Big Questions about The Big Easy


Prof. Martha J. Gelarden, MFA

3D Fine Art Department, Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, PA, US.







My Big Questions about The Big Easy is a traditional black and white photograph that documents a blackboard drawing and installation. It was created in response to the devastation and flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.





The Big Easy, The Crescent City, both New Orleans nicknames that describe America’s unique Gulf Coast city. It is the birthplace of Jazz, a city of  celebration, “let the good times roll” and  a rich diaspora of Creole/Cajun dialects, Zydeco dance music and legendary cuisine. Her diverse roots include Choctaw, French, Spanish, African, German Latin, Sephardic, Italian, and Irish to name a few [1] Located between Lake Ponchatrain and the Mississippi River New Orleans is a curious mix of voudun myth, alligators and gumbo, where red beans and rice are always served on Monday. Legend has it that NOLA is so charming to vacationing tourists that many never leave.


Tourists flock to Mardi Gras celebrations partying with great excess in the old French Quarter.  But the real NOLA, mostly African American, is very poor with poor public schools and  high unemployment and scars of Jim Crow segregation remain. Where oil rigs and legendary corrupt politics coexist with elegant antebellum steamboat houses and vernacular 3 room shotgun houses.[2]  New Orleans is a hand built city made of wood and plaster surrounded by water, a bowl that was created by a long slow process. Her demise has been very slow, slowly the city has been sinking. Nothing happens quickly in New Orleans, the hot humid temperatures slow everything down. Each Autumn brings Hurricane season, most often the city is spared  unfortunately this year it was not.


On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina changed the city of New Orleans. The flooding that followed and the destruction that it caused have made a profound impact on the world. The news media broadcast and published images that resonate. Katrina showed America and the world that America is vulnerable, that she was/is not prepared to take care of her own.


In an era of terrorism, the devastation of Post Katrina New Orleans is very different from Post 9/11 New York. The two disasters were horrific but the victims of the World Trade Center bombings were killed at work. Recovery workers slept in their own beds each night after work. The entire city of New York was not threatened. Alas, New Orleans will never be the same. Her map will be different. Is it possible that New Orleans  population could possibly decrease by as much as 50 percent? Her city and state services will never be the same. There are, as I discovered no answers only questions. Questions that generate only more questions.


The Installation


The installation Big Questions about The Big Easy contains a recreation of an early map of New Orleans, circa 1768. .[3]  This French project plan depicts a mirrored grid with a parade route dividing it. It is located on high ground where the Mississippi River is spoon or crescent shaped.


This is the area where Mardi Gras parades flood the street each Fat Tuesday before Lent and tourists party in excess. This area is home to many successful businesses and this original French Quarter was damaged very little by hurricane winds or flooding.


The drawing itself is site specific, a dusty white chalk drawing on an old fashioned blackboard (before whiteboards). It is a work in progress, a system that can be easily changed, a plan with order and boundaries. And it is hand drawn, not computer generated as a reminder that New Orleans is hand crafted and maybe some answers need to be generated by the needs of the local residents, not outsiders.


Why the map ?


My use of the 1768 map was prompted by the New York Times publication of  a series of maps illustrating the effects of Katrina and the extensive flooding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. [4] Initially, I started working with the maps and numeric systems as well as the “X” shaped code used by the search and rescue teams going door to door evacuating the survivors and counting the dead, with the goal of predicting what was going to happen to the poor low lying neighborhoods. Layers and layers of orange spray painted codes and graffiti sprayed by survivors blanket everything from discarded refrigerators ”Deliver directly to George W. Bush”, to shops windows ”Do Not Enter, I am inside”. And on a fallen levee “Katrina, you bitch” [5 ]


Visual overload and questions


Photographs and news reports graphically documented the massive flooding and the human suffering and evacuation incurred by thousands of residents, tourists and those who could not or would not leave their homes. The photographs and stories coming out of the overcrowded Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center where visually shocking and heartbreaking.


Many of the rumors and stories including inflated statistics were spread via the Internet and news media alike. Big wild stories mostly were false, some smaller ones proved to be sad and true. “Here lies Vera. God help us.” “Dying patients, with directional arrow.”


One of my sources of anecdotal stories is my brother that evacuated early and returned to help with recovery. According to him, one of the difficulties is that information and services are scattered. No one source has all of the needed information or paperwork to help. Monies are being distributed and contracts for trash removal are being awarded. But one fact became very clear, the US Government did not communicate with the local and state governments and the world witnessed the event.


Again and again, I returned to the question “What will New Orleans look like in the future?” My initial gut feeling and now greatest fear is that when all the debris has been removed and the low lying areas have been cleared that New Orleans will be devoid of her unique diverse culture and that all that will remain will be a Disney-like diluted historic cartoon reproduction for tourists, a sanitized French Quarter.


Ten weeks after Katrina there appears to be no concrete answers or solutions for New Orleans. Each questions generates scores of other questions. From “Why did the levee system fail?” “What will the population be in one year, three years, etc.?” “Where will the displaced poor of the Lower Ninth Ward relocate?” “Will the historic vernacular architecture be recreated?” “How high should the houses be to protect inhabitants from flooding?” “How can New Orleans be rebuilt from “the bottom up” if the funding comes from “the top down?”


Updating the conceptual map


My hand drawn blackboard map of New Orleans contains only questions, 60 rolls of questions all recorded by hand, generated randomly and added to daily.  The rolls and rolls of paper coil tightly like a Category 4 storm that came to visit and stayed, leaving behind only Big Questions about The Big Easy






[1] Louisiana State Museum

[2] Ibid.

[3] University of Texas Library, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

[4] TheNewYorkTimes,September05,2005

[5] New Orleans Times-Picayune