Saturday, October 08, 2005

A city of stilts, or a city of dreams?

As the scope of the devastation of the lakefront, central city and New Orleans East begin to reveal itself to returning residents, some hard questions will have to be asked. How to rebuild?

That is not one question. It encompasses how to pay to rebuild, where to rebuild, what sort of houses to rebuild.

A quick glance at the flood or elevation map of the city will reveal that much of the city is to some extent below sea level. Moreover, to counter the flooding from Lake Pontchartrain, one must keep in mind that the lake is typically one foot above sea level, not counting storm surges, etc.

Some areas will certainly be rebuilt, and likely not by the current residents. The Canal Street corridor is at or just above sea level. Combine that with the return of street car service, and there is a strong likelihood that the previous renters may not be returning to those homes. The market is going to bid that real estate up.

To some extent, that is probably good for the city. Given its character as an old city, having a strong inner city population is liable to help fuel the rebirth of the economic core. The biggest question there is what happens to the character of those inner city neighborhoods? What safeguards and inducements will be put in place to ensure that it is rebuilt in keeping with the historic and cultural character of the city?

And what, then, happens to the people who lived in those neighborhoods? What happens to those core-city neighborhoods in the Broad Street basin north of Claiborne Avenue?

It is likely that some areas of NOLA will not be rebuilt, or will not be rebuilt as they were before. Everything I read indicates that much of the lower Ninth Ward areas will be razed and not rebuilt. I think it is likely that Holy Cross might be saved, because it sits above sea level and contains a number of historic treasures, and because at least a fraction of its residents are white, relatively affluent urban pioneers.

But what about the vast areas of more affluent New Orleans that lie far below sea level. One of the most impacted areas was the land north of the Metairie Road/Gentilly Ridge between the 17th St. and London Avenue Canals.

Lakeview in particular--that area adjacent to the 17th Street Canal east to City Park, has completely inundated. Flood map show the entire area lies in a zone marked 1.25 to four meters (four to twelve feet) below sea level. Moreover, these areas are north of the line of pumping stations originally constructed at the city's northern margin. The inundation of the city resulted from the failure of the canals that carry that pumped rain (or flood) water north to the lake, not the primary levees fronting Lake Pontchartrain.

Some thought must be given to rebuilding the pumping stations at the lake's edge, as was done in the later development of Jefferson Parish, reducing the amount of levee/floodwall frontage to improved and maintained.

Beyond that technical challenge, the question is: how will those neighborhoods return. The residents of Lakeview have established an active internet group on Yahoo, where they lament the difficulties of dealing with insurance companies, and pledge to rebuild. The area where I grew up has an online discussion forum for their property owners association, where many people pledge to return.

The neighborhood where I grew up was Lake Visa. (I was born into a house in Lakeview, but my family “moved up” to the affluent Lake Vista address [17 Egret St.] before I started school. Lake Vista was an interesting mix of Lakeview-style middle class cottages from its immediate post-war development, and the earliest examples of the McMansion. It had become, increasingly, the domain of the manse builder, with the newest owners buying up the older homes and demolishing them to make way for their new palazzos.

Lake Vista didn’t start out this way. The children of Lake Vista would sometimes stop into the fire station on Robert E. Lee Boulevard just west of the Orleans Avenue Canal to buy a pop (if we were closer to the fire station than to the neighborhoods small shopping center, or after the local grocery and drug store closed).

The map the fire department had on the wall of Lake Vista was interesting. Because I was an architect's son, I recognized it even at a young age for what it was: a plat map. The original Lake Vista had been platted out into narrow lots, suitable for the working class homes of older New Orleans. It’s designer had envisioned it as a working class paradise of shotgun-style homes built on cul-de-sacs linked to an idyllic network of pedestrian paths and parkways.

Instead, everyone who bought land in Lake Visa bought two of those narrowly platted lots, and began building homes they considered worth of a lakefront address.

