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Message in a Bottle: Contesting the Legibility/Illegibility of Ruins and Revival in Post-Katrina New...

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Beatrice J. Choi IVC 2013 Submission 03/15/2013 Message in a Bottle: Contesting the Legibility/Illegibility of Ruins and Revival in Post-Katrina New Orleans [Fig. 1] An ‘X’ marks the spot. All of the houses in New Orleans struck by Hurricane Katrina once bore this sign. In the wake of the storm, military personnel spray-painted each damaged house with a grim yet simple tally to account for the evacuation of New Orleans. Now, most of the houses in the more prosperous neighborhoods have opted to paint over the reminder, a few choosing proudly to memorialize the ‘X’ as a survivor’s mark of experience. The houses that bear such marks in less affluent neighborhoods oftentimes do not have a say in whether they wish to forego this stamp of experience or not. Crossed out as they are on the cultural, political and economic spectrum, the residents in these less wealthy neighborhoods are tarnished by Katrina’s sweep over the built environment and the storm’s distorted media coverage as legacies of the event’s material and mediated aftermath. If the residents and victims of the event find 1

Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


Message in a Bottle: Contesting the Legibility/Illegibilityof Ruins and Revival in Post-Katrina New Orleans

[Fig. 1] An ‘X’ marks the spot. All of the houses in

New Orleans struck by Hurricane Katrina once bore this sign.

In the wake of the storm, military personnel spray-painted

each damaged house with a grim yet simple tally to account

for the evacuation of New Orleans. Now, most of the houses

in the more prosperous neighborhoods have opted to paint

over the reminder, a few choosing proudly to memorialize the

‘X’ as a survivor’s mark of experience. The houses that bear

such marks in less affluent neighborhoods oftentimes do not

have a say in whether they wish to forego this stamp of

experience or not. Crossed out as they are on the cultural,

political and economic spectrum, the residents in these less

wealthy neighborhoods are tarnished by Katrina’s sweep over

the built environment and the storm’s distorted media

coverage as legacies of the event’s material and mediated

aftermath. If the residents and victims of the event find


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


these ‘X’ markings ambivalent in their appearance and

significance, how are these traces part and parcel of the

cultural production of post-disaster New Orleans? How do

these networks of urban wreckage leave signs behind that act

as more than visible legacies of such a catastrophe, but

rather, as the liminal spaces and ecologies of a stricken


In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans stands

apart as a post-traumatic landscape that cannot be read

without the projections of specific racial, socioeconomic

and cultural readings onto its terrain. These imaginative

geographies1 are superimposed onto the physical disaster-

stricken site of New Orleans, directly, negatively affecting

the city’s reconstruction efforts. Interpretations of the

post-traumatic landscape reveal disparate discourses about

aesthetics, capitalism, security, and social justice that

1 Edward Said first introduces the idea of imaginative geographies as “the invention and construction of a geographical space” vis-à-vis the Orientand the cultural production of Imperialism. With these conceptual spaces, “scant attention paid to the actuality of the geography and its inhabitants” for the purpose of “the mapping conquest, and annexation ofterritory” (Said, 181).


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


collide with extant results on the built environment and the

citizens who inhabit these spaces. This therefore is an

issue of placing stakes on a visual legibility of the built

environment as an object of observation. Media institutions

read the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans as a bed of

violence, governmental bodies addressed it as a site for

simultaneous conservation and disposability, and

humanitarian responses present an unrealistic tabula rasa

perspective, neglecting its preexisting fabric of

neighborhood life. However, New Orleans in a post-Katrina

environment recovers and renegotiates its conditions of

legibility against a backdrop of overlapping, and often-

pernicious discourses. I am less interested in the active

contestation of a city’s representation after a disaster of

national proportions, but instead, in the potential to

engage in alternative readings of history by regarding the

stricken city as an archival habitat, an environmentally

localized and traumatized bed of objects. To counter these

readings, I offer an alternative history as a refusal of


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


responses to such a ‘natural’ disaster that become

‘naturalized’ in collective memory. Ultimately,

renegotiating the different readings of the city unearths a

live space out of New Orleans’ ruins instead of foisting an

imagined one to blanket the already wounded space.

I explore the visual rhetoric interlacing portrayals of

New Orleans’ ruins and revival through analyzing the

different aesthetic responses made in the aftermath of

Hurricane Katrina. These aesthetic responses frame the post-

traumatic landscape in certain reified narratives, and carve

particular shapes into city’s topography in such a way that

the geography imagined by those who receive these responses

are invariably affected by its visual influence. Borrowing a

term from Sol Worth, I argue that post-hurricane

representations of Katrina qualify as articulated events,

“produced by a person’s own musculature or by his use of

tools or both. [It] must be thought of as mediated through

the use of a communicative mode—words, pictures, music, and

so on” (Worth, 29). As such, I consider the images


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


disseminated by renowned photographer Robert Polidori after

Katrina, 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”

(Sontag, 3). Polidori’s work After the Flood contracts certain

controversy, marred with implications of commerce and

ideological exploitation at the expense of material dearth

and socioeconomic gravity experienced by those living in New

Orleans. I contrast Polidori’s work with an alternate

aesthetic embodied by the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours that

refutes reified responses to Hurricane Katrina as a

‘natural’ disaster, and contests aestheticizing—also,

anesthetizing—aims on a ‘pliant’ and ‘wounded’ post-

traumatic landscape unable to contest the very grounds of

its legibility. Utilizing semiotic analysis to investigate

how each aesthetic perspective articulates distinctive

visions of the city, I prioritize different readings of the

post-traumatic New Orleans landscape, with its very

‘liveness’ in mind.


