In 1964 there was a huge debate in City Hall. New Orleans Public Service, the company that operated public transit, wanted to discontinue the Canal Street trolley line and replace the streetcars with busses. We would learn later that the automotive industry was lobbying nationwide to replace rail system with busses, however that was not the argument that was given. Proponents of the change said that this would carry the city into the future, making it a modern town and not one laced with old fashion streetcar lines. There was loud debate about the importance of preservation, but those arguments were seen as being backwards. When the council voted the forces of modernity won out and the change was approved. The vote was 6-1, coincidentally the same vote as on the monuments removal.
Councilman Joe DiRosa, the lone dissenting vote, was applauded by many citizens who felt powerless in influencing the outcome. From the beginning City Hall had orchestrated the outcome. (Not wanting there to be any nostalgia, Public Service moved quickly to destroy some of the streetcars and equipment as well as photographs and documents.)
I am not at all trying to equate streetcars with Civil War monuments, the issues are totally different, but what is common is that the future’s perception of issues is often hard to predict. By the '90s, urban rail systems had become modern again. They were seen as being more fuel-efficient than busses. They also did not clog the streets as did busses and they were an appealing part of the street environment. In 2004, after years of street work and millions of federal dollars a new streetcar line was opened where the old one once rumbled. Those with a memory would recall that Joe DiRosa was right; the other six council members misread the future.
I trust the future will never add rank to Civil War generals, but it might provide a more enlightened evaluation. Maybe one day we can better understand complex issues from complex times without the same old racial rhetoric. General Beauregard, for one, deserves a fairer trial.
Maybe one day we can realize that historic figures who lived at times and places where slavery already existed need to be judged on a wider scale. Some, such as Robert E. Lee, opposed slavery. He should be best remembered as a skilled general and as a postwar peacemaker.
Maybe one day we can at least empathize with the native middle class. They are most resistant to changes in their urban backdrop for they are the ones who feel most threatened by a loss of influence. Those with the power to make the changes feel no such threat and indeed feel their clout enhanced.
In the American Civil war brothers fought against brothers, but at least the cause was just and necessary. In the monuments debate citizens screamed at citizens for a cause that had seldom been voiced and for which there had been little previous concern. This was a battle that did not need to happen. In the process, some good people who cared very much for the city got hurt.
One of the great weekends in New Orleans history was that of Feb. 6-7, 2010. On that Saturday, Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor by a landslide carrying both the black and white vote. Landrieu, at the time the Lieutenant Governor, was a talented public servant from a respected political family. His election united the city. Then the next day, that magic Sunday, the Saints won the Superbowl. With carnival parade season starting the following week, never before was the city locked in such a communal hug.
Through the years this town has been more united that it gets credit for, or that those who exploit race would want to concede. We have never, in modern times, had major riots; we dance together on the fields of the Jazz Fest. Yes, there are problems as in many cities but we have done better than most. Only a few weeks ago the entire community mourned the loss of one of its own, Allan Toussaint, a black man, though no one saw skin color they just heard music.
Considering what New Orleans has been through, we have a right to feel good about ourselves. I was hoping that this, the year of Katrina’s tenth anniversary, would be a time for remembering our hardships and celebrating our survival. There should have been a joyous end to the year, but that’s not the way it has happened.
Fortunately, the human spirit is governed by forces even greater than City Hall. May we all in our own way, especially in this season, find peace and understanding.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.