Before Katrina: The Decline of New Orleans from the Civil War to the Twenty-First Century

AHA Session 198
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Napoleon Ballroom D2 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Douglas Brinkley, Rice University
New Orleans and the Wider World
Lawrence N. Powell, Tulane University

Session Abstract

This session brings together four scholars who focus on the iconic American city that is hosting the 2013 American Historical Convention.  Most Americans know New Orleans as a unique, historic, and raucous metropolis where the annual Mardi Gras celebration brings hundreds of thousands of revelers to the French Quarter every spring.  They also remember the disaster that struck New Orleans in August 2005 when the levees protecting the city gave way, and more than half of the municipality was under water.  Even now, the city has not regained its population or its economic vitality.

The session, however, focuses on another reality, one not so well known to either the larger public or even to the historical profession.  New Orleans was in decline long before Katrina ravaged the city.  In fact, its decline on both a relative and even absolute basis is one of the puzzles of modern urban history.   What happened?  Why did the city lose out to Houston after World War II?  Why did New Orleans become before Katrina the poorest major metropolis in the United States?  Why was the city able to overcome its climate and its geographical liability in the nineteenth century but not in the twentieth?

Justin Nystrom will argue that the Civil War itself crippled the New Orleans economy.  Unlike Chicago or New York, which prospered during and after the conflict, the Louisiana city was unable to build railroads as the nation’s trade routes shifted from north-south to west-east, thus leaving New Orleans out of the flow.  Similarly, its banks did not recover, and epidemics reinforced its reputation as a place where the glory days were already behind it before even the dawn of the twentieth century.

Carolyn Kolb will focus more on the first half of the twentieth century and especially on the way in which unfortunate civic choices kept the city out of the first rank.  She also relates how race, increasing marginalization from national norms, and a regional agriculture allowed New Orleans to fall behind Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, to take only the most obvious examples of places that were once behind New Orleans and yet are now far ahead of it, at least in purely economic terms.

Kenneth T. Jackson will focus on crime, corruption, and a closed social elite as issues which set New Orleans apart from other cities.  Atlanta and Houston, for example, both had their extremes of wealth and poverty, but in those places it was possible to climb to high status, as well as to fall from it.  Not so in New Orleans, where the elite was closed, and it was almost impossible either to rise or to fall from an inherited position.

Moderator Lawrence Powell will lend his expertise to the session. The session will allow time for comment from the audience, which will likely be considerable.

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