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


The practice of reading a city’s landscape is a tool of

modernity that initially helped to delineate public spaces,

a mode of address for the masses, and spatial form of

collective memory2. The reading of urban spaces enables

community building through physical experiences and concrete

engagements with the built environment to promote social

advocacy, human ecology, and active interventions in live

space, not imagined space. In reading the city as a text3

through direct interaction with the built environment, I

propose a strategy of looking at the post-traumatic

landscape through the context of (il)legibility. Legibility allows

certain readings of the city’s landscape to seem evident and

natural, yet rupture—in the form of disaster or terrorism—

reveals other discourses hidden or unscripted. These

previously illegible texts contest the dominant discourses,

allowing a new space to revitalize and re-inform both the

2 In City Reading, David Henkin writes of 19th century New York City as a forerunner in cultivating “the culture of city reading in the nineteenthcentury, [to organize and imagine] social relations around an experienceof public space rather than an ideology, a set of class interests, or a fiction of an abstract community” (Henkin, 176).3 There is an intellectual history of reading the city as a text that includes the likes of Debord 1958; de Certeau Re. 2011; Harvey 1997.


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


material and cultural production of post-Katrina New

Orleans. The implication of looking at things in terms of

(il)legibility has ethical stakes when we consider their

material subsistence. On one hand, the visual and physical

removal of such materiality denies the precise conditions of

existence not only for these ruined sites, but also for

those housed in them. On the other, to focus too much on the

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. To read against the grain of available literature

in contemporary journalism and activist-scholarship on the

rebuilding of the built environment, I use the visual schema

of (il)legibility to move away from a purely humanist

emphasis on social justice to depict its tensions with

materialist interventions in visual culture. 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 existential proof of their


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


presence and existence. Ultimately, such visual erasure

allows for certain responses from the media, state

bureaucracies, and humanitarian endeavors to not only be

expected but also to be perceived as natural responses to a

‘natural’ disaster.

Section I. The Moneyed Sublime and the Power of People-less


Monday, August 29th, 2005—Hurricane Katrina hit

landfall overnight. In a matter of days, New Orleans was

left flooded, littered with ruins. Amidst the devastation

signs could be read that pointed to the depletion of

direction and order in the post-traumatic landscape. Susan

Sontag predicted in On Photography that aesthetic responses

work with and on the built environment, complicit in its own

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” (Sontag, 76).

Her words have carried over a measure of legitimacy into the


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


present, where aesthetic responses to a disaster signal the

disappearance of the city’s template prior to the event,

articulating the emergence of its next incarnation, a shift

from one form of visible legibility to another. What

threatens us with the city’s disappearance then cannot be

read any longer, and the issue for a new representation of

the city is sent. As the city undergoes fluctuation, the

conceptualization of its built environment also shifts,

pushing undercurrent ideologies to the surface as the city

transitions variably from ruins to revival.

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. In another

compilation of spectacular, post-disaster photography,

Robert Polidori packages his perspective of post-Katrina New

Orleans in the tersely named After the Flood. Jeff Rosenheim,

curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, introduces the


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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” (Polidori, 11). This exclamation

inspires in turn a slew of questions: 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

post-Katrina New Orleans? Hereon, I address the ways in

which readings of the disaster-stricken landscape may frame

the aesthetics of a disaster without tackling social justice

as a necessity in addressing the actual ruins, chaining

enterprise to ruination.

The book opens up to spreads of a stricken panorama:

The mild blue sky sets a scene of destruction anomalous with

its clarity and light. In “Tupelo Street” [Fig. 2] stark

devastation draws jagged edges, splintered objects, and

vestiges of domestic order struck by the weight of an


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


invisible force. The house, its front façade cleanly ripped

away from the structure, reveals its domestic innards, with

a slanted closet full of colored men’s shirts. The house

tilts, favoring weight on its right, devoid of furniture

except for an upturned stool near the center. There isn’t

any 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 can be read through ruins. That same force is

measured out in different ways in “View from St. Claude

Avenue bridge” [Fig. 3, 7], 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. 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, drawn against the set of an

ordinary residence. The measure of disaster manifests itself

differently in photography, where Polidori in an interview

describes its aesthetic effect as the capture of reality as


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fiction, associating the photographs with literary

legibility. He situates the images in the realm of the

imaginary where the viewers become immersed, asserting

“[The] viewer has to put more of him or herself into it…

Reality will compose the most extreme paradoxes and

contradictions and adjacencies, which can’t be understood”

(Ayers, 1). 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

aesthetic decision to portray architectural ruins through

photography is a modern concept Sontag intuitively connects:

“[The] photograph offers a modern counterpart of that

characteristically romantic architectural genre, the

artificial ruin” (Sontag, 80). In a review of After the Flood,

Dieter Roelstraete agrees, exclaiming: “Indeed, it has been

said that many buildings look better as ruins” (Roelstrate,

8). After the Flood takes the form of a stunning montage of

photographs of New Orleans still inundated in the waters six


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


months after Katrina’s passing. There is a haunting

experience of the sublime in this contemporary tableau, and

it is with a certain ambivalence that Roelstraete observes,

“Robert Polidori has a great eye for the sublime beauty…

that lies hidden, in waiting, among the wreckage of

devastation” (Roelstraete, 5). The sublime, the romantic

concept that gains precedence in the 18th and 19th centuries,

is well known as a response to the naïve, idealistic beliefs

placed in the feats of modern man. 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” (Ray, 5). Paul Duro asserts this in his work “‘Great

and Noble Ideas of the Moral Kind’"; although he examines

Englishman Joseph Wright’s art during the Industrial

Revolution, the visual legacy of the sublime speaks to a

greater Western schema of aesthetic discourse. Duro observes

that the sublime “came to be understood less as a rhetorical


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


trope than as an aesthetic category in its own right” (661).

