How to rebuild New Orleans

Celebrate its history of deviance, or disperse its population to the wind. From Tulane to the Heritage Foundation, more proposals for the future of the Big Easy.

Published September 30, 2005 9:29PM (EDT)

Anthony Fontenot, taught for five years at Tulane University School of Architecture, currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton University School of Architecture

New Orleans currently finds itself in an extraordinary state, suspended somewhere between its past and its future.

New Orleans and its swampy environs are notorious for being culturally and geographically distinguished as a unique ecological and urban site. This specificity has inspired incredibly creative architectural and urban responses as well as caused unimaginable problems. While the developments of the 18th and 19th centuries can be seen as a series of infrastructure interventions provoked by New Orleans' precarious relationship to its specific environment, today there is a new and urgent need to reevaluate (and perhaps reinvent) the relationship between the infrastructure, the city, and its relationship to the larger ecological context in the 21st century. Beyond the urban and ecological, we are confronted with profound questions concerning a stagnant economy and all-out abandonment of the poor.

It is ironic that many parts of New Orleans that were flooded are the most recent "American-style" postwar suburban developments in the city. On the scale at which we will have to consider the city, New Orleans could become a center for rethinking urbanism and the American suburb, new building technologies, innovative residential designs, and urban responses to wetland ecology.

New Orleans is in a rare position to offer new readings of urban invention and sustainability. This city's long history of deviation in literature, the arts, musical innovation, improvisation and hybridization, should inspire this investigation into the relationship between culture, place and economics. While most American cities experienced radical changes in the postwar era, New Orleans remained largely intact. The fact that our great era of reconstruction is happening in the early 21st century should allow us the advantage of reexamining the limitations and failures of the second half of the 20th century.

Concerning President Bush's proposal to establish "Opportunity Zones" in the devastated region, it is important to begin by asking the question -- opportunities for whom? Major developers will clearly benefit from the establishment of such "free zones." If we should reflect on the history of tax credit economic development, what are the precedents of this type of neoliberal development that have been proven to advance the needs of the poor? In the current political milieu, economic development seems to be guided by an extremely narrow vision capable of responding only to big business and tourism. In fact, the two most important meetings immediately following the disaster were the Forty Power Elites of New Orleans gathering in Dallas and the "Future of Tourism" meeting in Baton Rouge. Nowhere were there representatives of the working class and the poor -- which constitute the largest population in New Orleans. In the U.S., we have yet to see federally supported models of development that engage the poor, let alone ameliorate poverty. The fact that Halliburton has firmly established itself as a player in the reconstruction should indicate just how far removed federal dollars are from trickling down to the local population.

It is critical to understand New Orleans in a much larger context than the immediate post-Katrina discussions. The plans for restructuring New Orleans should be understood as a continuation of a long history of events pushed to the surface by the storm. The desire for a new kind of city consisting of a less black and impoverished population has been played out over the past 40 years. Since the 1960s New Orleans, like many other American cities, has experienced an extreme urban exodus that continues at only slightly abated rates today.

627,525 total population, 37 percent black in 1960
593,471 total population, 43 percent black in 1970
557,515 total population, 55 percent black in 1980
496,938 total population, 62 percent black in 1990
484,674 total population, 67 percent black in 2000
142,851 population loss (23 percent) from 1960-2000

The general trend over the past 40 years has been an outpouring of middle-class residents from the inner city. Whites abandoned Orleans Parish for Jefferson Parish (69.8 percent white, 22.9 percent African-American, 2000 census), St. Bernard Parish (88.29 percent white, 7.62 percent African-American), and later for St. Tammany Parish (87.03 percent white, 9.90 percent African-American), while many middle-class African-Americans moved outward to Gentilly and New Orleans East, leaving the inner city mostly African-American and poor.

Was it not tax incentives and federal subsidies of the interstate and suburban developments that generated our current racially sorted urban geography? Therefore, the immobility of the poor and tax-incentive development strategies are nothing new to New Orleans and American cities. In fact, they have become the hallmark of neoliberal development since the 1960s. While residents with the resources to move generally did, this left behind the poor and elderly. The decline of the oil and gas industry, the increasing mechanization of the port, the lack of high-technology and industrial employment, plus deeply troubled public schools and a high crime rate, have shrunk New Orleans' population by 23 percent in 40 years, leaving the city mostly African-American, undereducated, and poor. Only low-paying service jobs in the city's ever-growing convention and tourism economy offer opportunity to the nonprofessional population, as this once-great city has had to resort to selling its past. In the post-suburban era, the removal of poor black populations from the inner city has become increasingly aggressive as the desire increases to expand the tourist city and "Opportunity Zones" for investment.

