I am exhausted. Since 7:30AM yesterday, I have been at the scene of the demolition of the Coliseum Place Baptist Church which mysteriously went up in flames in the wee hours of the morning of Thursday, June 22nd. What began as interest in and coverage of the destruction of a local historic site has resulted in almost 48 hours of a fight between neighborhood preservationists and the supposed owners of the church, along with involvement of the police, our city councilwoman, the mainstream press and various city officials. This is truly a battle for New Orleans.
The specifics of this controversy are numerous and tedious; most are available for your perusal in three posts I made to Metroblogging New Orleans:
Disappointment oozes from every pore of my body. Large portions of the property had to go, but the entire structure did not require immediate and thorough extermination. Terribly critical to post-Katrina New Orleans is the preservation of its past and present. Irreplaceable historic landmarks and the architectural value of the neighborhoods that survived the storm are key at a time when the city operates on a shoestring and we need to help along all that is going for us.
One might argue that brand new development over blighted property, however historic, provides that much-needed influx of capital, but for how long? It is an egregious exercise in Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish when we turn our historic properties over to demolishers, condo developers and boxy buildings only for our city to lose its real value over time. People will not visit New Orleans to tour the former location of a church or period house, much less empty lots or modern housing which mimics any city in America in the process of gentrification.
However, if the first-floor front of the church had been saved, with its beautiful arch and marble plaque, a condo, restaurant or any manner of modern building may have been incorporated behind it. This would have had two simultaneous positive effects: retaining the history of a neighborhood while increasing the financial and historic value of the new property.
Another hugely disturbing factor here is the absence of due process. The demolition occurred, with the city condoning it, because someone who declared himself/themselves owner acquired a city demolition permit and paid for the wrecking crew. By that logic, I, too, could produce a spurious claim to a property and destroy it should I so choose. The problem here arises from the fact that there is no clear owner; in the Baptist church’s ways, the congregation owns the land and building. In this case, not all of the members of the congregation (disbanded since the church closed its doors after Katrina) were consulted. Even when another congregation member showed up, one in opposition to the abject demolition, he was shooed away by the police without an explanation. In fact, only one family, that of the preacher who died a year and a half ago, made the command decision to raze. On whose authority?
The city of New Orleans permitted the destruction of a historic property without even considering ways to save portions of it for posterity and, in so doing, devalued our worth as an incomparable city. As I said in my last post to New Orleans Metroblogs, “the city just cut off its nose to spite its face … the first Baptist church in the South, the first one to hold services for slaves in pre-emancipation days and a treasure trove of history” is gone. The only option we have left before us is two-fold: 1) Make sure the story of what happened here is spread far and wide in New Orleans and beyond before it happens again and 2) Ensure it doesn’t happen again.
A lesson is never a bad thing, but this was an extremely costly one. How are we going to replace a beautiful example of antebellum architecture, one with so much spiritual and emotional value, and, more importantly, when are we going to lose this mentality of Make Money Today, To Heck With Tomorrow? As D says, “It’s no wonder a lot of the musicians down here sing the blues. That music is their only catharsis and outlet for all the pain and injustice.”
With each swing-and-hit of the wrecking ball a jab to the recesses of my soul, I wondered if we will indeed rise again. Hope is contagious and useful, though. As Banks McClintock, board member of the Coliseum Square Neighborhood Association and chief instigator in the matter of the CP Baptist Church said “Now get ready for the meetings we’re going to have against the condominium tower going up here.”
Alan G. of ThinkNOLA.com spent most of yesterday with me at the site. Today’s rabble rousers were Loki, who did a great job of covering the controversy for both HumidCity and the New Orleans Oral History Project, and Seymour D. Fair of The Third Battle Of New Orleans.
Please help me get this gut-wrenching story out before it happens in your neighborhood in your city. It is not just a building in New Orleans that disappeared, people, it’s a piece of America and the world. Please think and act accordingly.