THE BLOG
09/28/2014 07:50 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2014

Inspired by Poverty Point, New Orleans could seek UN heritage status

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Sept. 22, 2014 edition.)

The Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in June designated an ancient Native American complex known as Poverty Point, east of Monroe, as Louisiana's first World Heritage site. The state legislature supported that nomination in 2010. Meanwhile, interest in proposing either the French Quarter or the historic core of New Orleans as a UNESCO site has grown. The 1,007 world heritage listings to date have cultural or natural significance, or both, and include a number of urban centers.

The United States has 22 UNESCO heritage sites, weighted toward national parks, notably Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde. The agency is considering the Alamo and four other San Antonio, Texas missions for heritage status next year. Also on a proposed list are three African American churches with civil rights histories in Alabama.

The United States is active in UNESCO and was able to get Poverty Point approved even though Washington lost voting rights at the U.N. agency last fall. The United States co-founded UNESCO in 1945 but stopped paying $80 million in annual dues in late 2011 because U.S. laws prohibit funding for any U.N. group that recognizes the Palestinian Authority as a full member. U.S. dues previously financed over 20 percent of UNESCO's operating budget so that loss has hurt programs.

As for Poverty Point, the Native American site dates back more than 3,500 years and was occupied mainly from 1700 to 1100 BC. During that time, four of the area's five domed mounds, six earthen ridges and a large plaza were built. Deep depressions at the complex were borrow pits for dirt that residents transported in baskets. Archeologists estimate that 500 to 1,000 hunter-gatherers lived on the ridges at one time. The site, which is next to Harlin Bayou, has gullies, and in pre-farming days it overlooked a swampy Mississippi River floodplain, where food was foraged.

Modern-day excavations at Poverty Point began in 1912 to 1913. But the extent of the site wasn't apparent until 40 years later in 1953, when archaeologist James Ford examined aerial photos and saw a geometric pattern in the earthworks. The complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in June 1962. Ten years later the state bought the site's current 400 acres from local landowner R.F. Marsdon, and in 1975 the area was opened to the public. Poverty Point became a National Monument in October 1988.

Just what did it take to get the Point approved by UNESCO? Local archeologists, historians and a "friends" group of residents supported the nomination. Out-of-state experts on cultural heritage explored the site, examined its artifacts, reviewed documents and agreed that the earthworks would make a good world-heritage candidate. In January 2013, the U.S. Interior Department nominated Poverty Point to UNESCO, and the U.N. agency approved it as site number 1,001 at a convention in Doha, Qatar on June 22 of this year.

The complex was hidden from view for centuries. "Mount A or the Bird Mound, was surrounded by cotton fields and repeatedly plowed," Cleo Crockett, an interpretative ranger employed by the state, said in an early-September tour. "Ridge Four had a farmhouse sitting on it." A church was on the grounds.

A plantation owner was responsible for the site's name. "It's called Poverty Point because planter Phillip Guier, who moved here in the 1830s, didn't find it as productive as his previous farm" in Kentucky, Crockett said. Fields surrounding the earthworks were tilled until 1972.

Matthew Whitney Day, special projects manager with Louisiana's Office of Cultural Development, last week said evidence of an ancient civilization was recorded more than a century ago. "A traveler named Jacob Walter visited the property in the early- to mid-1800s and gave the first written description of Poverty Point," Day said. "He called it an old Indian town, with a mound of colossal size, and saw artifacts scattered over several acres." Walter had been digging around, looking for ore.

Tulane University architecture professor John Stubbs, who directs the university's Master of Preservation Studies program, grew up in Monroe, 45 miles southwest of Poverty Point. "When I was in high school in the 1960s, we were surrounded by Indian history and were well aware of it, but we weren't taught about Poverty Point," he said last week. Situated to the west of Monroe are the significant Watson Break earthworks, dating to 3300 BC.

In recent years, as many as 15,000 people annually have visited Poverty Point but the state doesn't have a good cumulative head count site since the complex opened in 1975. "It's evident that visitation has already increased since Poverty Point became a world heritage site in June," Day said. Local groups are coordinating services to make sure that visitors enjoy and learn from the area.

Meanwhile, the idea of getting the French Quarter or a larger part of New Orleans designated as a UNESCO site has been tossed around for years and is gathering steam. "We're in the early stage of forming a committee of historians, architects, officials, business and tourism leaders, and of course citizens," Stubbs said. "We have lots of research and outreach work to do locally, and we'll seek assistance from experts outside of New Orleans." Stubbs said the pre-nomination process alone takes years. He's been part of a national effort to get eleven buildings by Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright recognized by UNESCO. The Interior Department submitted those examples of "organic architecture" to the U.N. agency in 2008, and they're under consideration now.

New Orleans is renowned for its cultural heritage without being on the list, Stubbs said. Patty Gay, executive director of Preservation Resource Center on Tchoupitoulas St., agrees. "Everything that we love about our city-- jazz, our history, the mix of many nationalities, our architecture, our port--other people value too," she said last week. Gay supports efforts to make the Quarter or the city a UNESCO heritage site.

The historic centers of Rome, Florence, Mexico City, Cairo and Jeddah are on UNESCO's heritage list, as are Venice and its lagoon, the banks of the Seine in Paris, Istanbul, China's ancient city of Ping Yao and Ecuador's city of Quito. But be careful what you wish for. Stubbs said as New Orleans considers seeking world heritage status, it's important to ask ourselves whether we really want it. Being named a site will bring more visitors, as it already has to Poverty Point.

"Tourism can cause its share of problems, such as social dislocation, loss of cultural heritage, economic dependence and ecological degradation," according to a document from UNESCO's "Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future" program. Managing tourism in ways that don't damage the site or harm the community are key to the survival of both.

New Orleans receives hoards of visitors now, especially downtown, with 9.28 million here last year alone. They spent nearly $6.5 billion in 2013 and supported more than 78,000 jobs, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. That's in a city of 379,000 people and a greater metro area of 1.2 million residents. And while growth in tourism has reduced the city's unemployment, many of these service jobs barely pay enough to support one person, much less a family, according to a 2013 study by Loyola University's Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy.

The Crescent City grapples with its tourism. Music from Bourbon Street, for example, disturbs French Quarter residents at night. And Canal Street, once the main shopping and theater district, became lined with hotels, curio shops and fast food joints in recent decades. That happened partly because businesses left during white flight in the 1960s. In a post-Katrina rebuild, however, three old theaters have reopened on Canal, and the CBD is catering to locals, along with tourists, now.

Heritage sites, whether they're cultural or natural, tend to be either old or vulnerable, and they require maintenance. Erosion is a major concern at Poverty Point. Land has been lost to water runoff because of acreage clearance, changes in farming practices and dredging of Bayou Macon. In the state's FY 2013-2014 budget, $750,000 requested by Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, head of the Culture, Recreation and Tourism Department, was allocated to combat Poverty Point's erosion.

Worldwide, Italy, China and Spain have the most UNESCO heritage sites while the United States is tenth on the list. Of the 1,007 sites globally, 779 are cultural, 197 are natural and 31 are mixed in nature. Two of those sites were delisted, however. A degraded sanctuary for antelopes in Oman was removed, and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany lost its listing because of bridge construction.

What other spots in Louisiana might be considered for UNESCO designation someday? John Stubbs sees Avery Island in New Iberia as deserving. "It has a beautiful natural setting, marshes and swamps, along with a salt dome, nearly 150 years of tabasco production and the McIlhenny family history," he said. end