Photo Book Preserves a Vanished New Orleans

A new picture album of vanished New Orleans is selling out with Louisianans. The book, Missing New Orleans, was scheduled for publication just before Hurricane Katrina hit. The book was published with a post-script on Katrina underlining the poignancy of the city's disappearing heritage.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Picture New Orleans, the wrought-iron balconies, towering oak trees, historic cemeteries; the way the city was long before this year's hurricanes. A local graphic designer named Phillip Collier has captured the city's past in an album called "Missing New Orleans." It includes 18th and 19th century sketches as well as early photos of cityscapes and New Orleans memorabilia. Reporter Eve Troeh drove around New Orleans with Phillip Collier, stopping at some of the more striking sites.

EVE TROEH reporting:

One of the old hand-colored photographs in "Missing New Orleans" shows the New Basin Canal. It was dug by hand in the 1830s, 100 feet wide and five miles long, it carried cargo from downtown New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain. Phillip Collier describes what became of the New Basin Canal.

Mr. PHILLIP COLLIER ("Missing New Orleans"): Where we are is a green space that I guess is about a mile long. It was the last part of the canal till it was filled in in the 1950s. There's a cross--a Celtic cross that's been erected here. Somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 Irish immigrants died digging this canal. But right now its piles of debris from the storm, trees, drywall from houses, refrigerators. Some piles are 50 feet high. It's become a dumping ground for the hurricane.

(Soundbite of heavy machinery)

TROEH: In another part of the city, we see a graveyard for hundreds of cars destroyed by the recent flooding. It's the Claiborne Avenue underpass to Interstate I-10. Collier says before the 1960s, this was a vibrant neighborhood.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. COLLIER: This neutral ground here, or median here, had four rows of oaks across it, and it was a meeting place for this neighborhood, this predominantly African-American neighborhood. They cut down all these beautiful oak trees that were here and built this raised expressway, which pretty much ended the meeting place for this neighborhood.

TROEH: He notes a grocery store on the corner.

Mr. COLLIER: We're at the Circle Food Store. This location here was a public market. It's got some Spanish influence to it, the tiled roofs, arched openings into it. It looks like it had four or five feet of water in it, and there's a photograph that I've seen quite a lot that there was a body floating in front of this store in the water.

TROEH: Hurricane Katrina has added a layer of history and meaning to all of the images and institutions included in Collier's book. He collected visual pieces of New Orleans' history for more than five years before finding a publisher in the city, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The book was set to go to press August 31st. When Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29th, Collier was sure the book would be canceled.

Mr. COLLIER: Three or four days after the hurricane, Rick Gruber, who's the director of the museum, called me up, and we started talking. And he said, `You know what? This book probably needs to be published now more than ever.'

TROEH: The book went to press with all its original nostalgia and romance for the Big Easy, but an epilogue was added with photographs by David Rae Morris depicting the harsh new reality of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Ms. MARY BETH ROMIG (Ogden Museum): The epilogue is a step away from the beautiful colorful layout of the rest of the book.

TROEH: Mary Beth Romig, of the Ogden Museum, which is publishing the book, explains how the two parts work together.

Ms. ROMIG: The book is a great source for storytelling. Grandparents can sit down with their grandchildren and thumb through it and tell stories of days when they used to shop at D.H. Holmes or hang out at Pontchartrain Beach or go to the Blue Room and dance. We had school children come through the other day and they were looking at the photography. David told them himself, `This is a record of what happened and you will tell your grandchildren these stories, and these photographs will be what you will look back at.'

TROEH: "Missing New Orleans" has been a major feat for Collier and the museum in the midst of post-Katrina chaos.

Mr. COLLIER: We felt it was really important to print the book in New Orleans, and that became a huge problem. We couldn't find pressmen. We couldn't find paper. So we were only able to print 5,000 copies. We'll probably be out of them in the next week, and we're desperately looking for ways to go to a second printing on it now.

TROEH: Without additional support, Phillip Collier's book, "Missing New Orleans," may soon be missing from the bookshelves. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

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