Riverwalk is lit with floodlights like a prison. The flower boxes are bare and filled with beer cans. Looking toward the soft lights of Jackson Square from the river, you feel just like prisoners at Alcatraz did looking at San Francisco. The only good thing is that unlike Alcatraz, you can (still) escape Riverwalk. Whoever is responsible for making Riverwalk "safe" should get the Ugly Award of the Year and a one-way ticket out of New Orleans.
There is no shortage of ugly public displays in the city, from the new garbage cans to so-called "sculptures" that would be melted down in any place with even a shred of civic pride. That Bienville and Company statue at the foot of Decatur Street, for instance, would make a lovely series of metal planters. The modern thing that replaced Bienville near the Greyhound station could be usefully recycled as well to make some kind of kindergarten swing set in one of the new schools that will never be built. The Cancer Survivors hall of monstrosities near Poydras Street should just be buried where it stands and a simple brick sidewalk lain over it with a discreet plaque that says, "Under here lies some ugly stuff."
I could go on: There are statues of forgotten people who look like potatoes, and a guy without arms or legs by the river. It's enough to make even the hardiest bum shudder. And these things were in place before the storm! Lord only knows what awaits us in the vistas of future kitsch.
Safety, for one thing. When the word went out to City Hall to make us safer, the genius in charge could only think of one safe place: prison. If safety is what you want down there in the Quarters, we'll give it to you in the best form: prison. We'll put up flood lights, kill the plants (violent men might hide their shivs in there) and make you so safe you wish you could get sick and go to the infirmary for company.
Can you make us safe without making it so ugly we'll just get out of here? That is the question we'd like to ask. Surely, there is an aesthetic of safety that goes beyond the paranoid architecture of floodlights, electric fences and guard dogs! (The fences and dogs are on order.) Actually, criminals may be attracted to such secured areas because they are reminiscent of prison, a place where you had to be clever to survive the constant watch. Maybe the uglifying safety is drawing clever criminals to the very places we'd like to keep them out of.
There are other possibilities: the people responsible for our safety don't want us safe, they want us jailed; or, they just are that blithe. The suburban aesthetic and the art of prison security are rapidly advancing in New Orleans. I can foresee a city as pretty as Angola.
By the way, whatever happened to the Vieux Carre Commission? The disturbers of the peace who made a public nuisance of themselves under the guise of "restoration" before the storm are still at it, only now they are joined in aggression by the New Ugly. Maybe it's time for a Peoples' Committee Against Aesthetic Crimes.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).