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”

(Duro 661). The sublime stamps the effects of beauty even as

it elicits a sense of awe, even terror, conventionally meant

to remind man of circumstances larger than those he weaves.

Polidori chooses to articulate the sublime in his

photographic representations of New Orleans, resulting in

the legibility of beauty in the inhuman, in the

extraordinary and catastrophic.

Polidori’s photograph “4235 Albert Drive” [Fig. 4]

presents a tableau that mixes an industrial aesthetic with

nostalgia. Polidori frames the contrast made by the canal

wall in the background with the forlorn scatter of

residents’ material possessions, such as the white iron bed-

frame with girls’ dresses hanging from its rim. A nursery


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


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 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 aesthetically to travel literature and art.

Duro observes that “[many] sought to locate the sublime, in

the manner of the picturesque traveller, in an appreciation

of the grander aspects of nature” (Duro 661). The pleasure

and terror intertwined in such landscape paintings such as

Wright’s, however, become aesthetic experiences updated to

address the politics of the present day through photography.


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


The image of “5979 West End Boulevard” [Fig. 5] would

never garner a second glance, quotidian as it appears, an

example of everyday domesticity interrupted by the

unmistakable markings left in the aftermath of Hurricane

Katrina. The house at centerpiece, complete with white

picket fence, could pass as a photographic Andrew Wyeth

landscape if it weren’t for the tree leaning against the

house’s rooftop. This image resonates strongly with Middle

American heritage, with its freshly drawn wheel marks on the

dirt ground and its grey, overcast skies overlooking

commonplace suburban setting. Unlike previous forms of

landscape imagery; however, where the portrayal of Middle

America amidst the Great Depression united an image of a

nation undergoing a shared experience4, this image of the

lonesome house suffocated by the weight of the tree, its

environment, provokes instead a strong sense of abandonment.

Except now the cloudy sky bears witness and warning to what

4 Also, it is worthwhile to note that Middle American imagery was essentially populist, full of emotional portraiture, pictures of the masses, working classes, etc. For further reference, see the art of Grant Wood; Andrew Wyeth; and of regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.


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has befallen New Orleans as example of both 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 the place of the human bodies excised

from these photographic representations of disaster.

The danger of portraying a barren, disaster-stricken

landscape, however, is that there is no need to depict the

people affected and traumatized by the 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, and are thus rendered fictional.

Duro observes that in keeping with the aesthetic reading of

the sublime, through the focus of an inhuman object as

subject, “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’” (674). This fracture between pleasure and ethical

action goes unaddressed in the political reality of post-


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


Katrina New Orleans. Writer John Updike, in his review of

the book for the New York Times, 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” (Updike, 1). 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 the post-traumatic

built environment legitimize a kind of vacant, gaping beauty

through absence and devastation. What these readings avoid

examining is “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” (Ray, 5). The ruins in Polidori’s

photography 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


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


functions as a complete work of art. Polidori’s aesthetic

representations immediately 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 media footage taken during and immediately after the

hurricane, others read the lingering devastation carved onto

the New Orleans landscape in a similar manner, exposing

parallels in the longstanding ideological effects of

disaster coverage by televised media. In televised news

footage Kelly Whalen, an MSNBC special correspondent

covering Hurricane Katrina exclaims,

“I have never felt so small as I did when I first visited hurricane-ravaged New Orleans two months after Katrina. There were signs everywhere of the horror thatplayed out when 80 percent of the city became submergedin water. Cars swept up in the floodwaters now rested upside down on building tops. Downed power lines crisscrossed mud-caked streets, and marooned boats and homes that had floated right off their foundations blocked intersections. Ripped-open roofs and spray-painted messages of desperation for help told stories of people fighting for survival…” (Whalen, Interview for NBC).

In an account of exactly how the landscape suffered through


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


Katrina, the media depicts the wreckage strewn about New

Orleans as the fallout of disaster management and the

security of the built environment. The fallout, as we have

witnessed, comes at the cost of human lives. The shock that

comes from these multiple failures is not from the fact that

such a natural disaster had come to pass, but that it had

devastated an American city so unexpectedly and thoroughly.

Here we see that alongside the modern conception of the

sublime and the contemporary manifestation of the classical

ruins, are the material implications of another modernist

fabrication: the systematization of security.

The aesthetic narratives of the sublime find

ideological symmetry in the scientific tenet of knowledge

and manifest in the post-modern outcome of Hurricane

Katrina. Duro confirms this discursive collusion: “Indeed

both scientists and non-scientists saw in scientific

investigation intimations of beauty, awe and terror (and

often the deity) that served not to undermine, but to

validate, their conclusions” (Duro 665). In the context of


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


both Polidori’s aesthetic renditions and the media coverage

of the post-Katrina landscape, what becomes legible are the

expectations for the scientific management of the modern

built environment to be able to withstand any sort of

adversity or catastrophe. Whelan confirms this assumption in

her news feature: “After spending several months reporting

in New Orleans, I adapted to this eerie landscape… I was

struck by the features of a functioning American city that

most of us take for granted” (Whalen, Interview for NBC).

