounter a Holocaust memorial, but was surprised by how little it elicited in me. The memorial’s trope of “Never Again,” its praise of cultural harmony, has become so familiar. Many Western cities aspiring to global status feel they must engage with what is arguably the greatest moral horror in the last century. And because the morality of the Holocaust is popularly perceived as unambiguous, it’s easy for New Orleans to acknowledge, making it appear highly tolerant and cosmopolitan without challenging its own self-image.

Woldenberg Park was built in 1984 for the New Orleans World’s Fair, replacing the warehouses and industrial docks that used to separate the iconic French Quarter from the Mississippi River. This effacement of industry in order to focus on tourism had started twenty years earlier, with the establishment of the Greater New Orleans Tourism and Convention Commission in 1964. The Quarter was famously saved from Katrina’s floodwaters by the city’s choice to break the levees along the river so as to rout water around the district’s historic buildings and popular hotels. Bearing the architectural influence of New Orleans’s French and Spanish occupations, the well-preserved French Quarter is, most cynically, a memorial to colonialism, and at best a symbol of democratization: for the right price, anyone can stay in a hotel room whose ornate, cast-iron balcony offers views of Bourbon Street, which is named for French royalty, or scarf down oysters at Galatoire’s. No need even to change out of your shorts.

While the rest of the city changes, the French Quarter is carefully preserved under the watch of the Vieux Carré Commission as it looked 200 years ago. There’s no denying that the buildings are gorgeous, the beignets delicious; but even as the city becomes a museum to itself, the slaves who built the place, and whose descendants were among the worst affected by Hurricane Katrina, are barely visible.

One of the few places in the French Quarter where the racial and socioeconomic tensions still present in New Orleans are allowed to surface is on the steps across from Jackson Square and next to the famous Café Du Monde. There, on weekend afternoons, Dragon Master Showcase, a troupe of black and Latino male break dancers, performs a routine of dance, acrobatics, and slapstick. Each round of performance is punctuated by the dancers’ requests for money. As they pass around a donation bucket, they encourage the audience to help “keep us out of two houses: the poor house, and your house.” And then one dancer says to another, “Quick, get that money from the black dude before he decides to take it back!” It’s smart marketing, rendering the audience members too guilty and afraid to keep from paying for the performance by acknowledging the historically transactional relationship between blacks and whites.

The only permanent memorial to New Orleans’s history of slavery is on the grounds of Saint Augustine Catholic Church, a historically black church in the Tremé neighborhood. Saint Augustine is the only church in American history whose free black members purchased two rows of pew seating for slaves. In 2004 it dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Slave “to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Tremé.” Privately erected and owned, the memorial consists of a fallen cross welded from marine chain and hung with shackles. Covered in rust, the cross appears to have just been pulled from the water. The chains have outlived the people who were once bound by them.

The Tremé was the first black neighborhood in America, which is certainly something to celebrate, but some of those free blacks owned slaves themselves. The neighborhood’s Congo Square, now a part of Louis Armstrong Park, served for the first half of the nineteenth century as the meeting point for slaves, and is today one of the few relics of slave history commonly promoted in guidebooks. On Sundays, their day off, the slaves of New Orleans danced and played music, using everything from traditional African drums and stringed instruments made of calabash to European violins. These gatherings originated under the relatively lax terms of French colonial slavery (and ended in the mid-1800s under the much stricter terms of American slavery), which allowed a mixing of cultures—among African slaves, colonists, nearby Caribbean traders and slaves, and Native Americans. Among the most famous examples of this were the Quadroon Balls, started in 1806 in New Orleans and common throughout the diverse port cities of the South. These balls took place under the plaçage system, in which women of color could become common-law wives to colonial men, who lacked suitable white partners. These women inhabited a peculiar social stratum between the non-white society from which they came and the wealthy white milieu in which they operated. The Quadroon Balls offered opportunities for white men to meet potential concubines and for women of color to form advantageous social connections.

After plaçage died out in the mid-1800s, whites were still in charge, but the city’s social system was complicated by its multiple ranks of Other, and the multiple dialects—French, Spanish, English, Creole—spoken there. The city’s famously rich musical and culinary tradition derives from this extreme cultural diversity, and links it to the Caribbean cities with which it traded, rather than the nearby cities of the South (though it inherited the difficult racial legacy of both places).

MUCH OF Berlin, where the Holocaust came to ideological fruition, was razed in the Second World War and its aftermath; like New Orleans, it too has had a rebuilding. Because the unbroken seams and fresh sidewalks of West Berlin do not naturally or obviously depict the city’s dark and complex history—unlike the crumbled arches and bullet holes of East Berlin—it had to build memory into its infrastructure. The most pervasive example of this are the Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, brass memorials that pockmark the streets in cities all over Germany, each bearing the name and vital statistics of someone who was sent to the camps, and who once lived in the building before which the stone lies.

