Saturday, September 17, 2005

More about rebuilding

On his weblog, Follow Me Here, Eliot Gelwan has a reaction to my comments about rebuilding New Orleans:
I am not sure I agree with his emphasis on it being largely a function of how much the residents want to return, however, both because of the environmental factors and the fiscal. While the pronouncements on the toxicity of the stew in which the city has been bathed and the residue that will remain on everything are so far more fraught with emotion and political agenda than scientific appraisal, I think it remains an open question whether we have the capability to make New Orleans safe to live in again. On the other hand, given the demographics of the displaced people, who will be the advocates for protecting those who wish to return from the environmental risks? And, of course, economic interests — both insurance industry and government budgetary concerns — mitigate against recreating the same diverse lively city. Despite Dubya's glorious and empty vision of reconstruction, the people bringing you this project are the same people who tried to do the Iraq war on the cheap, with too few troops and too little armor to do the job (although giving plenty of funding to their cronies at Halliburton), and they still defend it in the face of the results coming home in the body bags every week. My guess is that this represents an unprecedented opportunity for the neocons to do a social experiment with wiping a city clean of an underclass that is in their minds a burden rather than a contribution; a shadow economy largely disconnected from their notions of the economic life of the city. In terms of the psychogeographical argument that New Orleans has a unique and irreplaceable place in the American psyche we cannot afford to lose, look for the rebuilt New Orleans to be a theme park caricature of itself. What else do you expect when the reconstruction effort is shaped by people who live a caricature of leadership?

I too fear the "themeparking" of a new New Orleans -- in an earlier post I warned that if the rich elite of the city get their way

look for New Orleans to be something like a cross between an urban festival marketplace and a gated community, which, of course, won't really be New Orleans at all.

What has been determined over and over again is that the attempt to completely sterilize a city of its dangers also sterilizes it of its character, and destroys many of the reasons people like living in cities, despite the discomforts and drawbacks. The arts and entertainment industries (if we can call them that) are inextricably linked upwards and downwards, to the upper class elite who fund much of it, and to the underclass from which comes much of its energy and vitality. The Disneyfication of a city into a idealized replica of its former self -- Main Street, Latin Quarter, USA -- could certainly sustain a significant flow of tourists, but it would be totally artificial and require constant tending and upkeep in the way that living urban cultures don't.

In a way, I think there really needn't be a debate about whether New Orleans should be rebuilt, because I think it inevitably is going to be. Mayor Nagin's actions in opening up parts of the city, probably well before the infrastructure can comfortable support it, is a step in the direction of ensuring it. I'm certan that he realizes that facts "on the ground" speak louder than theory or ideology or rational policymaking in determining what the final outcome will be. Once the city is open, and people start trickling back, that fact, combined with the needs of the local industrial base (petrochemical and shipping), should make the inevitable question not whether it should be rebuilt, but how -- and that's as it ought to be.

There're numerous places in this country where people choose to live when a totally rational evaluation would say that there crazy to do so, and the population of those places must total in the tens of millions. In fact, I haven't done the math, but I think it's possible that fully a third of the country lives where they shouldn't be. (Just to take one instance, the Los Angeles basin can support a population of perhaps a hundred thousand or so, not the many millions who live there. There's much of Florida, of course, and anywhere within range of the Cascade volcanoes or the Yellowstone caldera. The coastlines are full of people living on barrier islands, and the floodplains of our rivers are heavily populated as well. And let's not even talk about San Francisco.)

So Eliot is right in saying that we should keep tightly focused not on the question of "to build or not to build", but on the question of how to rebuild while minimizing the environmental risk, not only from the toxic aftereffect of Katrina, but from future environmental dangers (hurricanes, floods from the Mississippi, etc.). He's also right that there is absolutely no reason to believe that the Bush administration or its surrogates will have the best interests of the regular citizenry of New Orleans in mind when they plan and put into effect the rebuilding, nor can it be taken for granted that they're going to have any greater competence in effectively rebuilding New Orleans than they've shown in the "rebuilding" of Iraq.

Perhaps what Democrats need to do, in their weakened position in Washington, is to attempt to channel the character of the rebuilding in as stealthy a way as possible. For instance, the more decisions that are made locally, the more there is a chance that they will reflect the broad needs of the locals, in spite of the efforts of the elites to sterilize the city. In this instance, the widely condemned ethos of corruption in New Orleans might actually be useful, in that it can introduce a certain amount of porousness into even the most hermetically sealed of plans. So if Democrats push to enable as much local influence as possible, say by minimizing the power of the insurance companies to determine the nature of the rebuilding, they may well be helping to avoid the kind of sanitized future for New Orleans I've been worrying about about.

Update (Sun 9.17 4:00am): It seems that it may be a bumpy road in reaching a local consensus about what to do about rebuilding New Orleans:

Twelve days after Hurricane Katrina, as the worst of the storm's physical perils subsided, about 60 business people and public officials from New Orleans gathered in Dallas with Mayor Ray Nagin to discuss the future of the city.

The room full of "type A" personalities, as one participant described them, showered advice on the mayor. But it was New Orleans-born trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, one of several people participating by phone, who passionately made the point that seemed to resonate most with the group: New Orleans must rebuild its cultural, as well as its economic, strength.

For a city suffering an almost total exodus of residents and standing on the precipice of historic change in its population size and demographic makeup, the challenge of Marsalis' message struck deeply, according to people who attended the Dallas meeting Sept. 10. One huge concern is the potential loss of a disproportionately large number of African-Americans whose neighborhoods endured some of the most damaging flood waters and whose low incomes hinder their return.

