Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ghost of New Orleans Future

In the Times-Picayune story Florida's past may guide N.O. future, Governer-in-Waiting Kathleen Blanco suggests she will turn to her colleague Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida for guidance on the reconstruction of Louisiana after Hurricane .

Mayor Nagin's commission is taking the lead in this tremendous mistake, with high-rise and shopping mall developer Joe Canizaro taking the lead, the T-P reports.

I have discussed the Florida experience before, particularly the effects of free market housing reconstruction and the trailer ghettos of Florida, in an earier post Bricks in the Sticks. Florida's model is one of driving out the existing population-- housing them in rural trailer ghettos--and using the storm in place of the 1960s redevelopment bulldozer.

If both Nagin's and Blanco's commissions are looking to Florida for their model, then Katrina won't be the sole reason for the death of New Orleans. Malpractice on the part of the team charged with saving it will have played a large role.

There is another example, at once encouraging and disheartening. It is the recovery of historic Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. Hurricane Hugo struck this historic coastal city in 1989, damaging three-quarters of the homes in Charleston's historic district.

An article in the Louisiana Weekly outlines ways in which Charleston succeeded in historic preservation of a city (as opposed to buildings), in ways that New Orleans has often failed to do.

However, these preservationists managed to make an important step beyond the achievements of the brethren in the Crescent City...[P]reservation went in different directions in Charleston and New Orleans. Both cities managed to preserve their densely packed historic districts, but while New Orleanians mainly worried about keeping the exteriors of the Creole architecture historic, Charlestonians wanted to maintain the character of the area as well.

They turned the historic peninsula into a "living laboratory." Their strategy was fourfold. First, rather using commercialization to revitalize the area (i.e.. large scale hotel developments), the preservationist coalition drew resident families on the peninsula. They wanted neighborhoods where people cared about their local community and historic aspects of where they lived.

A model for New Orleans? An article from the Charles Post and Courier posted at raises some disconcerting questions, painting a Ghost of New Orleans Future portrait of a town renovated to death.

The area in and around what was once a small walled city has withstood calamities ranging from natural disasters to war.

Now, neighborhoods south of Broad Street and nearby face a more complex challenge: an influx of wealth so sweeping that it threatens to blur the difference between a living city and a museum.

Nancy Hawk has lived for decades at the southern end of Meeting Street, where tourists stroll among majestic homes.

The trouble is, many of those homes sit dark night after night.

"The houses are just empty. It's just depressing. It's sort of a deadening effect," she said. "It really does affect the feeling of being in a neighborhood, of actually being in a living community."

Some offer warnings of what could happen if the trends are not reversed, if Charleston's heart increasingly becomes a part-time playground for the rich.

Frederick Starr, who spoke at the forum and who has studied similar issues in New Orleans, said the changes are eating away at the life of the oldest neighborhoods in Charleston.

"It becomes dead," he said. "If you really want these places to be around in another 300 years, it had better be a living place and not a dead museum."

What happens to derail the Charleston miracle? A long article published by Coastal Heritage magazine, echoes the Post and Courier.

Today’s high-flying beach towns and coastal historic cities are growing wealthier—and grayer. According to 2000 census figures, families with young children fled some downtown Charleston neighborhoods during the 1990s, because housing prices and property taxes became astronomically high.

In the near-coast areas of the Charleston region, the number of households increased from 1990 to 2000, while the population in those areas fell significantly. Says Barkley: “You have households with one or two members moving in, and households with kids moving out to the non-coastal areas.”

In June, Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina’s poet laureate, her husband Peter, a producer of films and commercials, and their three children moved from Sullivan’s Island to Mount Pleasant. Maintenance costs pushed them out of their pre-Civil War home, which they sold to pay for their eldest son’s college tuition and other pressing family needs

While the La. Weekly piece touts the successes of Charleston, overall the picture is bleak for the city as a real place of residence. New Urban movement designers propose large developments and seek to bring affordable housing to the area. The historic core, however, appears to have become a ghetto of the rich.

Neither Florida nor Charleston should be the model, but both can serve as a warning as New Orleans considers its future.

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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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