The federal program to demolish public housing projects, which often occupy prime real estate, began in the 1990s. The demolition of the St. Thomas public housing project was begun in 2001, dispersing its residents across the city. This was followed by the planned destruction of most of the public housing projects in the inner city. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) planned a transformative project typical of the federal program called Hope VI. While the program is "intended to decentralize poverty and create communities with a mix of economic classes and the amenities necessary for thriving neighborhoods," it is better known as a second wave of federal devastation -- the first being the destruction of the existing neighborhoods to build public housing following the 1937 Wagner housing act. The second wave is the demolition of these same projects for the implementation of Hope VI, a neoliberal program based on tax incentives and a hybrid of public and private investment.

In many ways what President Bush is proposing is nothing new. The fantasy of the neoliberal state is to believe that progress can happen without planning and that the market economy will automatically rise to the occasion to resolve economic and social crises while providing the basis for a healthy and just society.

Concerning New Orleans, what type of fundamental changes will occur as a result of massive federal funding guided by a neoliberal ideology of development? The restructuring of the city should be understood as a larger project of social and political restructuring initiated long before Hurricane Katrina. Aside from the questions of how to reengineer the levee systems is the more difficult question of how to address the social reengineering that has long been under way. If the poor folks of New Orleans were struggling for survival and rights to the city before the flood, after the reconstruction they just may be permanently evicted.

If the estimates reported are anywhere near accurate (80 percent of the city flooded), then New Orleans will be renovating and building houses for many years to come. Indeed, as some have stated, we could be facing the very real possibility that most of the houses between Claiborne Avenue and Lake Pontchartrain, the lower 9th ward extending into St. Bernard, and New Orleans East are beyond saving. This exceptional predicament could develop into one of the largest research projects in the world along with the greatest boom in the construction industry.

Over the past five years or so, as the city has made slow but steady progress -- a few critical lessons should be learned from the real estate and construction industry. It proved to be one of the fastest-growing industries employing individuals from entry-level positions to master tradesmen. The rise in the construction and real estate market has attracted everyone from local unskilled workers to professionals. For example, a friend of mine gave up his law profession to become a contractor specializing in renovating houses because the market was so lucrative. I have black and white friends who grew up poor in neighborhoods such as the Irish Channel who became plumbers, electricians and carpenters and now make very decent salaries.

>From entry-level positions to highly specialized craftsmen and contractors -- the residential construction and renovation industry could serve as an excellent base for generating new knowledge as well as a solid economy for a full spectrum of the population.

While planning more ambitious goals for the future -- such as overhauling the public educational system, attracting real industry (besides tourism), and providing high-paying jobs to retain graduates from some of the most impressive local institutions in the region -- is necessary, it is critical to initiate immediate strategies for the transitional first phase. A bottom-up strategy which utilizes the existing social infrastructure of small-scale neighborhood-based economics would allow the areas to develop while remain rooted in the cultural production of the place.

To believe that the neoliberal market-driven economy, which produces the market-driven city without regulation or planning, will attend to the needs of the poor is simply naive. With economic resources directed at active social groups, this city that resists (by default or otherwise) the sterile homogenization of typical American urban developments can continue to provide a rich cultural landscape of diverse ethnic and economic groups living in proximities unheard of in most American cities. If New Orleans is to prevail, it will not do so because of grand federal projects; it will do so by reinventing itself -- out of necessity -- with new forms of economic, urban and cultural grass-roots advancement and development in its own peculiar un-American way.

Thomas Campanella, professor of urban planning and design, University of North Carolina, and co-editor of "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster"

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, city planner Lawrence J. Vale and I began a broad historical study of urban resilience in the wake of disaster. Among the many lessons this work imparted, two shine brightly through the current fog of trauma in the Gulf.

The first is that cities are more than the sum of their buildings. They begin and end with people, the poor as well as the rich. Thus, there can be no such thing as a resilient city without resilient citizens.

