City of the Dead: A Tragedy in Bronze
         

by Aron Chang

New Orleans has a terribly uninteresting past, if one were to judge by the historical markers and plaques that adorn the fences and edifices of our illustrious city. Notes on mansions or streetcar lines, homes of wealthy and ill-fated gentlefolk, colonels, and doctors, short stories of institutions come and gone, a clutter of dates, a governing body thrown in to lend some political context—really dry factoids seem to thrive in bronze.

 

 

Our city is littered with these plaques, yet their very production is a calcification of the processes that actually allow a city to change and adapt. They turn residents and visitors alike into bystanders, dutifully curious observers half-heartedly reading captions at a museum, losing interest quickly, and looking for the quick exit to the bathrooms and museum store. The plaques mark each location as something certain and precious, something to be revered and preserved rather than lived in and used.

Manuel Castells writes in The Rise of the Network Society, “space is crystallized time”; the result of social processes acting upon a built environment itself produced through “contradictory trends derived from conflicts and strategies between social actors playing out their opposing interests and values.” Space is not a representation of society, “it is society.” The plaques communicate—to us, our children, and city visitors—not how we might better engage the city and shape those contradictory trends to our mutual benefit, but rather that social processes and social relations are stable and simpler than they really are. They do so by enshrining a singular telling of a place’s history at the expense of the rest of the multitudinous and inextricably interwoven narratives which every place is comprised of. The city described by these plaques is not one in which each of us are active agents, but one in which priorities have been predetermined, roles assigned, and agendas settled. Spaces that should be contested daily are passed off instead as paragraph-length descriptions of the past. In short, we are told to read and move on, for what more is there to see and do here when you’ve read already that which is noteworthy?

It is easy to say that I could simply ignore these unassuming plaques for they harm no one, or that I could move to the parts of the city where these plaques are less abundant. I could, but the plaques should not simply be ignored. Like manhole covers, street paving, trees, and the telephone poles that make up the fabric of a city street, the plaques are a part of everyday life. The plaques constitute a social and political—and touristic, in the case of New Orleans—infrastructure of sorts, recording the history of the city and representing it in such a way as to make the places we live in more comprehensible and memorable. They are some of the most visible and systematic contributions to the establishment of what Dolores Hayden calls the “public meaning of the built past.” These contributions are critical, as our understanding and reassessment of what has come before can prepare us to more meaningfully engage the present and future; but can we not do so in a way that demands more of ourselves? In a way that does not repel our children’s interest? In a way that provides no certain narratives and instead celebrates that the stories of this city—of any city—are many and confusing, vaporous and ungraspable, lovely and utterly contradictory, and that these stories are valid only if we seek them out on our own terms and endeavor to create anew our own?

Let us cast no more bronze plaques—they are for the humorless and lazy—and let us learn from my neighbors, who have placed a plaque on their front gate with these words: ON THIS SITE / IN 1897 NOTHING / HAPPENED.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aron Chang is a designer and educator based in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, L.A. At LSUís School of Architecture and LSUís Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, he has led undergraduate and graduate studios in developing planning and design strategies for local communities. In recent years, he has worked on master-planning, design, and design-build projects in New Orleans, Biloxi, Boston, Nicaragua, and Mumbai. His interests include coastal resiliency, housing, and public art. Aron studied architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, following studies in studio art and German at Williams College.