#18 cities
Jed Horne

New New Orleans

After Katrina New Orleans’ residents discussed: Do we want to reconstruct or reinvent our city? Award-winning journalist Jed Horne looks at New New Orleans.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans — like most cities or regions struck by disaster — was torn in two different directions. On one side was a powerful yearning to return as quickly as possible to the familiar city that had been devastated and seemed in grave danger of never recovering. On the other were vows to use the catastrophe as a turning point, an opportunity to atone for past sins and stupidity and build a more viable metropolis. Words like “resilience” and “equity” flew fast and furiously in public discussion.

In the decade since then, reality has intervened in ways that have frustrated the forces pulling in both directions.

Those seeking a return to the familiar saw their city subjected to unexpected changes: the city’s ethnic balance was altered, for example, principally by the influx of Latino workers who put down roots and sent for their families rather than move on to the next disaster zone. In an even bigger surprise, rather than come back as an enfeebled city haemorrhaging its population, as many expected, New Orleans became a magnet for young people, artists, entrepreneurs and others looking for opportunity, adventure, and a chance to serve, or simply tired of the life-sucking regimentation of Wall Street and the Silicon Valley.

Overall, the population, which was about 450,000 before Katrina, is now at 380,000 and still growing.

These newcomers – many well-educated and well-to-do by local standards – have crowded into older ethnic neighbourhoods, driving up real estate prices in ways that are forcing out longer-term residents of lesser means.

Elsewhere on the economic front, some industries have flourished – film, tourism and the digital economy, for example – while others have hit hard times, especially oil and gas following the boom made possible by fracking, the calamity of the BP oil spill, and the recent collapse of world oil prices.

Overall, the population, which was about 450,000 before Katrina, is now at 380,000 and still growing. The homicide rate remains appallingly high, as does unemployment and child poverty among the city’s African-American majority.

Public disgust with the incompetence of the government’s emergency response and recovery strategies triggered a clamour to root out corruption and upgrade city planning. Within a year, New Orleans voters had demanded by referendum that the city devises a comprehensive master plan backed by force of law, in other words a document for zoning and future development that could not simply be ignored by politicians in exchange for “campaign donations” or outright bribes from developers and industries seeking special concessions. Among other changes, voters also demanded an Office of Inspector General be established with an independent budget to ride herd on city contractors and politicians and try to limit the misuse of public money. The incumbent mayor at the time of Katrina is now in prison, as are several other city officials. The city’s dysfunctional police department and prison are both under federal supervision.

The new developments make for a strikingly more attractive cityscape and have generally been applauded by tenants lucky enough to have gotten a lease.

Among the more ambitious land-use decisions was one to largely tear down the city’s notorious public housing developments. For all intents and purposes, the “projects” as they are called – once home to as many as one in ten New Orleanians – had become government-run ghettoes and patronage pork barrels before Katrina. Under the federal “Hope VI” program developed during the Clinton presidency, they have been reconceived (largely at federal expense) as mixed-income, public/private developments. They comprise clustered housing in a variety of styles along streets that have been reintegrated into the traditional grid from which they were cut off.

The new developments make for a strikingly more attractive cityscape and have generally been applauded by tenants lucky enough to have gotten a lease. But former and prospective tenants with a criminal record are routinely banned, and sheer poverty has meant that a good number of families who evacuated the city during the cataclysm have never managed to get back to New Orleans. The result may be “mixed-income” communities, but they are also a “mixed-success”.

Elsewhere in the city, considerable debate has swirled around the decision by a private philanthropic organisation, Hollywood actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, to help rebuild part of a particularly hard-hit neighbourhood in what’s called the Lower 9th Ward. While critics have argued that the area was too flood prone to be safely redeveloped at all, Pitt invited world-class architects to put together a catalogue of innovative housing designs, then worked with residents – most of them low-income blacks – to choose a design and finance its construction. The result is several blocks of fascinating housing and a second chance for at least some members of the community. But, as feared, many adjacent blocks are weed-choked lots, devoid of housing, shops and services, and perhaps for good reason, given the vulnerability that was exposed by Katrina.

A happier development along the riverfront (...) has been the creation of a landscaped linear park.

In contrast to the economic problems besetting a marginal neighbourhood, developers have fought tooth and nail to grab up riverfront property and, in defiance of zoning codes, built high-rise towers and housing complexes largely cut-off from the reviving communities in these areas. While many of these land grabs and code-busting proposals have been stopped or at least stalled, gentrification has proven to be a relentless foe of the lower-income populations that once called these neighbourhoods home. They are being forced out by rising rents. This is especially true of the Marigny, Bywater and Holy Cross districts downriver from the long-since gentrified French Quarter.

Some of the same pressure to gentrify has been felt in traditionally more prosperous Uptown communities and those along the Lakefront, the middle-class area hardest hit by the floods that followed the levee collapse.

A happier development along the riverfront (a still heavily industrial area) has been the creation of a landscaped linear park for use by tourists and nearby residents, dog walkers, joggers and the like. Heretofore, views of the river were almost entirely blocked by flood walls and shipping storage sheds, except at a very few places. The riverfront park is echoed by another linear park that follows an old canal and a bayou to comprise a watery greenbelt that runs from Lake Pontchartrain on the city’s northern border almost to the Mississippi River that is its southern boundary. For New Orleans, a city that has traditionally confronted water threats with massive resistance, the new approach to “living with water” is a minor revolution in municipal thinking, an outgrowth of contact with Dutch water managers after the hurricane. Other similar innovations are being contemplated.

It seems possible that a fortified New Orleans might survive for decades to come (…).

It should be noted that while the Bush administration and Congress did not authorise the Army Corps to build a post-Katrina flood defence adequate for the strongest storms and floods in the Gulf of Mexico region, the levees and pumping systems in New Orleans are far stronger than before the 2005 hurricane.

That said, the peril of climate change in a low-lying region like Southeast Louisiana has only become more apparent in the past ten years. It seems possible that a fortified New Orleans might survive for decades to come – but as an island surrounded by dikes in a coastal plain that has yielded to subsidence and been claimed by rising seas.

Photo: Julie Dermansky (Getty Images)

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