This unreflecting state takes the ‘normal’ order of life for

granted in what Peter Taylor considers one of the essential

conditions of modernity: “If being modern is a taken-for-

granted feature of life this implies it is embedded in

everyday thinking and behavior” (Taylor, 4). Hurricane

Katrina tears the guise of normality from the

systematization of disaster management and security. The

engineered bridges and levees, the media coverage of the

responses, and government branches such as FEMA established

to address such events—all these prove inadequate, revealing


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


a collective American inability to contain nature as

presumed, and reads as an articulated failure of the

modernist era. Onlookers responding to the news or

photographs of the event become aware of the potential that

disasters have to uproot all that was supposedly secure,

anchored and established. This sudden awareness, one of

Taylor’s responses to modernity, is also the pivotal point

where a new form of legibility rises to the surface. The

foundational blocks for the American built environment

expose the skeletal ruins of modern security

infrastructures, disaster preparation and architectural

methods of containment as ideals of progress rendered

defunct, obsolete. The post-traumatic landscape then becomes

an active space to read the disappointment of modernist

ideologies, and the ever-growing preoccupation with

disasters, advancing the production of both technical

expertise and cultural narratives in disaster management.

The inability to imagine the extent to which a disaster

could damage a city, and how the built environment could be


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


inadequate, even detrimental, under extreme duress reads as

a lesson in complacency, a dialogue steeped in delusion. 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 valid community need. To open up space for

critical readings of New Orleans as a post-traumatic

landscape, the next step would be to investigate the legacy

of disaster management and the impact it leaves in the

American collective memory. In The Culture of Calamity, Kevin

Rozario claims that over time, “Disasters have been

laboratories for social reform” (23); thus, disasters

forcibly carve out their own spaces for legibility through

the security measures that manifest in response to such

traumatic events. The modern anticipation of disasters,

according to Rozario, leads to the building of security

structures and ecologies as a kind of material and visual

culture that facilitated the formation of “a decisive

structural or ideological component to the American


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


dependency on disasters” (Rozario, 2). Rozario’s historical

analysis of the evolution of American disaster preparations

and responses posits that the cultural production of

disaster management forms over a layering of disasters and

the responsive legislative and media measures arising from

such events. When preventative measures and relief efforts

begin to address American public interest via mass media,

this ultimately leads to the mediation and visual

representation of disasters to become pervasive in

contemporary times. The misreading of such disasters is

symptomatic of modernist tendencies, as a product of years’

worth of constructed narratives, cultural deposits that form

the sediment of contemporary representations of disaster

emerge ideologically reified as a ‘natural’ response to


American civic engagement in the 1927 Mississippi flood

spelled a turning point for modernist responses to disaster

management. For Rozario, the flood was a catalyst for

“clearing the emotional and political space for a modern


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system of disaster management” and notes “[intense] media

attention encouraged the public to invest emotionally in the

flood and to demand that politicians do whatever they could

to help the victims” (Rozario, 146). The Risk Management

Solutions’ Special Report supports this claim, “The 1927 flood

was a disaster on such a scale that it changed the political

climate of the U.S.” (RMS, 1). The flood affected the

political reality of the US in two concrete results: first

with President Coolidge’s Lower Mississippi Flood Control

Act of 1928. The Flood Act “authorized ‘under the direction

of the Secretary of War and the supervision of the Chief of

Engineers’ a system of flood control achieved through

floodways, levee channel improvements and stabilization, and

tributary basin improvements” (RMS, 9). This led to the

official inauguration of a flood relief-centered

‘bureaucratic mechanism’.5 The second outcome took shape in

the rise of Herbert Hoover—the “Great Humanitarian”—into

5 Lohof, Bruce A. “Herbert Hoover, Spokesman of Humane Efficiency: The Mississippi Flood of 1927”. American Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn, 1970), Pg. 691.


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presidential office after successful flood relief

operations, placing a human face to the relief efforts.

These two outcomes have lasting legacies in the cultural

production of disaster management and in particular, on the

activism arising from social justice responses to disasters

that I will address in the second section.

Situating the Flood Act against the historical backdrop

of American disaster management contextualizes modernist

discourses of scientific mastery over natural circumstances,

and mold cultural awareness for contemporary responses to

disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. In the case of the Army

Corp of Engineers, the voice of authority sometimes acted as

the source of aggravation for disaster management. The U.S.

Army Corp of Engineers was established in 1802 specifically

to “subject the [Mississippi River] to human mastery”

(Rozario, 144). The modernist ideologies that influenced the

working practices and beliefs of these engineers “brought

modern scientific principles to bear on the problem of

disasters, exhibiting extraordinary faith in technology and


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planning” (144). Historical events, however, revealed in

multiple occasions that the solutions implemented by the

government for anticipating and coping with disasters at the

time would not solve all of America’s flooding problems6.

Rozario recounts,

As communities along the Mississippi River had learned in 1927, floodwalls must continually be strengthened and raised if they are keeping raging waters at bay. When they breach, as happened again in 1993, the flooding is much more severe than would have been the case if artificial defenses had not been erected… Not only was this placing people in harm’s way, it was destroying wetlands that presented a natural impedimentto floods. By 1966, it was all too clear that engineering could not, in itself, protect communities from calamities (170).

This is one of many cases in which modern disaster policy

acted as ‘the mother of disaster’ (146). What is oftentimes

left unnoticed is the fact that the solutions to disaster

planning and management were often made on a case-by-case

6 Amongst which stands the remarkable example in 1947, where “the military dropped two hundred pounds of dry ice into the center of a hurricane that was approaching Florida, hoping thereby to ‘over-seed’ the clouds and prevent rain. The storm shifted direction soon afterwardand careened into Savannah, Georgia. According to historian Ted Steinberg, that luckless city may thus have been ‘on the receiving end of modernity ascendant: the first engineered hurricane disaster’” (Rozario, 163).


