Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ethics of Visiting Certain Areas

This was a hard post to write.

Both because of the mixed feelings I had about visiting a certain area and also because I didn’t want to call out people who were most likely genuinely oblivious to how uncomfortable the tour was in the second half.

When I went to New Orleans for a work trip, there were several planned outings to educate the attendees about the architectural history of the city. We had a lecture, visited some historic locations, and the like. However, we also had a bus tour led by a professor.

Doullet House near the Mississippi River. Via Creative Commons.

Doullet House near the Mississippi River. Via Wikemedia Commons.

The first part of the tour highlighted early 20th century shippers’ mansions that survived Hurricane Katrina because of their proximity to the Mississippi River. Before the large flood banks were built, the seasonal flooding of the river added silt to the flood plain which, over time, raised the ground level of the area closest to the river. These mansions were just high enough to avoid major water damage and didn’t receive much wind damage either despite delicate ornaments like cupolas.

The second part of the tour was a bit different. While I’m sure the intention was in a good place, highlighting the architectural ingenuity of new homes that could respond to rising water levels through stilts or detaching from their foundations as house boats, it was still…uncomfortable.

The Lower 9th Ward today. Photo by Katherine Apricot via Creative Commons.

The Lower 9th Ward today. Photo by Katherine Apricot via Creative Commons.

We were on a giant tour bus driving around the 9th Ward. Where people lost their homes and lives. Where people have started to rebuild their lives. And this bus comes through with people taking photos of their lives. There were plenty of shells of homes with the various spray painted markings that indicated clear or that a body had been found inside. There were numerous foundations with no structure in sight. There were also people who had returned (or never left) and were trying to just rebuild their lives in either “architecture student project” houses or homes that were rebuilt by Brad Pitt’s foundation or Habitat for Humanity or the like. While the sustainability and ingenuity in some of these homes were fascinating, we were really just gawking. Many of the attendees were from very privileged backgrounds, and I felt like they were not connecting “this is a poor neighborhood that has struggled even before Katrina” with “I’m driving through someone’s neighborhood on a tour bus like I’m on safari”. I didn’t take a single photo because it just felt wrong to me.

Photo by Aaron Gustafson via Creative Commons.

Photo by Aaron Gustafson via Creative Commons.

The intention was to show the difference in how the land levels were affected by flooding and the genuinely clever ways architects were coming up with ways to prevent flood damage. But it felt like disaster tourism. The roads couldn’t accommodate a giant bus, and the city had actually stopped allowing buses in the area around that time because of the “gawkers”. I just felt really uncomfortable the entire time rather than appreciating the architecture that was the point of the tour. Perhaps if we had an architect of one of the homes to speak to us and talk to the current resident to hear their story and how a new house differed from their old one. Something that made it more personal.

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2 Responses to “Ethics of Visiting Certain Areas”

  1. 1

    Pal — January 16, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    It’s not an easy question… reading your experience it’s easy to draw parallels to visiting favelas in Brazil for instance, which also always creates a debate – ethical or not? I think the key is your final sentence really: if it’s a tour with some thoughts behind it – if the tour gives back to the community (not referring to money necessarily) or involves the locals – it can have many benefits. But just coming in for “sightseeing”… I agree with you, it just feels wrong (but please tell me it wasn’t a doubledecker bus at least…).

    Curious to hear what others might say…

    • ehalvey replied: — January 16th, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

      Thankfully, it wasn’t a double-decker. But it was a huge motor coach. While the person explaining the architecture lived in New Orleans, the disconnect from the people who lived in the area was the most jarring and unsettling aspect.

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