To Rebuild or Not to Rebuild?

24 MB MP3

Joel Garreau wrote a provocative article in the Washington Post that’s lit up the Web and — thanks to Potter, our office. We’re thinking about a rebuilding show for tomorrow, one that takes into account many of Garreau’s points: tourist New Orleans vs. poverty ravaged New Orleans; race and class in 21st century American urban planning; the checkered history of previous attempts at rebuilding cities; and, above all, what it means, past the feel-good phrase itself, when we talk about “rebuilding.”

Ideas — and blog posts, and possible guests, and recommended reading — are, as always, welcome.

Update, 9/14 3:52pm

What a difference a day makes. We have three guests now, including Joel Garreau, and are refining the shape of the hour.

Joel Garreau

Author of Edge City and, most recently, Radical Evolution

Reporter for the Washington Post

[On the phone from Virginia]

Bill Shutkin

Author of The Land That Could Be

President and CEO of the Orton Family Foundation

Research Affiliate at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning

[In a studio in Manchester, VT]

Pres Kabacoff

CEO, Historic Restoration Inc.

New Orleans native and second generation developer

[On the phone from Houma, LA]

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  • Great idea. Joel’s piece was one of the most provocative I’ve read in the post-Katrina aftermath.

  • mfortner

    This question has come up before over 100 years ago with the Great Storm of 1900 that wiped out Galveston. It might be interesting to have Erik Larson author of “Isaac’s Storm” on the show as well.

    More recently after Tropical Storm Allison, and the recurrent flooding that occurred along the San Jacinto river, a number of insurance companies and the Federal Government have refused to continue to cover the costs the continual rebuilding of houses and businesses in flood prone areas.

    It might be interesting to find out what the insurance companies are planning.

  • scottbenbow

    Race and class are such an important part of the story of the devastation of New Orleans. Statements of some lawmakers, such as Hastert’s infamous “bulldozed” comments and Rep. Richard Baker’s statements about the Hurricane solving the public housing crisis in New Orleans, demonstrate callous disregard for the lives and livelihoods of people who are predominantly poor and black. I doubt that either congressman would have made the same statement if the victims were white and middle class.

    Despite these ill-conceived comments by ill-prepared lawmakers, the question of “rebuilding” New Orleans is one that deserves a lot of attention. What is it in human nature or the American psyche that demands that we rebuild New Orleans, the World Trade Center, or Trent Lott’s house. (According to Bush on September 2, “Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”)

    Does the promise to rebuild say more about the person making the statement than the feasibility of the effort?

  • Potter

    I would like to give my dear husband credit for noticing the article and sending it to me. I look forward to the show.

  • Jack Shafer also wrote a “don’t rebuild NO” piece for Slate:

  • Potter

    Joel Garreau said “We’re talking about mud here.”

    Bill Shutkin said: Expand and annex that crescent! Green planning and design! A debt that is owed to the city of New Orleans!

    [None of the models, not Charleston, not the Everglades, not Portland, not Galveston are anywhere near the scope of rebuilding New Orleans from what I understand. ]

    Garreau said : “We can build a great yuppie heaven, no doubt.�

    Bernard, caller from Providence, expresses the will to improve and the nostalgia.

    (Nostalgia feels much better than mourning.)

    I say: Paris took two thousand years to build.

    Afro-Caribbean theme: Pres Kabacoff describes a Disney-like smaller denser New Orleans, “the northernmost Carribbean city�

    We were reminded that the smallest city in the USA is of 323,000: Arlington Texas.

    Images of Key West popped up.

    Garreau said: When you start building new, the people who play guitar for a living can’t afford new. It WAS funky.GOOD POINT. [You can’t build new funky lest you get a a Hollywood/Disney set)

    Caller: A large part of the working class has been displaced. Can’t we move the city perhaps a little bit west ( or a few blocks upstream). [ I say: What about Baton Rouge? It has ballooned with New Orleans folks to double or triple what it was. It might become New New Orleans, a great city.]