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


basis, requiring reform and correction after each instance

where the rising waters breached the floodwaters, levees,

and precautionary measures. This is the underside of

progress that did not appear in the dialogue of the time, a

modernist experience of costly advancement rendered


Modernist principles of scientific progress eventually

confront the hard-experienced reality of natural disasters

to yield a particular blend of bureaucratic, technical, and

grass-roots action that Herbert Hoover would employ in

response to the Mississippi Flood of 1927. Hoover’s

endeavors in disaster relief and management after the

Missisippi Flood were some of the first large scale efforts

to work across traditional divides perceived by technical,

bureaucratic and community-centered organizations. In the

wake of the flood, President Coolidge responded to the

requests of stricken states by organizing federal

participation in relief efforts in the guise of a Special

Mississippi Flood Committee, more popularly known as the


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Hoover Committee. Hoover, at the time the Secretary of

Commerce, provided the groundwork for other organizational

entities created to address the issue of preparing for and

responding to natural disasters, by coordinating a relief

effort across bureaucratic divides.7 The Disaster Relief Act

of 1950 soon followed, operating as “a key building block of

an emerging national security state that promised a more

orderly, rational society—a world safe from natural and man-

made disasters” (Rozario, 23). Bruce Lohof notes that

Hoover, in his stint as the superintendant of flood relief

operations, prioritized bureaucratic hierarchy to “give

cohesion and central direction to an essentially local

relief operation” (Lohof, 692). This ‘administrative

machine’ would “gather the potential energies of disparate

agencies, coordinate those energies and place them at the

disposal of local leadership, [imbued] with a spirit of

7 Of the main branches enumerated, the Departments of the Navy and War, the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard, the Agriculture Department, and Hoover’s own Commerce Department. Also of note, the ‘quasi-governmental’ American Red Cross became an ‘indispensable’ part of Hoover’s disaster management machinery. Lohof, Bruce A. “Herbert Hoover,Spokesman of Humane Efficiency”, 691.


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community” (Lohof, 692). These two consequences led to the

popular acceptance of disaster management as part of the

political infrastructure, and the bureaucratization of

social activism through the governmental backing of local,

grassroots organizations.

Despite the spirited rhetoric offering promises of

local agents and communities collaborating side-by-side with

the technical expertise of the engineers and the political

clout of state bureaucracies, what ultimately emerges is a

body of policies and administrative machinery suited to

build a security state. 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’, or rather, 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” (Rozario, 10).


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Discursively, American culture embeds disaster management in

narratives of containment and control: “Even as disasters

have become entertaining spectacles, they have also laid the

cultural groundwork for the expansion of a powerful,

national security apparatus” (9). Yet it is unclear whether

the element contained is the disaster or human subject. It

is only through mistakes that such endeavors are measured

against, and here is where the false security in modern

standards and measures is laid bare. Progress emerges at the

risk of others less able or less knowledgeable to prepare

for the fallout, and the mistakes can be read as scars

littered on the post-disaster landscape. 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” (2) has

shaped the way the U.S has undertaken catastrophic events

through modern history. This historical genealogy, complicit

with all the modernist agendas, biases, and ideals that

shape the built environment as security apparatus, wires


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itself also into the aesthetic renditions of contemporary

post-disaster landscapes.

Disasters experienced in recent American history emerge

both as spectacle and catalyst for progress in the

systematization of national security. This reveals a deep

ambivalence towards disasters, in which the articulation of

disaster management methods meant to prevent and contain

such occurrences includes the possibility of failure. The

resulting effect is to read disaster itself as a call for

progress. Where then can a reading of progress emerge from

the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans? In reality, both of

these modernist narratives—of disaster and progress—yield a

complex entanglement that stretches across live space.

Taylor notes that a geohistorical approach “respects this

embeddedness, never neglecting the contexts in which modern

behavior and thinking take place” (Taylor, 4), even if such

trains of thought can clash with one another. The post-

traumatic landscape is capable of holding such differing

narratives in the same space, the disaster itself unearthing


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ideologies of disparate temporalities, all surfacing to come

into play in the present. In a geohistorical approach

towards reading the post-traumatic landscape, Taylor points

to Foucault’s observation: “that whereas time has been

treated as dynamic, space is seen as essentially ‘dead’”

(96). Herein lies the problem with artistic renderings of

Post-Katrina New Orleans: they implicate the idea of the

built environment in a fixed frame, a dead space of

representation. The pejorative implications of this

modernist, reductive perspective to the liveness of space

and its situated materialities is what Janet Berlo in her

article “Beyond the Mirror” calls an “instrumentalist

approach to a politics of environment” (Berlo 28). She

protests the danger inherent to such an aesthetic approach

as a flattening of the complexities of a built environment

with its intermingling ecologies of the human and the

material that ignores the possibility of “an equitable

geopolitics that [loosens] the grip of anthropocentric

nationalisms and devastating neocolonialism” (Berlo 28). The


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liveness of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina may

paradoxically become more apparent after its traumatic

upheaval, unearthing the ways in which the “material may be

the ultimate judge of our ethics” (Berlo 28).

With post-Katrina New Orleans’ tense juxtapositions

between human and material ecologies in mind, Polidori’s

aesthetic portrayal of its ‘liveness’ depicts the shortage

of feasible solutions for renewal. It is only when the

viewer engages in an active counter-read does the issue of

progress and social justice becomes legible necessarily by

the very human absence from the image. This is an oversight

that Updike opposes:

Arresting though the outdoors photos are, with their silent testimony to a catastrophe that swept through humble neighborhoods accustomed to being ignored, it isthe wrecked, mildewed interiors that take our eye and quicken our anxiety. Would our own dwelling quarters look so pathetic, so obscenely reflective of intimate needs inadequately met, if they were similarly violatedand exposed? (1).

