Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Will New Orleans be rebuilt?

In the Washington Post, Joel Garreau makes the case that New Orleans will not be rebuilt. Not that it shouldn't be rebuilt, but that it won't be, at least not beyond the areas necessary to support tourism.
The city of New Orleans is not going to be rebuilt.

The tourist neighborhoods? The ancient parts from the French Quarter to the Garden District on that slim crescent of relatively high ground near the river? Yes, they will be restored. The airport and the convention center? Yes, those, too.

But the far larger swath -- the real New Orleans where the tourists don't go, the part that Katrina turned into a toxic soup bowl, its population of 400,000 scattered to the waves? Not so much.


Certainly, as long as the Mississippi River stays within its manmade banks, there will be a need for the almost 200 miles of ports near its mouth. But ports no longer require legions of workers. In the 21st century, a thriving port is not the same thing as a thriving city, as demonstrated from Oakland to Norfolk. The city of New Orleans has for years resembled Venice -- a beloved tourist attraction but not a driver of global trade.

Does the end of New Orleans as one of America's top 50 cities represent a dilemma of race and class in America? Of course. There are a lot of black and poor people who are not going to return to New Orleans any more than Okies did to the Dust Bowl.

What the city of New Orleans is really up against, however, is the set of economic, historic, social, technological and geological forces that have shaped fixed settlements for 8,000 years. Its necessity is no longer obvious to many stakeholders with the money to rebuild it, from the oil industry, to the grain industry, to the commercial real estate industry, to the global insurance industry, to the politicians.

If the impetus does not come from them, where will it come from?


The original reason for founding La Nouvelle-Orléans in 1718 was the thin crescent of ground French trappers found there. Hence the name "Crescent City." Elevated several feet above the Mississippi mud, it was the last semi-dry natural landing place before the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That crescent today is where you find all the stuff that attracts tourists, from the French Quarter, to the Central Business District (the "American Quarter") with the convention center and the Superdome, to the Garden District and Uptown. This area is roughly comparable to Washington from Adams Morgan through K Street to Georgetown and Foxhall Road.

That tourist crescent is relatively intact. (Only two of the 1,500 animals at the Audubon Zoo died.) But it is only perhaps 10 percent of the city.

The rest to the north of the river -- as distinct from the Algiers district on the south bank, which has always been something of an afterthought -- is under as much as 25 feet of water. For the last 90 years, this vast bulk of the city has required mammoth pumps to clear the streets every time it rains. This is where you'd find working folk -- cops, teachers and nurses -- with bathtub madonnas and colored Christmas tree lights. It's also where you would find areas of soul-destroying poverty, part of the shredding fabric of a city that had a poverty rate of 23 percent. Planners have warned for years that this area would be destroyed if the levees were ever breached.

Yet, as novelist Anne Rice wrote of her native city a week ago: "The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy. Which is why so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went north. They didn't want to leave a place where they felt at home in neighborhoods that dated back centuries . . . . They didn't want to leave a place that was theirs."

Sentiment, however, won't guide the insurance industry. When it looks at the devastation here, it will evaluate the risk from toxicity that has leached into the soil, and has penetrated the frames of the buildings, before it decides to write new insurance -- without which nothing can be rebuilt.


How a city responds to disaster is shaped both by large outside forces and internal social cohesion. Chicago rebuilt to greater glory after the fire of 1871 destroyed its heart. San Franciscans so transformed their city after the earthquake and fire of 1906 that nine years later they proudly hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to toast the Panama Canal and their own resurrection.

Not long ago, I co-taught a team of George Mason University students in a semester-long scenario-planning course aimed at analyzing which global cities would be the winners and losers 100 years from now. The students were keenly aware of the impact that climate change might have on their calculations, among hundreds of other factors. Yet in the end they could not bring themselves to write off such water cities as New York and Tokyo. They simply wouldn't bet against the determination and imagination of New Yorkers and the Japanese. As someone put it at the time, "If it turned out New York needed dikes 200 feet high, you can just hear somebody saying, 'I know this guy in Jersey.' "

Will such fortitude be found in New Orleans? In his 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," political scientist Robert Putnam measured social capital around the country -- the group cohesion that allows people to come together in times of great need to perform seemingly impossible feats together. He found some of the lowest levels in Louisiana. (More Louisianans agree with the statement "I do better than average in a fistfight" than people from almost anywhere else.) His data do not seem to be contradicted by New Orleans's murder rate, which is 10 times the national average. Not to mention the political candidates through the ages who, to little effect, have run on promises of cleaning up the corruption endemic to the government and police force. New Orleans is not called the Big Easy for nothing. This is the place whose most famous slogan is " Laissez les bons temps rouler" -- "Let the good times roll."

I hope I'm wrong about the future of the city. But if the determination and resources to rebuild New Orleans to greater glory does not come from within, from where else will it come?

In Slate, Jack Shaefer bluntly puts the case for should not.

The arguments Garreau and Shaefer make are hard to refute, if not terribly sensitive to the moment. I'm more than willing to see what the people of New Orleans decide to do. Will they decide to stay on in the cities they have dispersed to, or do they want to return? Will they create a strong-enough pressure to overcome counter-vailing forces from the insurance industry and the federal government, enough passion to change the minds of the Shaefers and Hasterts of the world?

