Monday, October 03, 2005

The fallacy of the “Ephemeral City”

In numerous published articles urban affairs writer Joel Kotkin has posited the idea of the Ephemeral City as a model for certain, select urban centers (even as he cautions against trying to apply the idea generally to inner cities).

In the linked article above, he writes: “[A]s we plunge deeper into the millennium, we may now be witnessing the emergence of a new kind of urban place, populated largely by non-families and the nomadic rich…the ephemeral city prospers by providing an alternative lifestyle to a small sector of society.”

But what about the amenity-rich places, the ones capable of appealing to part-time urbanites and sojourning young people? They need to ask an even more basic question about what kind of city they want to become. Art galleries, clubs, bars, and boutiques make these places undeniably fun, but they are not the things that convince the middle class, families, and most businesses to commit to a city for the long term. Relying on the culturally curious, these cities could be destined to become hollow places, Disneylands for adults.

Perhaps most important, an economy oriented to entertainment, tourism, and "creative" functions is ill-suited to provide opportunities for more than a small slice of its population. Following such a course, it is likely to evolve ever more into a city composed of cosmopolitan elites, a large group of low-income service workers, and a permanent underclass--or into what San Francisco is already becoming, what historian Kevin Starr describes as "a cross between Carmel and Calcutta."

This article is a must read for anyone considering the future of New Orleans I believe this is both the mistakes of New Orleans immediate past, and the vision that many of the city’s leaders have in mind for the future of New Orleans.

As the ephemeral-enthusiastic Mr. Kotkin points out on his website, there is a problem with implementing this model in New Orleans. He cites the same example I do, that of the Gaza strip, as a dystopian view of what happens to the people needed to support an ephemeral city.

If we rebuild the city in the model of Pres Kabakoff’s River Garden (an upscale development displacing the affordable if decrepit housing of the St. Thomas housing project with what many would consider a “more compatible” use given its placement between the burgeoning Warehouse District and the Garden District) the question must be asked: who will be the support employees for this ephemeral city lifestyle, and where will they live?

The Washington Post raises this issue in a story today on the Ninth Ward, and the debate over what will happen to some of the worst affected areas.

Originally a Cypress swamp, the community of 20,000 is overwhelmingly black; more than one-third of residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census. The people of the Lower Ninth are the maids, bellhops and busboys who care for New Orleans tourists. They are also the clerks and cops now helping to get the city back on its feet. It is home to carpenters, sculptors, musicians and retirees. Fats Domino still has a house in the Lower Ninth. Kermit Ruffins — a quintessential New Orleanian trumpeter whose band likes to grill up some barbecue between sets — attended local schools. About half the houses are rentals.

Of the 160,000 buildings in Louisiana declared “uninhabitable” after Katrina, a majority are in the New Orleans neighborhoods that suffered extensive flooding. Mayor Ray Nagin, an African American who worked in the private sector before entering politics, has spelled out plans to reopen every section of the city — except the Lower Ninth. His director of homeland security, Col. Terry Ebbert, said in an interview that most homes in the Lower Ninth “will not be able to be restored.” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told the Houston Chronicle he has advised Nagin that “it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward.”

The first question about the Ninth Ward in an Ephemeral New Orleans is this: What is to be done about the employees of the large tourist industry, and other service sectors? As Kotkin rightly observes, and ephemeral city needs these people, and at the same time has no place for them.

Even if you agree that there is room for building a cosmopolitan downtown in the ruins of the old industrial district, what about the people it displaces? After Katrina, what about all of the people that are displaced? A focus on rebuilding the core of the city at the expense of its neighborhoods is doomed fo ail. The native people of New Orleans must be given an opportunity to return, and affordable housing will have to be built. The giant block public housing projects of the post-WWII period clearly failed, and should be swept from the landscape. What, however, can be built in their place?

Much of the housing stock of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods-the shotguns and camelbacks, the raised Creole cottages—were the original affordable housing of New Orleans. Large apartment blocks have never been a part of the city. These are the model we should adopt for the rebuilding of the city. We must rediscover how to build affordable detached or semi-detached (the shotgun double) houses on narrow lots in a high density. We must squeeze more people onto higher land, the land that will be the most valuable in the post-Katrina period.

The market place will not do this. It will, left to its own devices, create an Ephemeral City. It will extend River Garden from Carrollton to Holy Cross. Absorbing the remaining stock of affordable housing on safe land. New Orleans in its current situation is ripe for something like this. By the same token, the city was—in its current site and prior situation--also ripe for the yellow fever epidemics of the 18th and 19th century. It was not, however, something to be desired.

Any plan for rebuilding the city that does not envision a high-density, mixed use city of many detached and semi-detached working people’s homes, with affordable space for neighborhood businesses, should be considered as dead on arrival. The River Gardens ghetto for the rich should be the last of it’s kind to leave the drawing board until we have addressed the real problems of a very real, not an ephemeral city. It should, at least, be the last to receive the sort of subsidized largesse which the New Orleans Housing Authority offered to subsidize construction of it’s “market rate” housing.

Mayor Nagin and his chosen few need to step forward and address in very short order their plan for the return and rehousing and reemployment of the large majority of the city’s residents. (On the Chosen Few, I will note that,--having picked on Mr. Kabakoff--I promise to return to Joe Canizaro so that no one in that camp should feel excessively singled out)
The second question I want to pose is this: Mayor Nagin has announced return plans for every neighborhood except the Ninth Ward. As the Washington Post article points out, many think the flooded sections “should not be put back in the real estate market,” said Craig Colten, a geography professor at Louisiana State University. “I realize it will be an insult (to former residents), but it would be a far bigger insult to put them back in harm's way.”

If we accept this premise, then I must ask: What about the rest of the core city? will the neighborhoods along the new Canal Streetcar line need to be raised to take full advantage of that new amenity?

What about Lakeview? What about Lake Terrace and Lake Vista and Lake Shore? If its not reasonable to think we will rebuild the Ninth Ward, then why would we rebuild the neighborhoods between the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals, between the Lake and Cemeteries?

The fate of the Ninth Ward may be sealed. I personally do not think the lower Ninth Ward south of St. Claude Avenue will be rebuilt. I think it is possible that Holy Cross and parts of Bywater might be saved, if only because these areas contain a number of historic treasures, and because at least a fraction of its residents are white, relatively affluent urban pioneers.

But what about the lakefront? I will address that in my next post.

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