There’s plenty to stumble over in New Orleans, but nothing so Germanically well organized. Downriver from the French Quarter, in Faubourg Marigny and Bywater (never mind the Lower Ninth Ward), the spray-painted x-codes used for post-Katrina search-and-rescue are often still visible, even on houses that are obviously inhabited, rehabilitated, the paint touched up. The x-coded shotgun houses are beautiful, almost garish, painted magenta and teal, their eaves filled with gingerbread curlicues. The way they’re tucked together, close enough for someone to reach an arm out one house’s window and into the next, is indicative of a kind of messy intimacy—the debauched easy living for which New Orleans is known, and the neighborliness that’s become a stereotype of the South for a reason, and has proved necessary for recovery.

Whenever I took out my camera, I began to feel jittery, guilty. I hid it in my bag until I was alone on the street, then snapped a bad picture because I was didn’t wait for the full exposure. What was I ashamed of? I took plenty of photos in Berlin, not only of the Wall and the memorials I passed but of people, buildings, the river. On Royal Street in the Bywater, I passed a fence with seven-year-old spray paint still visible: “looters will be shot.” I didn’t break or enter, but I had certainly taken without asking.

New Orleans, unlike Berlin, has no official narrative of suffering. While it might not be the healthiest thing for Germans to walk around reminded of their collective national guilt at every turn, the fact is that the German government takes on the responsibility of acknowledging its past (there’s even a noun for this reckoning: Vergangenheitsbewältigung). The state funds the museums, art exhibitions, and memorials that hold German history up for examination. Because New Orleans’s economy depends largely on tourism and an easygoing reputation, to doubt itself publicly, as Berlin does, would be like admitting to soiled sheets on the guest bed.

A bartender at Johnny White’s Sports Pub, the French Quarter bar that stayed open during the aftermath of Katrina and became a rallying point for the city, noted that the Quarter had remained largely free of looters: “People respect the tradition and majesty of the Quarter,” she said. “It’s what makes New Orleans New Orleans. That, or they’re afraid of being cursed by Marie Laveau.” That majesty, arguably the Quarter’s greatest asset, is also what makes the neighborhood’s image as an adult amusement park so troubling.

In a 2007 essay for the Journal of American History, J. Mark Souther looks at just how New Orleans has become “Disneyfied.” The process of Disneyfication, he explains, is not about the ongoing preservation of the historical French Quarter, but rather the revivification of its “alluring image by restoring distinctive architecture and promoting culture and revelry.” This lush and glittering festivity acts as a facade over the “shock [of seeing] thousands of agonized and visibly poor African Americans huddled outside the city’s convention center and the Superdome after fleeing their submerged homes.” The French Quarter is like someone beautiful and botoxed; the seams are perfect but they feel like lies.

The rise of post-Katrina “voluntourism” notwithstanding, the city’s evolution since 2005 has only served to firm the implicit barrier between white and black: the demolition of affordable housing projects in the Tremé, to take one example, and the construction of Louis Armstrong Park in their place, have effectively cut that neighborhood off from the French Quarter. To be fair, the park is lovely, and it serves as a cultural as well as social space, housing the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts, Congo Square, and part of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. What if New Orleans had also included a museum of creole cultures? Of black history? Or even just a memorial. In addition to the Holocaust memorial, designed by Yaacov Agam, Woldenberg Park contains the Monument to the Immigrant, an abstract steel sculpture called “Ocean Song,” and a stone statue depicting Old Man River, but the story of the human cargo that the river carried into town is conspicuously absent.

In a recent online essay for the New Yorker, Richard Brody writes about his impressions of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, which consists of series of tall, squared-off concrete columns arranged in rows over undulating ground. In the memorial you become surrounded by the heavy concrete, unable to see anyone else in the maze, or an obvious way out. When I visited it, I found the visceral panic it caused in me to be a powerful evocation of the Holocaust experience, one that implicated me as a victim but with the knowledge of a perpetrator. Brody complains that the memorial is too metaphorical; its assumption that “everybody knows” what it refers to “is the first step on the road to forgetting.” But in Berlin, where reminders of the Holocaust exist in explicit and literal form at every turn, it’s almost impossible to imagine someone coming across the memorial without having acquired at least a minimal background understanding. I found the memorial startlingly effective on an emotional and personal level, akin to how I felt seeing that spray paint on the fence.

While there are many implicit signs of New Orleans’s painful past and difficult present, to someone without prior knowledge, they are invisible. That’s why the x-codes are not enough. New Orleans’s Mardi Gras image seems at odds with the official, the regulated, but that image is upheld by a number of committees devoted to historic preservation and promotion of tourism. Until the city expends its resources to address a more complete narrative that includes slavery, poverty, colonialism, and present racial and socioeconomic tensions, this will remain the case. After having to reinvent itself in 1945, and again in 1991, Berlin has become a hub of youth, art, and intellectual inquiry. Encouraging tourists to drink hurricanes by the waterfront may be better for business, but repression ultimately precludes healing. New Orleans’s distance from the Holocaust makes that particular tragedy easier to remember than its own, but there can be no real redemption for a crime you didn’t commit.

Photo of Holocaust memorial in New Orleans by Kevin T. Quinn, Flickr creative commons