This may seem like a strange connection to make, but when Mayor Mitch Landrieu said last week that the era of rebuilding New Orleans is over, I thought immediately of Frederick Jackson Turner.
If you took an American history survey course in college, you probably remember Turner, who was famous mostly for his paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”
In his essay, read at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893, Turner noted that with its 1890 count, the Census Bureau was no longer indicating a frontier, that is, a line beyond which there was no significant settlement.
Since America’s founding, the frontier line had steadily progressed across the continent until finally it reached the Pacific Coast. The frontier had helped define the United States, its institutions and its people, Turner believed.
“And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history,” Turner wrote.
I guess it was a similar note of finality in Landrieu’s state of the city speech last week, as well as its intimations of a new era, that made me think of Turner.
“Nearly 10 years after Katrina,” Landrieu said, “we are no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding. Now we are creating.”
Turner’s thesis didn’t mean there weren’t any wild, frontierlike areas left. In 1893, what now constitutes the lower 48 states was still overwhelmingly wild.
Some in New Orleans might have been surprised hearing the mayor say that we are no longer rebuilding, since visual evidence seems to indicate otherwise. There still are a lot of vacant lots and empty houses dotting the city, as well as homes that are being worked on while they’re occupied.
There are neighborhoods that lack simple amenities like grocery stores. And Lord knows that streets all over the city are in dire need of repair.
But as Landrieu pointed out in his address, we amaze ourselves when we look at where we are today compared with where we thought we were in those dark days of September, October and November of 2005. Back then, we weren’t even sure if New Orleans could survive, and many self-anointed experts said we shouldn’t even try to.
But now, population has returned, schools and libraries are open, sales tax revenue is up. And the recovery has been accomplished in a quintessentially New Orleans kind of way.
“No other place in the world would lose 100,000 people but gain about 600 more restaurants than we had before Katrina,” Landrieu said.
New Orleans is growing, in part, because it is attracting young people, who are, conversely, attracted by this city’s special vibe.
“Hipster” and “gentrification” are almost obscenities in the talk over the city’s future. But if both of those words translate into more residents, more consumers and more taxpayers, then the challenge in the days to come will be attracting and keeping those who contribute to the city’s well-being without destroying its special character in the process.
Just as there was still a lot more development yet to come in the United States after the frontier had reached the Pacific, there still is a lot of work to be done here, even if Landrieu is correct in saying that the rebuilding era is over.
There are lots to be filled, houses to be rebuilt. And there are still countless New Orleanians who left in those dark days of 2005 waiting and wanting to come back home.
Dennis Persica’s email address is email@example.com.