It is the disembowelment of residential interiors that

shakes the viewer the most. The home is the last and most

basic unit of security, and when the home is penetrated on


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such a wide-scale level of devastation, it sends a clear

message that the expected security methods have failed. The

city of New Orleans is a conflicted space in the sense that

all feel the devastation and call for its reconstruction,

yet none feel the personal obligation and ability to take up

the responsibility. Do these photographs address who

receives the obligation to restore such bedrooms and living

rooms, purchase of new furnishings beyond feasible means,

and re-install such delicate chandeliers as seen in “1724

Deslondes St” and “2520 Deslondes St” (Fig. 6 and 7)? By

taking the viewer into these houses, Polidori manages to

play on unexpected peripheries of private and public spaces,

and thus the margins of ethical responsibility and social

justice. When disaster enters through the front door, it

becomes much more than just a public event; the devastation

reveals the poverty and unpreparedness behind the security

apparatus in the civic responses to Katrina. The

photographic representations of the stripped surroundings


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and devastated material culture in the devastated city 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” (Debord, 23). It is the lack of social justice

in the favor of a capitalist message that confirms post-

Katrina New Orleans as a site of spectacle,8 as Updike

notes, “[who] is this book for? Not the flood’s victims, who

could not afford it” (Updike, 2). Those who would provide

visible proof of the social reality of post-Katrina New

Orleans have been neatly excised out of the frame of sight.

The illegibility of social justice in the 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

8 In Society of the Spectacle, Debord mentions the spectacle is the “materialization of ideology brought about by the concrete success of an autonomized system of economic production—which virtually identifies social reality with an ideology that has remolded all reality in its ownimage” (28).


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$90; a consumeristic paradox hovers over the existence of so

costly a volume portraying the reduction of a mostly poor

urban area” (Updike, 2). 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

an event, 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.

The recent rash of disaster tourism venues cropping up

in the wake of Hurricane Katrina may offer a compelling read

into the spectacle emerging from disaster responses. Disaster

tourism9 is a fairly recent development that provokes

similar, mixed sentiments as its counterparts ‘slum porn’,

and ‘death’ or ‘dark’ tourism, due to the voyeuristic

pleasure or fascination that fuels interest in these

9 It was surprisingly difficult to find official definitions of ‘Disaster Tourism’; hence, I turned to Sudhir Andrews’ Introduction to Tourism and Hospitality Industry for an in-field sense of the word: “Disaster tourism is the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity” (Andrews, 164).


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afflicted, post- traumatic sites. Post-disaster tours places

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 rooted

onsite. Disaster tourism distorts the modernist legacy of

progress in response to disaster, inverting the cultural

production of disasters and disaster management from one of

preparation and control to that of negligence and

exploitation. Instead of ideologically framing disasters as

natural phenomena to prepare against and master, a modernist

response to the aesthetic portrayal of the disaster as the

sublime, disaster tourism encompasses the disaster as

spectacle. The disaster-spectacle is a “visible negation of

life”, and offers visitors to post-Katrina New Orleans

curated portrayals of the splintered environment that are

artfully selected, disarrayed, and manicured for effect,

“where the real world is replaced by a selection of images

which are projected above it” (Debord, 4 & 6). The cultural


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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.

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” (Klein, 6).

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.

Here, I argue that disaster tourism—or its pejorative term


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‘disaster porn’—helps to actively create or contest an

imaginative geography of its own, at the expense of those

who dwell within its parameters. By framing the landscape

with its own plots, death tourist ventures such as the Grey

Line Bus Tours’ Hurricane Katrina Tour10 and the

Hurricane/Rebirth Tour11 supplant history with a moving

panorama, writing over the torn environment.

How do disaster tourism and its exploitative

underpinnings alter contemporary readings of the New Orleans

cityscape? The preexisting cultural identity of New Orleans

as a tourist destination complicates the visualization of

the city when disaster tourism is thrown into the mix. Prior

to Katrina, the tourism industry was a celebration in civic

life, good food and music, albeit carefully crafted to be

politically innocuous. Anna Hartnell notes that the Katrina

bus invites tourists “to gaze on a bit of living history”

(Hartnell, 297). Hartnell observes the ‘illusory’ effect of

the prior tourist endeavors:

10 http://www.graylineneworleans.com/katrina.shtml. 11 http://www.tourneworleans.com/rebirth_set.html.


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Ironically though, few of the mostly white tourists whovisit realize that the apparently edgy experience of Bourbon Street is 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(297).

Here, it appears that a stage is already 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. Hartnell affirms these findings, taking the

legibility away from the residents who once resided in the

Ninth Ward and other parts of lower New Orleans to promote

instead “a business-driven reconstruction program that is

currently completing New Orleans’ makeover into a playground

for wealthy tourists” (299). The imaginings of New Orleans

in the American collective memory then considers only

certain high-profile locations that are aesthetically

pleasing to signify the city as a whole. The projection of

the city as an imaginative geography has concrete,

pejorative repercussions on the social reality of the


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inhabitants whose lives do not fit into the map of this

spectacle-fed New Orleans.

