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Blues for a lost city, visions of rebirth
Sacramento Bee


September 11, 2005

That gut-wrenching wail America hears is New Orleans singing the blues - music of sorrow and pain and desolation. But the blues are also cathartic; they heal.

Though people who love the city are grieving what is lost, they can foresee its healing and eventual rebirth. There are different visions for that future. What is clear is that the price - in human suffering and the nation's resources - will be steep.

Ari Kelman, for one, has no doubt that New Orleans will rise again. Kelman, an environmental historian who wrote a recent book on the relationship of the city and the Mississippi River, describes the place as a paradox: impossible but inevitable.

"Impossible because of the location - it's no place to put a city," said Kelman, a professor at the University of California-Davis and author of "A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans."

"It's below sea level. Anytime someone sheds a tear there, they have to pump it out. It's subject to tropical storms and tropical diseases.

"Inevitable because it's as close to the mouth of the Mississippi as you can get. Picture a map of the United States. The Mississippi drainage is a giant funnel from the eastern slope of the Rockies to the western Alleghenies. New Orleans is the tip of that funnel. If you're going to take a gamble on a place to build a port and a city - that's the place to take it."

Thomas Jefferson saw the inevitability, calling New Orleans the "single spot" on the globe that the United States must control. The entire 827,000-square-mile Louisiana Purchase had one aim: New Orleans.

Jefferson bought more than a port. He bought a singular place with French, Spanish and African roots that embraced a spirit foreign to Puritan America. Those roots are reflected in the city's distinctive architecture, its cuisine, celebrations and music.

Amanda Leiker has seen that face of New Orleans. As a student at Tulane University, she reveled in the city's charms and nightlife but also spent time working in the poor black neighborhoods of its Ninth Ward. The ward was totally inundated by flooding last week.

"The division between the haves and have-nots is stark there," said Leiker, who graduated from Tulane in 2001. "Probably only 5 percent of Tulane students ever set foot in the Ninth Ward. I met fantastic people there who cared so much about their community. Those were really old neighborhoods, historic in themselves, and now they're under water.

"Maybe they will be rebuilt better than before."

Maybe. But it's too soon to tell, said Mark Schleifstein, environmental reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The journalist, whose own house "got probably 15 feet of water in it," stole a moment from his relentless deadlines to speculate on his hometown's future.

"The city will be much smaller, no doubt," he wrote in an e-mail to the Sacramento Bee. "Those that can, at least a third, will leave ... . (Many) may end up just staying in temporary housing in Houston or elsewhere and being absorbed there."

Like Kelman, Schleifstein thinks economic forces make the rebuilding of the port inevitable. The reporter has his own view on what should happen in the rest of the city.

"My recommendation," he said, "would be to fill most of the city and build on top, just like they did with Galveston after the 1900 hurricane. They raised it 7 feet. Then you build the levee system around that. But I don't know if that's financially doable. Certainly not under this administration."

Dean MacCannell, an expert on urban planning at UC-Davis, hopes the city doesn't try to rebuild itself as a faux French village of wrought iron and pastel stucco. He cautions against "Disneyfying" the place.

"My first advice is this: If the French Quarter is restorable, it should be restored. That said, it would be a huge error if in rebuilding New Orleans they tried to reproduce what they once had," according to MacCannell. "They have a chance to build a model city that would be sustainable in the face of these natural disasters. Just putting it back up the way it used to be, that would be stupid."

He advised engaging an urban designer who would approach the city as a whole, perhaps coming up with a plan to create a metropolis that floats - an idea he said is wholly possible. This new New Orleans could still be a magnet for visitors, MacCannell said.

"New Orleans has a history and tradition all its own - the carnival, the music, the naughty hint of voodoo," he said. "Those would be the kind of things a smart planner would be aware of as he designed it. But move New Orleans forward, not backwards. Work with nature, not against it."

Kelman, the environmental historian, strikes a similar note - and it's not a blue note at all.

"Of course it will be rebuilt," he said. "No one can seriously think this is the end. It's just another chapter. New Orleans is made of stronger stuff than most people realize - it's suffered through floods of this magnitude before. I think people will be astonished by how quickly it bounces back.

"I'm not going to be at all surprised if hundreds of thousands of people are partying in the streets this Mardi Gras. I'd be willing to wager that New Orleans will be open for business."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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