Rebuilding New Orleans: Beware the Developers

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do not condemn

A plea in New Orleans [Jacob Appelbaum / Flickr]

President Bush has promised millions in federal aid to help rebuild New Orleans. How that money will be spent and who gets to spend it has yet to be determined. But the scale of the devastation, and the possibility of rebuilding an entire city from a supposedly blank slate presents quite an opportunity for the creative or the entrepreneurial. Officials are already consulting the big names in design, development and city planning. Last week Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour called in Andres Duany, the prince of New Urbanism, to consult on the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. And local developers like Pres Kabacoff are talking about their vision for a reconceived and reconstructed Crescent City.

So what’s wrong with this picture? After our last show on rebuilding New Orleans we heard from Fred Starr, whose credits include terms as the Vice President of Tulane and the President of Oberlin. Fred is in D.C. right now, but he owns an antebellum home in New Orlean’s 9th Ward, and he wants to go back. He’s planning on going back. And he can’t imagine that the other homeowners in the city aren’t planning on doing the same.

There’s a bumper sticker now circulating in New Orleans, made by an artist named George Schmidt. It says, “Developers Are Not Our Friends.” The impression I have, and I’m leaving aside the preservation hoo-hah, what my friends are telling me is that the predictable swarm of not only developers and hustlers and demolition people, but of improvers are there. Several university architecture programs have decided to take certain areas under their wing. Nothing has gelled, but the mayor, for the three years prior to Katrina, has been in bed with some big and ominous developers trying to build high rises along the levy. And that’s why as I mentioned to Chris, a lot of federal money was being diverted from the levies to deals with developers. That’s history now. But there is very much a fear that the mayor will get various developers including Pres [Kabacoff] and make deals while we’re all sitting here scratching ourselves.

Fred Starr

So here’s one rallying cry of home owners and preservationists, of the displaced and possibly disposessed former residents of New Orleans: beware the developers. Beware the city planners. Beware all the people flocking to the city bulldoze neighborhoods and “start over fresh.” Because if fifty years of urban renewal taught us anything it’s that what gets knocked down does not necessarily get rebuilt, or rebuilt better.

What’s happening with urban revitalization in your city, past, present or future, and what lessons can you draw from it?

Patty Gay

Executive Director, Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans

[On the phone in New Orleans]

Fred Starr

Chair, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University

New Orleans resident and homeowner

[In studio in Washington, DC]

David Goldberg

Communications Director, Smart Growth America

[On the phone in Atlanta]

Neil Smith

Professor, The Graduate Center at CUNY

Author, New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City

[On the phone in New York]

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  • plaintext

    Here is a review of a book by Lee Clarke, “A Rutgers University sociologist and expert on disasters. His new book, Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination (University of Chicago Press)” The book is due for release in Nov.

    From the review: “Clarke divides people into probabilists and possibilists. Much modern scientific and governmental policy about disasters, he claims, emerges from probabilistic thinking — “What’s the likelihood that the nuclear plant will melt down?” — while possibilistic, or worst-case, thinking asks “What happens if the nuclear plant has a really bad day?”

    Clarke asserts that we engage in worst-case thinking as individuals every day — we buy insurance, decline to take up sky diving, and so on. But when risk assessment broadens from individual decision making to societal setting of policy by “elites and institutions,” probabilists rule, and too often stigmatize possibilists as irrational.”

  • joel

    Where are everyone’s ideas? (See my over-long-winded, semi-(but only semi) tongue-in-cheek one under “To Rebuild or Not to Rebuild?”) Let your imaginations and altruistic instincts go. Let’s get a collection of them, present them to the N.O. residents who plan to return and hear their “ayes” and “nays” and comments. Then let’s hear their preferences, plans and other ideas. What would their ideal New Orleans be?

    My usual preference for most buildings is to put them underground and I think that should apply to whole cities… well, at least, I think, we should bury them so all that exposed pavement and roofs do not become such heat sinks as they presently do. That would be ala Mac Wells –

    But, alas, where the land keeps sinking and the water table is no lower than one can dig with a hoe in 15 minutes, an underground structure may desire that pontoons be fitted.

    Does Radio Open Source have a station in LA, TX and MS yet? I’d really like to hear the opinions of those from N.O. regarding their hopes and wishes for their new New Orleans.


  • plaintext

    How will the recently validated “takings” clause work in NOLA? Surely there will be provincials on every block and corner holding off all comers. Will the revolution be less urban planning and more of an uprising?

    Should we put more men on the moon, fund public broadcasting or rebuild NOLA?

  • jarch

    ask Starr to talk about the framing systems : post and beam and hybrid balloon/ post and beam systems, probably others i am not familiar with, from the Victorian era and earlier that have stood the test of time, but cannot be qualitified by current engineering and may therefore be deemed ‘unsafe’

  • Christopher Lydon,

    I am astonished at your attitude toward the New Urbanism and can only conclude — since you are otherwise intelligent person — that you simply don’t know very much about it. Please do look into it further and cut the cant.