    So “rebuilt for whom?� someone said.

    And then Garreau again with the musical analogy: First the equity cord…. building a true American community. Then ecology cord. [ I say YES YES lets have a wildlife refuge!]

    Garreau: With a first rate new infrastructure.

    The Theologian-planner called expanding on that je-ne-sais-quois spiritual thing… the magic, excited about opportunities to showcase solutions…..

    Garreau said: New Orleans had great social problems.

    So I am left with: Okay. Who is going to pay for this? Who is going to insure this? Who is going to lead this? Can we be asked to support this with higher taxes ( this would be a great time to ask for them) or by to repealing the tax cuts or forgoing the pork?

    Who is going to want to move back there to endure the cleanup and construction or after maybe years of waiting?

    Still, above all this needs leadership we can believe in at a time of very low credibility and low voltage spirituality. This administration may have blown it’s wad on Iraq.

    A city so damaged and so much at odds with nature will take a nation to save it.

    It was a beautiful city to visit.

    Thank you all for a good hour.

  • joel

    There are some mining companies in Appalachia that can’t be bothered digging tunnels in the mountains to get at the ore anymore. They simply blow the tops off the mountains with high explosives and become strip miners. The mountain tops have been shoved into the valleys between the mountains, leeching out their impurities into the mountain streams and choking them and the living matter with their alluvial particulates and sediments and ruining the ambiance and environment of downstream towns and villages.

    These companies are masters at earth moving. I think they should be required to restore, at their own cost, both the valleys and the topography of the mountains. They don’t want to. So perhaps an option could be offered them, again at their own cost, to ship all those wasted mountain tops to New Orleans to fill in the (perhaps smaller) bowl inside the levees. All that material will make the subsidence increase in rate and amount. But it will come to a slower, steadier rate after the initial process of filling. When the rate becomes slow enough and relatively constant, building can be undertaken. The idea will be such that, as the

    buildings subside with the ground, they can be added to at the top as more fill is added to maintain the desired elevation above sea level. This subsidence and filling will also create an additional below-grade floor to be used till no longer usable because of the water table, at which time it will merely be abandoned

    to become part of the ever deeper foundation.

    In this mode, an intelligence technology and data processing city of low-rise, hurricane proof office buildings with, perhaps, domed exteriors (or otherwise aerodynamic) that can be jacked up when a new floor needs constructing under them. With educational institutions adept in IT instruction from kindergarden on through post graduate studies and labs for research where the post grads can develop and test their ideas, with labs and companies focusing on hydrology and others with emphasis in biology and geology, all needed to get the bottom of the Mississippi River back down where it belongs, instead of nearly higher than the lowlands around it, and restore the delta; this, of course, in addition to the equivalent venues where the beautiful music and spirit of the musicians of the area can flourish, will provide the means and incentive for the present members of those families who have called New Orleans and the bayous home for generations to obtain, through everyday living, an education which will underwrite the on-going foundation of an adequate, worthy and satisfying family life.

    I can envision a research and education center that could be entirely appreciative and supportive of the traditional culture and arts. Cultural centers for the practice of these arts and culture could be developed.

    All of these above endeavers could stimulate a diverse sort of tourist flow that would maintain a certain ambiance and variety reminiscent of the city’s past and provide more for the street artists and for the future.

    As Joel Garreau mentioned in the broadcast of Radio Open Source on the subject, the industrial commerce of the area needs little from the city of New Orleans, but I can see the city becoming a beautiful location for the, again, low-rise and complememtary office buildings of the home offices of those industries. I almost

    hesitate to mention this because of the care and watchfullness which will be needed to keep the unseemly egos of these industries and the traditional corruption of the area in check for the sake of the city. But with true New Orleanians(?) exerting their influence, perhaps it could work.

  • whereyat?

