When hurricane Katrina's floodwaters receded, more remained in their wake than just waterlogged homes and a banner crop of mold. Amid the various residues of Lake Pontchartrain's extended visit were an assortment of searing memories and some diverse ideas about housing. As for the memories, few were more stunning than the moment we saw the remains of what had been our home, or learned of the death of a friend or loved one. While most of us evacuated, some did not, and Robert Neff's Come Hell and High Water series of black-and-white photos of those who remained suggest memories of an unusual sort of long days spent in a devastated urban limbo.
And a colorful cast of characters it was. Neff's lens was largely focused on the denizens of the French Quarter and a radius extending several miles into the Garden District and Uptown as well as Marigny and parts of the Ninth Ward. While many who remained behind were elderly, Neff's subjects included a varied cross-section ranging from rumpled French Quarter rats to defiantly starchy Uptown types. In this latter category, Mr. Ashton O'Dwyer of St. Charles Avenue looks immaculate in his striped shirt as he sits at a patio table amidst an orderly arrangement of necessities, including a portable TV, pump-action shotgun, lots of ammo, and a can of Hot Shot bug spray. A text panel informs us that O'Dwyer let it be known on network news that anyone who crossed his property without permission might be subject to gunfire, and that he had proclaimed his domain "a sovereign state subject to its own laws ... yet to be determined." The steely expression on his genteel visage leaves no doubt that he meant it.
No less adamant is the face of Antoinette K-Doe as she gazes from where she sits on the bar of her Mother-In-Law Lounge. A living memorial to her late husband, Ernie, and his famous song Mother-In-Law, the lounge was badly flooded. After guarding it for 10 days, she finally evacuated, ending up in an Atlanta Boy Scout camp. After a few weeks, she returned to begin gutting the interior. "The bar and surrounding memorabilia were the last items taken to the curb," notes the text, lending poignancy and depth to an already strong image.
Ride Hamilton, Artist and Journalist depicts its long-haired subject, who set up a makeshift first-aid clinic outside Johnny White's Sports Bar on Bourbon Street during the evacuation, posing with his motorcycle. And even as we still mourn the victims of those fateful days, Ride and other High Water portraits reveal that those who remained behind and lived to talk about it were a rather unusual lot, proof that the grand American tradition of rugged, if eccentric, individualism is alive and well today.
Elsewhere at the Ogden, High Density On High Ground features some architectural renderings of neo-modernist buildings intended to house a lot of people on relatively small parcels of land. Sponsored by Architectural Record magazine and the Tulane School of Architecture -- and reflecting the curious notion that because this city suffered one bad flood during its nearly three-century-long history we should now give up on most of it -- the resulting designs can be quite interesting when viewed as architectural sculpture. As dwellings, however, most suggest high-tech, Scandinavian or Japanese housing projects that are utterly at odds with local sensibilities. Indeed, many of us so value our yards and patios that living stacked like cartons on a shelf would probably not be preferable to the risk of flooding. Somewhat more promising are the designs in New Housing Prototypes, another competition in which architecture students based contemporary, often modular, housing solutions on traditional New Orleans house types. As imaginative as they are simpatico with our neighborhoods, these designs recall the classic shotguns that were the 19th century's answer to modular housing back when wooden barges were taken apart along the levees and reassembled into the simple, sturdy homes that many of us occupy today. As is often the case in this circular city, the clues to its future can turn up through a careful perusal of its past. COME HELL AND HIGH WATER: Portraits of Katrina Survivors by Thomas Neff
HIGH DENSITY ON HIGH GROUND; NEW HOUSING PROTOTYPES
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600; www.ogdenmuseum.org
- Thomas NeffÕs photos of residents who stayed through Hurricane Katrina feature colorful personalities such as Antoinette K-Doe, seen here in her Mother-In-Law Lounge.