Friday, November 11, 2005

Utopia on the Bayou

Cities are incremental growths, accreting in place with the same slow and erratic perfection as stalactites and stalagmites. Few if any fulfill the vision of their founders. Once peopled and with the passage of time, they take off in ways governed only by the chance meetings of people on the city’s streets, as chaotic and precise as crystals.

in many ways has wiped the slate of clean. Utopian ideas of how to reconstruct the city are almost inevitable. Some are well meaning, and meant to address hundreds of years of social and economic inequity through a better distribution of housing and services and income. Others intend to eliminated the poverty and crime by eliminating the perpetrators, and the victims who were often the perp's neighbors and of the same color and class.

While the Audubon Place crowd has been quiet after Jimmy Reiss’ national embarrassment in the Wall Street Journal, the latter approach is well underway In spite of the return of the I-9 regulations, requiring workers prove their legal status prior to employment, a Latin workforce with dubious papers continues to flood into the city. These workers offer the Audubon Place crowd a workforce as docile and diligent as a chain gang of prisoners under close guard. The only thing lacking is my great-great uncle astride his horse, watching over the plantation field hands as he did at Stella in Plaquemines Parish almost a hundred years ago.

Some members of the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition call for equally radical changes on behalf of a more progressive vision. One document circulating proposes abandoning what it calls the “backswamp”, namely those parts of the city that were unsuitable wetlands at the city’s founding. To replace the tens of thousands of homes that would displace, a utopian city of dense housing—built to the highest Green standards of environmentalism and affordability—would be built on land on this historically proven high ground.

There is nothing wrong with a utopian vision, but we are not preparing to build utopia. Instead, we are concerned with resurrecting a living city. A vision of abandoning the backswamp (read, everything north of the L&N line, and east of the Industrial Canal, and perhaps parts of mid-city itself like the Broad Street basin) are not likely to happen. Such a city would require the construction of an entirely new levee protection system interior to the existing one, rather than augmenting or reconstructing what is already in place (which mostly held against a catastrophic storm surge).

Should the city be denser, and more pedestrian oriented? I think that is a goal any city should be working toward, a more sustainable way to live, and one that presents a smaller profile to protect with Category Five levees. Such cities and neighborhoods are what drew me to urban living in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Should there be extensive mass transit? The city could not work without the network it had, and that network should be expanded. Should the city be “greener”, consuming less energy in its construction and maintenance. I can’t imagine any major project of new or reconstruction at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the end of the petroleum era that would not be.

However, utopian schemes to create a dense and car-free city of faux shotguns or Marshal Plan apartment blocks are likely to fail. It is as dismal a picture, if you focus upon it hard enough, as any Disney/Hilton Head visions of the city’s business elite. It would not be the city we remember.

New Orleans has flirted with urban utopianism before. I grew up in Lake Vista, which was an urban planners dreamscape of cul-de-sacs, a network of pedestrian walkways connecting the shotgun home-sized lots to grand parkways, all leading to The Center, where we would daily make our groceries like our Gallic ancestors. Instead, everyone bought two of the narrow lots and built their dream homes, the precursors of the McMansions to come. In the early 1960s, my family bought its first second car, and joined the parade to the shopping centers on Robert E. Lee, and out to the new malls of Jefferson Parish, and the Center slowly died. Today Lake Vista is an elite enclave and not a middle class paradise

Platting narrow lots and pedestrian-centered neighborhoods will not force a neighborhood live that way, if there is not a will to live this way. It will instead become the product of the people who pass their lives there, not the dream of the place's designers.

We cannot disconnect the city from its environment, and that environment includes Jefferson and St. Bernard and St. Tammany and St. John Parishes. Some people will chose to live out in the suburban sprawl, for more spacious surroundings or cheaper homes, and will commute into the city. The pattern of suburban sprawl is now almost a century old, and has come to replace the myths of land and space and freedom that the West represented in the nineteenth century. It will be the work of a generation to get most of the suburban residents out of their cars.

Some will continue to choose neighborhoods that continue the pattern of self-segregation of the 1960s and 1970s.. The attitudes that drive this voluntary ghetto building are deeply ingrained in everyone in the New Orleans area. Some of us admit it, and work like alcoholics to live a better life in spite of it. If you think getting people to give up their manicured lawns or a second car will bedifficult, it will be even more challenging to get people who’ve chosen to live in homogenous neighborhoods (whether that neighborhood is in the city or the suburbs) to choose to live in a racially mixed neighborhood in a dense urban environment.

And what of the city's "backswamp"? It’s too late to abandon Lakeview, where people right now are clearing out the ruined sheetwork and cleaning homes they have every intention to rebuild. I can’t but imagine that Gentilly will follow suit. The backswamp will be rebuilt. The people of Lakeview and Gentilly are the middle class professional and technical backbone any vibrant city will need, and we should not be discouraging them. Instead, we should be looking for ways to encourage more people to return and to rebuild.

What then of those who can’t afford to rebuild beyond what flood insurance will pay, or who had no flood insurance, or were the vast population of lower income renters? Where shall they live? The folks of Lakeview are not terribly enamored of the idea of building trailer cities on the Pontchartrain Boulevard neutral ground, and even less so of subdividing City Park. Some of the animus is clearly racial or classist. You can't escape that message if you visit rebuild_lakeview on Yahoo, and read some of the comments.