The second is that reconstruction does not equal recovery. A city's damaged buildings can be restored, its broken highways and fiber optic cables repaired. But if the people who constituted its lifeblood and soul are gone, that city will never be the same again. We can rebuild New Orleans, but can we recover what Katrina took away? That will involve a commitment that goes far beyond the celebrated streets of the French Quarter.

The New Orleans of Fat Tuesday revelry and costumed krewes, of tourist and conventioneer, will bounce back as strong as ever (it will benefit, ironically, from the ubiquitous presence of New Orleans in the news for a month now). But the real test of Orleanian resilience will come down to whether Americans are willing and able to put the "other" Crescent City back on its feet.

That other New Orleans was bedeviled by huge social problems long before Katrina came along. As anyone awake on earth knows by now, New Orleans was among the poorest, most dysfunctional and dangerous cities in the United States. The preexisting conditions that compromised the city's ability to cope with the disaster now make its chances of recovery slim.

Inertia can play havoc with post-disaster planning, a "regressive resilience" that can quickly reestablish old patterns of economic inequality, racial segregation and entrenched poverty. Bad stuff rebounds as much as good, maybe even more so. But a catastrophe can also throw new light on long-concealed inequalities, as was so painfully evident in the immediate wake of Katrina; and in the right circumstances, exposure can precipitate change.

The great Mexico City earthquake of 1985 literally revealed governmental corruption and abuses of authority (police station cellars, for example, were found to contain evidence of torture). Such shocking revelations galvanized the capital's resilient citizens to demand greater political accountability and a variety of reforms, including extensive affordable housing. But how do citizens band together when they are evacuees and are no longer in the same place? The greatest tragedy of Katrina may well be not the flooded homes and looted shops, but an essential population scattered to the four winds. These were poor, uneducated people; but they were the lifeblood of the Big Easy, and they carried in their traditions and cuisine and mannerisms and habits of speech a kind of urban genetic code that made New Orleans what it was. Now they are gone off to Houston and Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore and a hundred other towns and cities, part of the largest internal migration in America for a generation. Can we fault them for getting the hell out of town?

New Orleans failed these people -- it failed to give them a decent education, to prepare them for good jobs, to protect them against gang violence. It even failed to give them a lift in the face of a killer flood. But we have a chance here to make things right.

By building affordable housing, creating an effective job training and placement program, improving public education, and cracking down on crime, the New Orleans wrecked by Katrina can be recovered and made a vital part of the larger city. This must be done quickly, before any more roots are put down elsewhere, to signal to the evacuees that they will have a great city to come home to.

Our armies are posted in foreign lands to help rebuilt societies from the ground up. What we can do for Baghdad and Basra we must do for the Lower 9th Ward, Treme, Bywater and other places destroyed by the hurricane, where the real battle for New Orleans will go on long after the television cameras are gone.

Ronald Utt, senior research fellow for the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation

We're looking at a way to provide a core basis of incentives and opportunities and then let the existing members of the community decide what they want their community to look like -- things like tax incentives, capital gains reductions and reinvestments in basic infrastructure, which will create a foundation that the city can thrive on.

And this is more of a bottom-up approach than other proposals, in that it recognizes that New Orleans is a group of citizens who are chiefly responsible for how the city is rebuilt. This is in contrast to the top-down proposals, where people are vicariously imposing their preferences on what's happening, because this is the first time in a long time that there has been an opportunity to rebuild an entire city, and everybody wants to participate. America has built a lot of cities from scratch but not with any ideas as to where they were going to go. St. Louis started with a group of 200 trappers. None of those trappers had any idea what St. Louis would look like today.

Everybody that has a certain interest in something wants to chime in with their proposals -- if for example you're a trolley advocate or a light-rail advocate, you see in New Orleans a showcase for transit, or if you're a new urbanist you see an opportunity for new buildings and architecture and increased walkability -- everybody who has an interest sees this as a captive experiment. Someone might say, "You need a town square, you've never had a town square before and it should be this big." That's what we need to avoid. We need to get out of the way and let the individuals rip.

Recognize that New Orleans has been losing population since 1960, in contrast to most American cities that gained population throughout the 1990s, and this reflects a variety of reasons, including a high crime rate and not untypical problems with public schools.