Reaching agreement on how to rebuild New Orleans won't be easy. Nagin's effort already has run up against a Louisiana political environment rife with historical divisions and turf wars. The city's initiative also will face a headstrong wave of federal aid and free-market forces that will play a role in making or breaking a new grand plan, whatever it turns out to be.

"We can talk in the abstract about what a rebuilt New Orleans would look like," said Jim Schwab, senior research associate with the American Planning Association. "In the end that is not going to matter nearly as much, I hope, as what the people of the region themselves decide they want."

And while critics from across the political spectrum darkly warn about the dangers of "social engineering" as a strategy for rebuilding the region, costs, safety issues and what insurance companies are willing to underwrite may be the determining factor in many decisions.

Urban planners who have studied the history of communities struck by disaster recommend they begin by building a consensus about what they want to preserve and create, Schwab said. But Katrina makes that job especially difficult.

"Every time you've done it before, you still had people in the community," Schwab said.


Marsalis and others participating in the Dallas meeting predicted that if the diverse peoples of New Orleans do not return, its distinctive neighborhoods, musical inspirations and culinary traditions probably won't, either.


Confusion, hard feelings

The Dallas meeting was an early lesson in the difficulties facing those who seek a consensus on a plan for the future. It quickly ignited a controversy and led to miscommunication and hard feelings among some political leaders.

One of its organizers was Nagin's Regional Transportation Authority chief, Jimmy Reiss, a white businessman who was quoted that week in the Wall Street Journal saying that some people who want to rebuild the city foresee a town with a new demographic of fewer poor people. To some in the city, the story painted an impression of an elitist cadre of white New Orleans leaders callous to the plight of the city's poor.

"It was an extremely unfortunate article," said Bill Hines, a lawyer and leader of the economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc. who attended the Dallas meeting.

The story enraged a number of black state lawmakers and New Orleans City Council members, including Council President Oliver Thomas, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, and Sen. Diana Bajoie, both D-New Orleans, who confronted Nagin in a public meeting Sept. 12 at the state Capitol. They expressed concern that Nagin and the Dallas group of mostly white businessmen were coordinating a recovery program assuming that a large portion of poor African-Americans would be discouraged from returning to the city.

As the legislative hearing room gained the air of a formal inquiry, Nagin responded sharply that he had no such intention and said he had made that point clear at the Dallas gathering.

"So don't worry about this city being hijacked by a small group of people who are trying to take us backward," said Nagin, who is black.

Reiss, contacted at his home in Aspen, Colo., would not comment. In a letter to The Times Picayune, he said, "there was no selfish politics, no parochial goals" at the Dallas meeting. "We all shared the same objective: Make New Orleans a prosperous city that provided jobs and a high quality of life for all of its citizens, and preserving the diverse cultural and ethnic heritage that makes us special."

Some of those who joined the Dallas meeting, which lasted several hours, said it was positive and unified, and that Nagin persuasively articulated his dream for a prosperous city. In addition to Marsalis, there were other African-Americans who participated, including Entergy New Orleans chief Dan Packer, who is the board chairman of the Louis Armstrong International Airport, businessman David White and state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, D-Marrero.


Whitney National Bank President King Milling, who participated in the Dallas meeting, said that despite all the obstacles, he is hopeful consensus can be formed on a recovery plan.

"We can create a better community in the long run with the same sensibilities and culture," said Milling, who is white.

Late last week, Nagin spent considerable time building political allies and staking out a national media presence to put a confident face on the daunting recovery effort. Now out of crisis mode, he can spend more time on the future.

"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the greatest city in the world," Nagin said. "It's been a wild ride, and we're getting ready to get on another wild ride."

What's most interesting about this article is the effect that the cultural argument had on the participants. While I've been attracted by the idea (expressed here, for instance) that the culture of New Orleans is unique and valuable and therefore deserving of being saved, at the same time it's seemed to me to be fairly weak as an argument for the manifest necessity of rebuilding New Orleans. After all, it has to compete with stronger, more powerful forces, such as the desires and needs of the local industrial base, those of the rich and powerful white elite of the area, the dictates of the insurance industry, the political whims of Karl Rove and the impersonal forces which influence the ebb and flow of cities throughout the world (as discussed a bit by Joel Garreau). On its own, the vibrancy and vitality of New Orleans' cultural mix seems undoubtedly cause enough to rebuild the city that nurtures it, but up against stronger competitive forces, the cultural imperative suddenly doesn't seem so imperative after all.

But as the Times-Picayune article above shows, the culture of New Orleans can play a very different kind of role: it can act as the glue which holds together the people who represent at least some of those other, competing interests, and cause them to work more diligently towards compromise than they might otherwise be willing to do. So the role culture plays is a little more like that of the kids in a troubled marriage, where the partners are encouraged to try harder to make things work "for the sake of the children."

So, the argument from culture can play a role -- although of necessity a limited one, since it appeals primarily to the locals and the cognoscenti who already appreciate it. It can't, for instance, reach out and melt the hard hearts of insurance company executives, or change the requirements of the petro-chemical industry, or alter the realities of New Orleans geography and topography. Nor can it make toxic sludge soaked land less toxic.

It can, however, be co-opted, and used to further the theme-parking of New Orleans.

Update (9/28): Salon has a roundtable discussion on the rebuilding of New Orleans.

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/17/2005 10:50:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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