Wednesday, September 14, 2005

In the Eye of the Beholder

Do you remember that Twilght Zone episode titled "In the Eye of the Beholder?"

A woman clings to the desperate hope that her doctors have transformed her from hideous to normal. She wants only to blend in with everyone else. They peel away the bandages. To us, she's the 1950's standard WASP beauty. But she looks in the mirror and cries. The nurses and doctors shake their heads in pity. They turn to the camera, and we see pig faces, their standard of beauty.

New Orleans and Biloxi are the patients this time around. Already, people are whispering about the opportunity to remake those cities. Forgive me, but my eyelid is twitching, because the standard of beauty in the United States right now for architecture is the equivalent of a pig face.

The uglification of America has got to stop. Blanding everything down for middle-America's taste isn't an improvement.

Some people understand this. Regional differences are beautiful. I've heard that billboards in Austin, Texas urge people to keep Austin Funky. Amen. Stop the onslaught of vanilla before it destroys us.

Be afraid, New Orleans. Be very afraid. They're going to sanitize you. They're going to McMall every inch they can grab. The government is going to immanent domain wide swaths "for the good of the people," and murder your communities.

The Mayor of New Orleans is sitting on top of a huge wave of approval right now. This is his moment to show what he's made of. I think that he truly loves his city. If he uses the power of public opinion to fight to keep it unique and funky, it will probably always love him back. I hope that he's got the balls to ignore the pressure to Disnify New Orleans.

What should happen is that community by community, planners sit down and discuss with the residents what they need to hold on to and what they'd like to see change. Then the government should adapt plans to fit those needs. There shouldn't be one grand vision for all of the city, because one size doesn't fit all.

Cities and communities are about people. Not megastores, not freeways, not cookie-cutter solutions. When people think about their neighborhood, they remember getting on their bike and riding down to the corner market for a snowcone on a sweltering July day. They think about a stripped cat hunting under the wide leaves of Mrs. Watkin's hydrangea bush. They remember the smell of hickory smoke as their uncles slow cooked a pork shoulder in the backyard, and the feel of the wooden steps to the back porch as they sat there sipping their cold beers. And that's what they'll be looking for when they come back. Comfort. Connection. Home.

I hope they find it.

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