A few notable projects such as the Ninth Ward Rebirth

Bike Tours attempt to renovate tourism as a tool for

different valences of ‘progress’ by considering New Orleans

a live archive with a materiality that does not necessarily

preclude a perspective of social justice stemming from

disaster-stricken human ecologies. While Robert Polidori’s

photography evokes landscape imagery of the sublime, the

Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours’ aesthetic takes on a neo-

realist12 recovery stance from the day-to-day rebuilding of New

Orleans. The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours assumes an active

stance on witnessing the current state of rebuilding New

Orleans, considering the day-to-day reality of committing to

the reconstruction of the post-traumatic landscape as

neorealist progress as change. Stephanie Houston Grey

12 Neo-realism is an aesthetic school of thought seen in Italian film first after World War II—the brainchild of a post-traumatic Italy—yielding a perspective that makes a ‘virtue out of necessity’, as Christopher Wagstaff words it, “[becoming] their own producers, and developing cheap production methods, concentrating on authentic content rather than on ‘production values’ such as stars and spectacle” (Wagstaff, 13).


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affirms this aesthetic keeping interventionist practice,

stating, “Renewing a vibrant urban space means examining the

grounds upon which the city’s sense of authenticity has been

established in the past and confronting the spatial

ideologies that continue to inhibit the process of recovery”

(Houston Grey, 130). In order for post-Katrina New Orleans

to reconstruct the city, the ruins have to be examined as a

site of material and ideological contestation to address

what is built within the city’s space that prohibits its

social progress.

Section II. The Ninth Ward Revival Bike Tour: Neo-realist Interventions in Sight/Site-seeing

My experience of a bike tour through lower New Orleans

provides an example of tactical engagement that dismisses

the rules of normal, pre-formulated city legibility. In the

style of Michel de Certeau’s explorations in the reading of

space functions as an exercise of agency engaging the

pedestrian—or biker—with the intricacies of city reading

from the ground. The critical pedestrian walking through a


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site can witness the contrast between physical ruins and the

lingering hold of its ideological identity. Walkers, or as

de Certeau calls them, wandersmänner,13 walk along the post-

traumatic landscape to interact with it, an act of

appropriation that allows “walking to function as a space of

enunciation” (de Certeau, 93). 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,14 or his conceptual

opposite, the tourist. One is the urban poet that moves with

a skill and ease “which the journalist eagerly learns from

him” (Benjamin, 167), the other is a voyeuristic consumer.

13. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 93. 14. For Anne Friedberg, the flâneur is a “male dandy who strolled the urban streets and arcade in the nineteenth century” (Friedberg, 420). According to Susan Buck-Morss, the precise social position of the flâneur embodies ‘the empty time of modernity’ in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (Buck-Morss, 228).


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These slight nuances in social positions associated with

modern, tactical engagement within the city introduce

diverging ethics of seeing. The tourist 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 impact the flâneur makes with his

observances. The gaze of the flâneur is disengaged; he does

not intercede with his surroundings, yet permits it to act

on him. Walter Benjamin portrays the flâneur, “who plunges

into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy”

(Benjamin, 175), as a social product of his time. He arises

to “keep abreast of traffic signals… [subjecting] the human

sensorium to a complex kind of training” (175), thus

occupying new positions of seeing in modern city life. The

flâneur turns his “ambulatory gaze” to observe the changing

landscape of modern, public spaces. 15 This gaze eventually

15 For more on the urban spectator in New Orleans, see: Fisk, Sandra. “Strangers Are Flocking Here: Identity and Anonymity in 1810-1860”. American Nineteenth Century History. Vol. 6, Issue 1, Mar. 2005: 421.


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results in the ethical permission to look beyond detached

perusal to blatant consumption.

The tourist, a contemporary manifestation of the urban

spectator that the flâneur presented earlier in the

nineteenth century, engages in perceived parasitic behavior,

tying voyeurism to the remnants of city ruins.16

Historically dating back as early as the 1840s in New

Orleans, tourists consist of those “hailing from the working

and middle classes, as passive visitors guided by

convention, [blending] into the “modern ‘crowd’” (Frink,

162). Already a figure of dubious taste, the tourist is the

catalyst in a larger cultural economy that feeds upon the

landscape, “as the very presence of the tourist corrupts the

idea of reaching an authentic and totally different culture”

(Coleman & Crang, 3). Mike Crang notes that 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

16Fisk, “Strangers Are Flocking Here”, 160-163.


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which it itself has ruined” (3). The tourist establishes and

reinforces the idea of imaginative geographies splayed over

the actual site, semiotically tying worth on the ‘untouched’

site as that which is unreachable: “The really authentic

unspoiled place is always displaced in space or time—it is

spatially located over the next hill, or temporally existed

just a generation ago” (3). The tourist emerges in

contemporary times to engage in different social positions

alongside the post-traumatic landscape, linking present

notions of ruins, disaster capital, and the articulated

event as spectacle. 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 its

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


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and invert it. By allowing the pedestrian to engage actively

within the Lower Ninth Ward instead of from a spatial and

visual distance in a bus seat or car, the Ninth Ward Rebirth

Bike Tour offers a critical approach that pokes at

conventional histories surrounding post-Katrina New Orleans,


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 (Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours, Online).

The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours embeds itself within the

social fabric of the Ninth Ward, taking into account its

built history, the shared fates of its inhabitants, and the

politicized exploitation it suffered 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


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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” (Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours, Online). 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


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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 [Fig. 8] map this

trajectory of neglect as a tactical counter-aesthetic

narrative of the post-traumatic landscape. The aim is to


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build awareness of the negligence the neighborhood has

suffered, even as it represents the focus of world-wide

familiarity from the high-profile architectural, political

and media endeavors that profit highly without allowing more

than a mere percentage to come back to the community they

exploit. Acknowledging this particularly fruitful branch of

disaster capital, 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” (Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike

Tours, Online). 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 in the aftermath is to let the space to

articulate itself, inviting the critical pedestrian to come


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and investigate the post-traumatic landscape intimately and

individually. 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,

escaping the frame of conventional narratives.

