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From Upper Canal to Lower Manhattan: Memorialization and the Politics of Loss

  • Simon Stow (a1)

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The New Orleans Katrina Memorial is located at the upper end of Canal Street, an inexpensive and relatively short trolley car ride from the city's tourist hub in the French Quarter. Despite its ease of access, and close proximity to the more famous cemeteries to which tourists regularly make pilgrimage, the memorial is little visited and largely unknown, even to many of the city's own residents. In this it stands in stark contrast to the National September 11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which drew its millionth visitor less than four months after its opening on September 12, 2011. Recent work in political theory on memory, mourning, and memorialization—as well as Ancient Greek concerns about the same—point to the ways in which the manner of remembrance, grieving, and commemoration employed by a democratic polity help to shape political outcomes. In what follows, I trace the history and design of the New York City and New Orleans memorials to suggest the ways in which they embody and perpetuate national strategies of remembrance and forgetting, in which injustices perpetrated against the polity are prioritized over injustices perpetrated within it. Drawing on John Bodnar's distinction between national and vernacular commemoration, I nevertheless conclude with a counter-intuitive suggestion: that while on a national level the public's relative ignorance of the Katrina Memorial is indeed indicative of a polity more concerned with injustices perpetrated against it than within it; on a local level the erection and subsequent forgetting of the Katrina Memorial is a manifestation of a mode of vernacular memory, mourning and commemoration with far more democratically-productive potential than its counterpart in New York City. In particular, I argue that it cultivates, and historically has cultivated, a more forward-looking, progressive, and polyphonic response to loss than the type of dominant national narratives embodied by the 9/11 Memorial. Whereas the latter continually replays the loss in ways that rob the polity of its capacity to move beyond its initial response, the former acknowledges and incorporates the loss while steeling the community for the challenges ahead.

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From Upper Canal to Lower Manhattan: Memorialization and the Politics of Loss

  • Simon Stow (a1)

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