It's true that New Orleans' geography and topograpy make it a rather egregious case, but no city is perfectly attuned to its surroundings -- all of them are (by definition) unnatural, and all of them rely on various technological fixes and control mechanisms to remain viable. As Garreau points out, cities grow in response to any number of forces, including that people simply want to live there. If enough New Orleanians want to return, and live again in their city, it's rather incumbent on us to help them do so.

Not only that, but it's rather an either/or proposition: either the city get rebuilt in toto or it doesn't get rebuilt at all. Rebuilding only the tourist sector may seem like an option, but it really isn't, because such a place would, eventually, start attracting more people to live there, who will require places to live, and political and physical infrastructure to support them, that means that all the decisions which were avoided in the first place will ultimately have to resolved anyway.

Such a slower evolutionary scheme might be the best way to put New Orleans back together, but if that's going to be what happens, then many decisions that need to be made right now (or in the very near future) will have to be made with that idea in mind.

Addenda: USA Today has a good round-up of the issues surrounding the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Update (Fri 9/16): An earlier piece in Slate by Ari Kelman explains why New Orleans was built where it was, consideration of which might be vital to deciding about its rebuilding:

New Orleans' dysfunctional relationship with its environment may make it the nation's most improbable metropolis. It is flood prone. It is cursed with a fertile disease environment. It is located along a well-worn pathway that tropical storms travel from the Atlantic to the nation's interior. From this perspective, New Orleans has earned all the scorn being heaped upon it—the city is a misguided urban project, a fool's errand, a disaster waiting to happen.

But such insults miss why most American cities are built in the first place: to do business. In 1718, when the French first settled New Orleans, the city's earliest European inhabitants saw riches inscribed by the hand of God into the landscape of the vast Mississippi valley. The Mississippi river system takes the shape of a huge funnel, covering nearly two-thirds of the United States from the Alleghenies to the Rockies. The funnel's spout lies at the river's outlet at the Gulf of Mexico, less than 100 miles downstream from New Orleans. In an era before railways, good highways, and long before air travel, much of the interior of the nation's commerce flowed along the Mississippi, fronting New Orleans. The river system's inexorable downstream current swept cotton, grain, sugar, and an array of other commodities to New Orleans' door. Because of the region's geography and topography, many 19th-century observers believed that God—working through nature, His favorite medium—would see to it that anyone shrewd enough to build and live in New Orleans would be made rich.

So, people built. Some lived. A lucky few even got rich. Many others, usually poor residents, died. They were carried away in floods. They were battered by catastrophic storms. They were snuffed out by yellow fever epidemics, like the great scourge of 1853 that killed nearly 10,000 people in the city. Over time, New Orleans developed a divided relationship with the environment: Nature, as embodied by the Mississippi, promised a bright future. But it also brought water, wind, and pathogens, elements of a fickle environment that in the past as now turned cruelly chaotic.

Geographers refer to this as the difference between a city's "situation"—the advantages its location offers relative to other cities—and its "site"—the actual real estate it occupies. New Orleans has a near-perfect situation and an almost unimaginably bad site. It's because of the former that people have worked endlessly to overcome the hazards of the latter.

Update (9/17): Kash at Angry Bear has a look at the declining population of New Orleans.

He guesses it might be as low as 350,000 by the census of 2010.

Update: Over on TPMCafe, commenter Sara suggests a large-scale big-government New Dealish approach to rebuilding the Gulf region, modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. I think it's a non-starter in the current political atmosphere, and perhaps not even ideal on its own terms, but others may differ. Elsewhere on the same site, Swopa suggests that a bit of political juijitsu might be in order, and that Democrats should use the "populist, anti-big government rhetoric" -- the very same rhetoric that the right has parlayed into the conventional wisdom of the moment -- as ammunition to fight against Bush's big-spending ripe-for-corrupton-and-patronage bail-me-out-of trouble-boys plan for the region. Winston Smith, on the other hand, thinks that "Emotional outrage is all we need" to damage the GOP in the mext electons. That may be true, but it would be nice to get these ruined areas back on their feet in the meantime. We can't, and shouldn't, approach Katrina's aftermath as merely a political opportunity, however much that it is just exactly that, because such blatant cynicism is more easily smelt by the voting public, especially one that's been primed for it by right-wing lies.

And finally on TPMCafe, I offer an alternative explanation for why Bush might want Rove to be in charge of reconstruction:

I think it's possible (just barely possible) that there's a somewhat less cynical reason for Bush to put Rove in charge of the reconstruction effort. I think that Bush looks upon Rove as the archetype of The Competent Man, a person who can cut through the bullshit and Get the Job Done, and that he has put Rove in charge in the hope that he'll manage to avoid the incompetency and screwing up at top levels that has marked the effort to this moment. In this way he'll be extracated from the morass he finds himself in.

(Note that even if this is true, it doesn't negate the probability that Rove sees the assignment solely in patronage and pork terms, and not as a chance to do a good job and help out a devastated region.)

Of course, Rove may well be (and probably is) very, very competent in his area of expertise, but the ability to get idiots elected and pull the wool over the eyes of millions of fools isn't exactly the kind of experience that the head of such a complex and massive effort needs, but Bush's thinking doesn't run in such empirical reality-based tracks as that. To him, it may be as simple as See Rove Can Get a Job Done, This Job Needs to Get Done, Use Rove for This Job -- the stripped-down logic of the intellectually unsophisticated.

[There's more on the rebuilding of New Orleans in this later post, and in this earlier one.]

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

Note: I've added to the "hurricane 2005 relief" sidebar on the right several organizations that I think deserve your support, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/14/2005 10:16:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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