Sunday, January 15, 2006

Let a thousand charettes bloom

I have held off posting until now about the Bring Back New Orleans Commission's report, in part because its a lot to digest, and also because I had incredibly mixed feelings about it. There is so much to agree with, even as the four month moratorium makes a potential mess of my own need to find a home in .

A number of other bloggers have already spoken eloquently. Read V-R Matri's VatulBlog's "We Aren't Pompeii" on Metroblogging New Orleans. Polimom's "ENOUGH Already" strikes the right note as well. The 34 megabyte power point presentation has been condensed to six megabytes, courtesy of Chris Martel on Metroblogging New Orleans, here.

The article in today's Times-Picayune covers the "emergency meeting" convened by District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell for her constituents in Gentilly and New Orleans East, with more remarks from Broadmoor residents angry at being redlined, seethed with anger, but avoided the easy lapse into race-baiting.

That's a good start, because what's happening now is not about race. Everything about the post- city is about money.

First, the city doesn't have any. The tax base is ravaged, and the federal government has sent a former banker down to make sure we don't squander the little bit we get. And a great deal of power has shifted to the Capitol in Baton Rouge, a place never terribly sympathetic to New Orleans.

There has to be something that looks like a workable plan in place, and the Commission's work is a start. The challenge is, what to do about the people already returning to areas red-lined for possible redevelopment or conversion to green space in the plan?

Take the case of Lakeview, only rated A3/1.5" by the old FEMA maps, but as much as 10 feet below sea level. Many residents are back and renovating their homes. Should they be allowed to continue? Lakeview was safe for fifty years until a variety of bad decisions led to the collapse of the federal levees. If so, should the residents of Gentilly be allowed to proceed on their own higher elevations? What about New Orleans East, which sits much lower than Lakevkew?

Residents of Broadmoor were also quoted liberally in the T-P story. This neighborhood is even a bigger challenge. One of the lowest points in the city's interior, it was settled for over 100 years (and experienced rain-driven flooding in the past). Residents there, like those in Lakeview, are returning in increasing numbers and repairing their homes.

It is also inside the levee system, the railroad embankment that bisects the north end of the city, and the Gentilly/Metairie ridge line. In spite of its elevation, its central location would indicate it is an area that can and should be protected.

The future of any neighborhood in New Orleans depends on a number of variables which can't be worked out just yet, beginning with repairing the U.S. Amry Corps of Engineer's defective levees. Then there is the issue of what the new FEMA flood plain maps will look like, what elevations reconstruction might have to meet. And there is the issue of compensation for losses above the flood insurance cap of $250,000, or for homeowners above the old FEMA flood maps lines who did not have insurance.

Much of the anger at the BNOB Commission plan is directed at the proposed four month moratorium on construction permits. The plan proposes that there be a time-out while the residents of all areas of the city decide if their neighborhoods can meet a target of 50% repopulation. People who have returned and are arleady rebuilding their neighborhoods, even with the uncertainty about the defective Federal levees and the city's future, want to know why they should stop.

Four months is an incredibly long time to ask someone who's already back to wait to start repairs. Time is critical for the city (disclaimer: and for my own need to find a house in New Orleans). I don't know that anyone who is back or is actively preparing to return should have to wait that long. And will those who have already secured permits be allowed to continue, while the later arrivals sit by and watch?

But the idea behind the moratorium, that the residents of each neighborhood make their own decision about their area's future, is a wonderful expression of democracy. All of the money people and all of the starry-eyed planners looked at the problem for months, and finally threw up their hands. They couldn't decide what to do about the working middle-class of the Ninth Ward or the better off people in Lakeview busily rebuilding their flooded homes.

They're going to let the people figure it out, with a focus on the people who've made it back. While people still stranded in Atlanta and Houston are going to have a well-justified fit about it, these are the people on the ground. They're your friends and neighbors. You're going to have to trust them.

If they're back, it's because your neighborhood has a fighting chance. If virtually none of you are back, then there's a good chance your neighborhood is not coming back any time soon. I'm sorry, but it's true.

The entire moratorium/charette process is also the most democratic way to come up with a plan based on people's true intentions. If you're prefer to have Joe Canizaro decide if you can come back and where you can live, that's fine. I'd rather not.

Democracy has not always been our friend in New Orleans. Hell, the Orleans Parish School Board is an elective body, located in the state that loved Edwin Edward's act. This process is something different. It is direct democracy; the citizens in the agora deciding their personal fate. Direct democracy is potentially dangerous, but at the scale of a neighborhood and a smaller city, it is probably the best outcome for this tremendous decision.

Better yet, once the neighborhood reconstruction meetings are over, let's turn the attention of every citizen to all of these issues, especially the schools. All of Algiers has already suceeded from the Orleans Parish School Board, and other schools are following suit. Lets move to turn all of the schools over to the parents. Then lets discuss whether Entergy's abandonment of New Orleans isn't an opportunity to expropriate their grid, and turn Entergy New Orleans into a a customer-owned co-op.

Let a thousand charettes bloom.

I have to agree with you. My own wonderful neighborhood, Vista Park, is in danger of being declared not viable or of being declared green space. This is not good news. But I understand the need to concentrate our efforts in specific areas. City "leaders" and many loud and stubborn citizens (who always seem to get on TV and in the papers) are pushing the city to the brink. They insist that everyone has a right to live where they please. I agree with the concept, but I hope these folks understand that it won't be safe, convenient or pleasant!
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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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