Lake Vista (and Lake Terrace and Lake Short), for all their proximity to the lake, sit at about sea level because they were a land reclamation project. No so their neighbors to the south in Lakeview The near total devastation of Lakeview and other low-lying lakefront neighborhoods between the Gentilly Ridge and Robert E. Lee Boulevard offers a canvas of infinite possibilities, some to ugly to consider (such as sitting trailer cities there) and some fabulous and promising.

What then might such plans look like?

Lakeview is the perfect place to start. Much of it is devastated beyond repair. Will it be the stilt cities of lower Acadiana and Grand Isle? That’s not an attractive picture, but it’s possible. Will it look like the raised cottage areas of uptown and mid-city, with the living floors a good six to eight feet off the ground, and the ground floor enclosed for parking, utility space, etc? This would certainly be more in keeping with the character of the rest of the city. It will also be more expensive than just building ranch homes on slabs, or even rebuilding those homes on stilts.

The expense brings us to the real question of concern: will Lakeview continue to be a moderately affluent, white flight enclave within the city limits, when vast areas of working class New Orleans are completely devastated as well? Or can it be the working-middle-class paradise Lake Vista was once intended to be? If we’re going to spend the money to make it storm-safe (or as storm safe as any part of New Orleans can be considered), we will want to be able to house as many people as we can. This should, it must include people from places like the Ninth Ward and the MidCity. It should include housing affordable to those who work in the hotels and casinos and stores of the increasingly ephemeral and tourist-dependent city.

I think that those who must have a standard 5,000 square foot lot and a detached garage and a lawn to mow, these people are going to have to look to places outside of the city to live. It simply makes no sense to spend all that money to protect that much grass. We are going to need to build denser neighborhoods like those of the core city (and those the people who platted the original Lake Vista assumed for the lakefront).

We are going to need to raise those homes without creating a city of stilts, and at the same time adjust the requirements of federal flood insurance to a reasonable elevation. Current, those who wish to rebuild in "A" zone property (which is most of New Orleans), who have experienced more than 50 percent damage, must build above sea level or face vastly increased premiums.

To suggest that New Orleans be abandoned is ridiculous. Some accommodation must be made for the established settlement pattern of 300 years. At the same time, the homes the repopulate Lakeview and similar neighborhoods north of the Gentilly/Cemetaries/Metarie line are going to need to be sufficiently elevated to handle future floods.

And the neighborhoods that receive improved levees are going to need to house more people than they do now. The settlement pattern of the first 200 years of the city: smaller elevated homes on smaller lots, should be the model. Owners should be encouraged to divide their property, possibly pooling two lots to make three, enabling the two original owners to rebuild and sell the third. This could provide a financial windfall to the existing owners to help them rebuild flood resistant homes.

Rebuilders should be encouraged to rescue the raised New Orleans cottage as the model home, and the national flood insurance program should accept covering the lowest level if it is not used for habitation.

Finally, the de facto redlining of neighborhoods should be eliminated. I remember the fear on the lakefront as the burgeoning black middle class marched through the neighborhoods between Bayou St. John and the London Avenue Canal. People who could afford the homes our parents could afford--professionals and business people--were regarded as if the cast of Amos & Andy were moving in next store.

It doesn't matter that they can afford the houses, people would say. You know what those people are like.

Those of us who chose to live in mixed inner city neighborhoods know that the massive self-segregation patterns of the sixties and seventies were based on ridiculous and ignorant fear. Those patterns must be broken if the city is to rebuild. There just isn't enough good land, and there is not likely to be enough money to build Category Five protection everywhere.

Those who choose to rebuild should choose to rebuild together, in homes the reflect the character of the preserved core city neighborhoods. If those choices are avoided or blocked, then I have to ask the question myself: will it be worth rebuilding?

Hey Dude, appreciate your concerns but let us not get carried away. Let the free market work its magic and lakeview will be just fine
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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