In some places in London, you can find scratched on old walls the imprecation, LorD haVe MerCIe Vpon Vs. The curious arrangement of the capital letters is what epigraphists call a “chronogram.” Rearranged, they come to MDCLXVI, which in Roman numerals represents 1666. The reason for the prayer is that in that year London was gripped by the Black Plague, which killed an estimated 70,000 of the city’s population of 480,000, only ending when the Great Fire of London swept through the city, destroying 80 percent of the city’s buildings but also killing the rats that bore the plague. New Orleans got off easy by comparison.
Yet within a few years, London was back, greater than ever before, the first modern metropolis. Indeed, as early as 1667, the poet Dryden penned a poem entitled Annus Mirabilis [Year of Wonders] or London Reborn:
Me-thinks already, from this chymic flame,
I see a city of more precious mold:
Rich as the town which gives the Indies name,
With silver paved, and all divine with gold.
Already, laboring with a mighty fate,
She shakes the rubbish from her mounting brow,
And seems to have renewed her charter’s date,
Which Heaven will to the death of time allow.
Can London’s rebirth inspire New Orleans today? Or is the Big Easy unlikely to follow the path of the Big Smoke?
The first lesson to be drawn from the London fire’s aftermath is that grand plans for rebuilding should be avoided. Within days of the fire, luminaries such as Christopher Wren and John Evelyn had submitted elaborate reconstruction plans with grand boulevards and continental-style piazzas. Yet, as Peter Ackroyd points out in London: The Biography, “None was accepted, none acceptable.” Cities have lives of their own, and these plans were like ash in the city’s breath. As soon as the citizens of London could return, they laid claim to their property. On the day the fire stopped, Charles II was told, “Some persons are already about to erect houses againe in the Citty of London upon their old foundations.”
The work of the Committee of Six (including Wren) appointed to oversee the reconstruction was therefore largely managerial rather than directive. The committee set up a “Fire Court” to adjudicate property disputes and imposed building standard regulations to make the city more resilient in the face of fire — but otherwise, with the exception of public buildings, the reconstruction was a private enterprise. To ensure an adequate supply of labor, Parliament even abolished the trade Guilds’ monopoly on providing building services within the City, which ensured that neither the Committee nor private landowners could be held to ransom. For New Orleans, the privileges of labor unions and other labor restrictive practices should be dealt with similarly.
One of the most relevant aspects of London’s rebuilding to New Orleans today is that the need for labor led to a great change in London’s population. The general call around the country for “all persons who are willing to serve and furnish this City with timber, brick, lime, stone, glass, slates and other materials for building” led to a huge influx of workers, many of whom stayed in the grand new metropolis they had built. The business opportunities in a city that had lost its markets also attracted many hawkers and traders. By contrast, a large number of Londoners who fled the fire never returned. Many emigrated to America.
This change in population combined with reconstruction also led to a civic renewal. The new squares that sprang up were communal centerpieces, “little towns” with their own churches and markets. The fire drove out many of the old criminal class and, it is likely, also killed many prisoners who were not counted in the official mortality figures. For a while, until London’s traditional lawless fringe reasserted itself, an atmosphere of convenience and gentility reigned.
If it follows London’s path, New Orleans could be reborn as a much happier place than before, when the city’s notoriously high crime rate blighted the Big Easy’s reputation. Yet to allow this will require Louisiana’s famously Byzantine politics to take a step back. By following the example of Christopher Wren and his colleagues, easing reconstruction rather than complicating it, by eschewing grand plans and making the city attractive to the sort of entrepreneurs and risk-takers who rebuilt London, the New Orleans authorities stand their best chance of ensuring their city’s future.