The tour guide, Reecy, explains the concrete

impressions the disaster had imprinted upon the landscape of

lower New Orleans—the ‘X’ marks on the house, the flood

water marks that measured the rise and ebb 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


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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”

(Interview, Mar. 2011).” 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:

“We’ve been down here before [Katrina]. You’ve got to wonder

why they’re going from that type of house, style of the

house—everything—to something completely off-scale”

(Interview, Mar. 2011). Reecy ascribes it to “Vanity.

Vanity, vanity— ‘Frank Gehry needs you to look at his house

and go, ‘Ah, that is a Gehry house!’” (Interview, Mar.

2011). This inability to associate or acknowledge the dire

reality of the neighborhood in favor of some architect’s

masterpiece, or the mark of celebrity, traces back to the

delusions that arise from modernist delusions to the legacy


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of disaster. This failure manifests itself as dire lack of

empathy and an unwillingness to recognize the remnant traces

of legibility in the Ninth Ward’s broken homes and

structures in favor of profit.

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, “Now, to be fair to Make It

Right, they are the only organization working on a large-

scale to put people back into houses. There are a number of

volunteer organizations that are rehab-ing houses for them.

But this is the only major building project out here”

(Interview, Mar. 2011). This gesture, while much acclaimed,

is not sufficient. Once asked if the neighborhood is

prepared for the likes of another large-scale hurricane, she


“Zero plans for the lower Ninth Ward. No plan at all. There were plans, two years after the storm… plans, a whole library that they had, that the city put together. They had urban planners go, ‘Okay, here’s a couple of scenarios… we make everything that has ten feet of water, or whatever, near the floodwall… we make


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this area green space.’ Kind of a dirty word here in the lower Ninth Ward now, green space. ‘We do dense housing along Clayborn and St. Claude’s—the two main drags around town—and we rebuild here, along this side of Clayborn, and kind of let nature take it back, and we rebuild here.’ There are plans, but nothing has beenimplemented” (Interview, Mar. 2011)

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 slogan words ‘green space’ as not

an ethically driven intervention, but a shallow

appropriation of ecologically-minded material culture and

its potential interventions as the prize items of a more

privileged incoming cluster intended to displace the

neighborhood’s older, more impoverished inhabitants. This

weak attempt at community developing and habitation through

green branding is not a compatible alternative to the

restoration of a security apparatus for the lower Ninth

Ward. The contemporary narratives of humanistic social

justice campaigns are at odds once again with the discursive

narratives addressing the material act of rebuilding the


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built environment, where materialist interventions conducted

within a post-traumatic landscape are used to render certain

unwanted or undesirable demographics illegible in the name

of progress. This illegibility ethically conflates

humanistic and materialist readings of the post-traumatic

landscape, causing the people struck hardest by the disaster

to compete against the progressive reconstruction of

material sites and objects, which signify the erasure of New

Orleans’ poor marginalized past in the anticipation of a

gentrified, more privileged future.

The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours ultimately attempts

to unearth the derivative politics lurking behind such a

reconstruction project. I contrast this widely broadcast

idea of progress behind rebuilding projects such as Make It

Right—an uneasy marriage between capitalist gentrification in

the name of social reform—with the ideological stance

espoused by Reecy and the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours. The

latter draws from neo-realist values that act as the incentive

for progress. Neo-realism is defined here as an aesthetic


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genre that offers an alternative means of representing a

particular environment, historical sentiment and collective

identity of a nation by re-seizing its means of systematic,

cultural production—initially, the film and media industry—

and subverting it to tell different kinds of history,

memory, and texts. Subverting neo-realist aesthetics of

necessity and barefaced montages from a film trajectory

traveled in the mind’s eye to a physical trajectory traveled

on bike extends the interpretive frame from reading the film

as a text to reading the city as a text. A neorealist

reading of the city reveals it as a live text. These values

factor in both necessity and improvement as part of the

everyday process of recovery and renewal, 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 New

Orleans post-Katrina, “You see the empty houses, but you

also see new construction. And I do see it start up, every

week. Slowly but surely, it does happen. They start


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


renovating, they start coming home” (Interview, Mar. 2011).

Ultimately, the Ninth Ward Rebirth and Bike Tour’s approach

is a critical intervention in the context of post-Katrina

New Orleans because it addresses the post-traumatic

landscape as a live space with continuous progress, not a

dead one determined by the passing of the articulated

disaster event.

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 the 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


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


residents and volunteers, of governments and charities, the

rebuilding of this neighborhood is possible and still

underway” (Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours, Online). 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


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. Michael Crang notes that

“[touristic] culture is more than the physical travel, it is

the preparation of people to see other places as objects of

tourism, and the preparation of those people and places to


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


be seen” (Crang & Franklin, 10). 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 specific narrative of

legibility for the post-traumatic landscape, deciphering

critiques, solutions and progress in the terrain as

alternative readings to conventional narratives of neglect,

dismissive aesthetics of the sublime, and the visual

consumption of a space as disaster capital. By reassessing

the built environment as live space that speaks to its

inhabitants, critical counter-reads forego the undergirding

cultural ideologies that petrify the post-traumatic

landscape into an ossified graveyard of bygone dreams of

American Progress. Rather, various discursive and material

interventions that focus on recovering live space for

diverging and productive ideas of progress can negotiate the


Beatrice J. ChoiIVC 2013 Submission


reconstruction of a post-traumatic landscape to look beyond

its past passivity in receiving violent inscriptions of

instrumentalist mastery.