Sitting in the McDonough School of Business on Georgetown’s campus, I am stunned by the uniformity in appearance—a sea of slacks and crisp collars. For commerce to work, we need standards for cooperation — a standard language for communication, monetary exchange, regulated time, and even appearance. And often business comes to ignore social and political costs for the sake of short-term monetary growth. In an effort to quantify human value, people are often lost in a web of numbers and calculations.
Let us look at how we treat the poor in our country: In 2006, a little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans City Council voted to demolish 4,500 public housing apartments — displacing thousands of poor, black, New Orleans folk who had made the city famous and adored. They replaced these public housing infrastructures with homogenized, stale, suburban condominiums designed to market to white, middle class people.
What is most devastating about this story: how the council blocked hundreds of these people out of the public meeting, marginalizing them as if they didn’t exist. How can we be vanguards of prosperity when we can’t even take care of our own? The United States, through a handful of international institutions, has been notorious for not factoring in the social costs–the externalities–of excluding a whole cohort of people. The story of New Orleans, especially post-Hurricane Katrina, is rife with reminders of the importance of place on identity.
Last week, Katerina tackled the topic of physical location and identity. She writes, “location will always matter because … it is associated with context and culture and since culture is key to a person’s identity, any change of location (or to the concept of location) will have an impact on one’s identity.”
Going back to New Orleans, place is not only shelter in the present or the promise of a future, but is a road map to the past. Because history is not always found in textbooks, we have to look to other signs to get a true understanding. If you’ve ever wandered the sticky, hot streets of New Orleans at night you’ve probably noticed the peculiarity of its street names. A combination of oppressive night air, smells of fried chicken and stale beer, and the buzz of neon lights, and you’re lost somewhere after Peters Street splits into Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-it-TOO-luhs) street – named after the Wild Tchoupitoulas — a Mardi Gras Indian tribe.
These street names tell a rich story of New Orleans in its heyday when the Mississippi River—an artery of commerce—brought in capital from the rest of the world and made New Orleans a center for global exchange. They are historically hotly disputed political signs. Ron Chapman of Nunez Community College is quoted on Nola.com: “When streets were named for royals, they were separated by a street name for a saint. What do you do with a live wire? You insulate it with rubber. And the ‘saint streets’ served as a kind of insulator.”
Often in places all over the world, street names are markers of change in the political regime such as Zimbabwe’s renaming of streets and towns after gaining independence from the British in 1980. These names not only serve as tracking devices on commerce, movement and transportation, but they are deeply embedded in the politics and culture of the time.
So do we relinquish our stories, our identities and histories for the standardized grid system that would make transit much more ‘efficient’? Do we exchange convoluted maps such as the chronological map system in South Korea for a more navigable, categorized system? This is the problem that always arises when considering progress. As we progress toward faster and stronger versions of our collective visions, do we come head-to-head with our freedom of thought, identity and opinion?
Cartoon by John Churchill Chase