The issues of public safety and public education need to be addressed because those are among the key reasons New Orleans has been suffering an exodus of people and businesses. And you have to decide how the school system should look. We would advocate a decentralized, competitive school system, and one way to do that is to incorporate public charter schools.

These are delicate issues. Regarding public safety, you may already be on the way to a substantial overhaul of the police force, with the resignation of the police chief and the 200-plus police officers who left their posts during the hurricane.

As for rebuilding, with the low-lying areas you'll have to make decisions, because they're still vulnerable and many homes might not be able to get flood insurance. Is it technically feasible to build a city that would withstand a Category 5 hurricane? Most of the houses in that area, if they had insurance, were old so they got grandfathered under the old insurance. Would it be better to turn these areas into a public park, essentially, and concentrate on building on higher ground? In other words, invite people to come back to the metropolitan area but not necessarily to their old neighborhoods.

And a lot of these people were renters, so it's not their house they would be returning to. Since they're not property owners there's not even a piece of land for them to go back and sell.

Getting people to come back is a big issue. With housing vouchers and things of that nature they are getting more embedded in some of the cities to which they've evacuated. And anecdotally we're learning that some of them are saying, "You know what? It's not so bad here."

Herbert J. Gans, professor of sociology at Columbia University, author of "Urban Villagers"

I hope there will be an opportunity to ask some basic questions before any planning begins, and I have several. First, if global warming or some other cause could mean frequent catastrophic hurricanes in the future, maybe New Orleans should not be rebuilt. Or perhaps only those parts necessary to keep the port operating. The high ground in and around the French Quarter could become a tourist-museum island in the gigantic wetlands into which New Orleans had already been sinking before Katrina.

I also have questions about what will be planned for New Orleans' population. How many residents will want to come back after the place is functional again -- and how long will that take? What about the poor, particularly; will they want to return without work and income? Can New Orleans create more jobs than it had before the disaster? Where will income grants come from for those who cannot work or find work? And what about those who have found work elsewhere at higher pay: Will they want to come back to New Orleans' lower wages, or will its employers be willing and able to pay more?

Who will provide the money and support for HUD or Louisiana and New Orleans or private enterprise to build low-income housing? Without low-income housing, not very many people will actually be able to come back. Thus, one must also ask what efforts the local business community and local power structure are likely to make to keep the poor, especially the dark-skinned ones, out of a rebuilt New Orleans. And what can be done to discourage or thwart such efforts?

Last but hardly least, will the federal government be willing to supply the money and other support for the jobs, income grants, housing, etc., that will be needed? It has been eliminating and decimating programs that serve the poor and moderate-income people for many years now. Let's answer these questions first.

And since you cannot get do very much to rid New Orleans of poverty and segregation by redesigning the city, how it is rebuilt physically does not really matter that much in the scale of things.

Historical note -- the federal urban renewal program was invented as part of the 1949 Housing Act and finally died just as the Great Society was revving up. It was widely known as Negro removal, and by that criterion was very successful. About 90 percent of the million or so low-rent dwelling units destroyed by urban renewal were occupied by African-Americans.

Isabel V. Sawhill, vice president and director of economic studies, the Brookings Institution.

Katrina may have made the poor more visible, but many people have simply given up in the fight against poverty, believing that most government programs are ineffective. The 1960s' War on Poverty was launched with high expectations and little knowledge of what would work.

Today, we know much more. We know that in the absence of safety-net programs, there would be almost twice as much poverty as there is. We know that some training and education programs serving the poor have failed while others -- high-quality preschool programs in particular -- have been much more successful. We know that the Earned Income Tax Credit and welfare reform have reduced poverty while simultaneously increasing employment. We know that housing vouchers that disperse the poor work better than housing programs that concentrate them in just a few areas.

The kind of proposals currently being advanced to assist those devastated by Katrina don't reflect this accumulated wisdom. Instead of devoting scarce resources to unproven or unsuccessful initiatives, such as enterprise zones or trailer parks, we should build on what we have learned. In addition to spending money more wisely, there's a real question about whether our newfound charitable instincts in the wake of Katrina will have any staying power. It is easy to send a one-time check to the Red Cross. It is harder to sustain programs that provide the kind of ongoing help that low-income families need to rebuild their lives.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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