At the same time, no one in any neighborhood wants a FEMA trailer city in their neighborhoods. If you look at the experience of Florida, constructing FEMAville trailer ghettos is simply rebuild the city’s housing projects, this time in aluminum instead of brick. These pre-fabricated failures should not be built on Pontchartrain Boulevard, or in City Park. They should not be built in the city of Baker, La., or in the suburban parishes. They are a predictable and entirely avoidable catastrophe, and one the people of Lakeview have every reason to fear.

If you do visit the rebuild_lakeview Internet discussion, you don’t hear just fear or anger. You can hear people who loved their neighborhood, and the entire city. You can find reminisces of people who moved to Lakeview from Bywater or other urban neighborhoods as they started their families, who think fondly of the people of the eastern wards, and worry about their future. People who care not just about their own small piece of the city, but care for the city as a whole, need to be encouraged to become the community leaders. We need their leadership so that in the resettlement we don't make the mistakes of self-segregation, don’t continue to operate on the baseless fears that accompanied the slow march of the black middle class down Paris Avenue in the 1970s, and the retreat of white residents.

There is a strong urge to abandon some parts of the city. Certainly those in the east most exposed to the Gulf of Mexico, are going to require a great deal of protection before they are truly safe. If some areas are to be abandoned, we have to find a way to live together in the land that can be protected today. That might mean turning a (carefully supervised) Kabacoff or Canizaro loose on the Pontchartrain Boulevard neutral ground, or other open green areas of the city. What is built in such places must be neighborhoods that, while open to all who return, are prepared to be healthy, middle class neighborhoods consistent with those that surround it, and in answer to the dreams of those who have not had such neighborhoods in the past.

Rather than draft utopian agendas, I want to suggest that a few profound changes should be focused on, ones that have the potential to be transforming. The re-adoption of the construction techniques of the 18th and 19th century might be a start. The new New Orleans should contain homes that are elevated above the most likely floods, and less susceptible to rot and mold. At the same time, the designers of the new city must address the fact that these structures are incredibly energy inefficient. How do we make a home both mold resistant and energy efficient? That is the biggest problem the city faces, and the person who discovers the answer will retire wealthy. Tear down areas (and there will be some) could be condemned and replatted into smaller lots. Rather than be so heavy handed, why not let two neighbors pool their two lots, and make three, selling the third to a new resident. We can make the city denser without massive condemnation or usufruct, if we make the resubdivision attractive to everyone involved.

The city must build the regional mass transit system that once service the city, and which the Regional Transit Authority was created to extend into the suburbs. We aren't going to simply confiscate automobiles or eliminate parking lots by fiat. Instead, the alternative must lure people out of their automobiles because it is more attractive than driving. While rail transit is more expensive per passenger mile than buses, people love the damn streetcars. The tourists adore them. I adore them. The number of streetcar lines, and the frequency of service, should be expanded to make it an attractive alternative for those who live in the core.

The entire transit system must be as extensive and cheap and clean and comfortable as the buses I rode all over town on in the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, the transit system must expand to attractively and efficiently move the people of the outer parishes in and out of the city. Transit is really the answer to how and where we should rebuild. I don’t believe we should repeat the mistakes of the later twentieth century, and throw up endless rows of apartment blocks, all in the name of density and reduced dependence on the automobile. If the United States can’t find a way to have green space around our homes, to live in the neighborhoods we chose, and still move away from car-driven sprawl, then we truly have lost the imagination and drive of the past centuries.

In the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition draft manifesto, I don’t see tourism mentioned as an industry. It is not going away, and it will provide the most immediate post-reconstruction employment boost. (See this article by Dr. Marty Rowland, which I found after I wrote this piece), People should not see tourism as an ill, but should see the need to provide housing to go with employment as an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past. The conventioneers and other’s can’t resist the city, and the hotels and other industries that serve them will return no matter what. There is money to be made, and someone will make it.

What must change is the distribution of the income of tourism. Jobs waiting tables and tending bar and cleaning rooms must pay enough to live decently in the city. Such wages would mean that the earnings of the hotels and other venues that return to the city will be less than they were pre-Katrina, and the owners and stockholders will complain. But even with a radically higher living wage, I believe the core tourism industry will come back. It would cost too much to recreate the city’s ambience somewhere else. The hotels will re-open, the conventioneers and tourists will return, and money will still be made, even if the local workers demand and receive a substantially higher proportion of that money.

Bringing back tourism quickly will mean housing workers. It will mean renovating the damaged inner city neighborhoods, and providing housing that the people who work in tourism can afford. It will mean getting the transit system back on its feet ASAP. It will present precisely the opportunities to do, on a manageable scale, what some would seek to do to the entire city were they to wake up one morning a real Rex: build an idealized New Orleans that is still the city of memory.

I have written on this blog of the challenge of Charleston. For all the efforts of the Kabacoff-and-Canizaro types up there to provide affordable housing, families and workers continue to hemorrhage out of the core of the city for more affordable suburbs. The historic district is becoming what New Orleans must not, a winter vacation home for absent, wealthy owners, with dark and childless streets when they are not around.

Rather than propose the construction of a perfectly green and egalitarian city, people should be focused on how to build some perfectly green and egalitarian neighborhoods, one-by-one.

We must focus on a few high profile changes, such as a building codes encouraging historic building practices, and a massive investment in the transit system. Tourism must be gotten back on its feet—with improvements to wages and benefits paid, with all that entails for providing housing and transit and schools and healthcare for those workers--because it is the one sure path to get as much of the city’s prior population back home again.

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