By JAMES K. GLASSMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
September 12, 2005
"Of course it has to be rebuilt. And protected," wrote Jack Davis a week ago. Davis is currently publisher of the Hartford Courant and formerly my partner in launching an alternative weekly newspaper in New Orleans in 1972. Our paper, thanks mainly to Jack, energized the movement to preserve the city's historic gems.
I lived in New Orleans for seven years and have come back dozens of times since. My daughters were born there, and one - now in temporary exile - still lives in the area called Mid-City, near the Fair Grounds, a neighborhood flooded to a height of more than 6 feet. She and her husband and baby evacuated the Sunday before Hurricane Katrina hit, stuffing what they could into their little car and driving 14 hours into Texas.
My daughter wants to come back. So does nearly everyone else I know who survived the storm. And many of these Orleanians believe - as I do - that the city itself has the chance to come back better than ever.
There are many precedents for rebirth and vivid improvement: Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906, and Charleston, S.C., after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
"The public needs to know that the road to recovery has begun and that it will be uninterrupted until it is complete," said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, giving advice based on his own experience. "You can't let people spiral into a depressed situation."
That's why the finger pointing has to stop. Certainly, appoint a group to find out why the response - at the local, state and federal levels, all - was so slow and confused. But far more important is where New Orleans, a unique treasure of American culture, history and commerce, goes from here.
The good news is that, amid all the death and destruction, the core of the historic city remains largely undamaged by the flood and looting, including the French Quarter and Garden District and much of Uptown. The project will not have to start from scratch.
My view is that a revival of New Orleans must proceed on three fronts:
- Infrastructure: Higher levees won't be able to stop another 100-year storm. Future hurricane damage can, however, be contained. The lowest areas of the city and its surroundings, Davis and others believe, should revert to wetlands and floodplains - grand natural parks. The city also needs substantial floodwalls to compartmentalize the high water and stop it from inundating a majority of neighborhoods, and massive surge barriers such as those that protect London from the Thames and Venice from the Adriatic.
- Society: Americans got a taste of the violence and misery that infests large swaths of the city when they saw the horrors at the Convention Center, much of whose post-hurricane population came from the Iberville Project up the street. New Orleans has neglected its poor, educating them in rotten schools, giving them only intermittent police protection and warehousing them in despair.
Nicholas Lemann, whose family moved to the city in 1836, wrote in The New Yorker that New Orleans is "the opposite of a city that works. It perennially ranks near the bottom on practically every basic measure of civic health." He's right, and the world got a taste of that dysfunctionality, too, during the storm. Corruption, squalor and stupidity do not equal charm. As we have seen, they can kill.
- Renewal: Yes, rules should require the preservation of the historic city, but, beyond that, the revival should be as spontaneous as possible. The inevitable commission that will oversee the rebuilding must realize that the world's best designers, developers and innovators will be drawn to the city only if they are relatively unrestricted. New Orleans could become a laboratory for ideas like tax-free commercial zones and school reform. This is the ultimate libertarian city and the last thing it needs is top-down planning. Many of the city's great attractions - the Jazz Festival, D-Day Museum and blackened redfish, for example - are of recent vintage.
I'm optimistic. New Orleans has a unique chance to make a fresh start and, in fact, become more like cities that do work (Chicago and Phoenix come to mind) while retaining its spirit of mystery, absurdity, beauty and decadence.