    Garreau and his article are full of it. Not he or anyone else would even consider for a moment a city that was majority white or even majority hispanic! Sure if there were enough Asians or Hispanics there, he’d sing multicultural praises forever more with refrains about innate entrepreneurian spirit. But seeing as it’s majority black and worse still majority black for so long it’s beyond all hope of economic redemption–a basketcase like sub-Saharan africa.

    He cleverly frames the issue in terms of separating out the “crescent” which constitutes he repeatedly stresses “just 10% of the city” and is still majority white and separating the greater metropolitan area, which absent New Orleans is also majority white. (Interestingly enough Algiers on the west bank merits no mention probably because it never flooded, it’s utilities never collapsed, despite being a poor, black area and as such puts a kink in his “everthing but the Quarter and the Garden District is doomed” thesis.

    Similarly he just assumes that most residents won’t be returning. The stated reason is simply “they don’t have anything, therefore there’s no reason for them to return, ergo they can just migrate to Atlanta, Houston, etc.” Sort of like a turbo verion of the “great migration.” We’ll see but all previous experience is that refugees want to return…just ask any palestinian. The point is that the people of New Orleans don’t need people like Mr. Garreau claiming to read their minds.

    Finally, the title of the piece is “Cities are not forever.” Not always certainly. But they tend to out live empires…or nation-states. So we have to ask ourselves if New Orleans, the city so key in American territorial and commerical expansion into the West, the Carribean, and Central America. Who’s to say the US can be far behind?

  • eflake

    Two things. One, obviously one of the major problems here is what to do wth the people who have been displaced whose homes are no longer habitable – I don’t think Garreau was being cavalier in suggesting that many people won’t want to return to their homes, especiially if those homes are gone or unlivably toxic. It does point to a rather unpleasant truth – that the worst parts of the city have been cleared, that there’s a massive diaspora of people who weren’t in the best of situations in the first place. It’s impossible to put everything back exactly the way it was, and it can certainly be argued that one might not want to. Why not use some of the billions of government money towards establishing people in other places? This might be the only time this massive neglected populace has access to such resources. Nobody’s heaving a sigh of relief that the ghettos have been cleared – but we do have to face the reality that, uh, the ghettos have been cleard. No one’s saying the don’t want poor people to come back to New Orleans – but there might not be anything left for them to come back to, so rather than spending money to rebuild the houses, why not focus on rebuilding their lives, no matter where they choose to live? It’s an absolute travesty that it took this to get the city’s poorest some attention, but here we are. As to what to do with whatever remains of a habital city – “a yuppie paradise with a really cool swampp” – I am sure I am not the only one that recoiled a little at that vision. But perhaps the city could become a sort of Arts Superfund district – as Garreau pointed out, people who play guitar for a living can’t afford nice, can’t afford new. But nice and new has never been what New Orleans is about. If the gorgeous old structures are still habitable, maybe parts of it could be remade as low-income artist’s housing, something that could attract the “creative class.” It’s often said about many cities that have cleaned up their image that they’ve lost something of their soul – that the grit and dirt and danger are part of what makes a city a city – agree or disagree, it’s obvious that no government funds are going towards replacing that particular kind of authenticity. But perhaps ensuring that the artists, musicians, and writers that have always been drawn to New Orleans continue to be drawn there – that might go a long way towards restoring the city’s soul.

    I’m also not blind to the fact that this sounds a lot like massive gentrification on a city-wide scale. I don’t know how to begin to tease out the intricacies of that delicate situation, except to say that historically, “gentrification” has been undertaken by people in search of a cheap place to live and make art, and the more well heeled come trampling in after. The tradeoff for the cheap rents that the first wave gets is the crime and poverty and general desperation of the neighborhood they go into. But who would argue that desperation is a thing to be preserved? Does anyone really thing anyone likes random gunfire, rampant drug trade, or theft? To frame that as a “choice” that people make seems ignorant at best. Obviously that’s not the whole story of America’s poorest areas, but it’s a major concern. The people forced out of the owrst parts of New Orleans deserve to have their lives rebuilt in vastly better shape than they were in before, be it in New Orleans or elsewhere.

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