Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Chinese Character for Crisis

It is a well-established truism of business and management writers that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the two characters meaning danger and opportunity. This is, unfortunately, wrong. Instead, the second character, means something like "incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)."

The Flood is clearly our incipient moment, when something begins or changes. The city is profoundly transformed by the flood: smaller in population, less diverse and more afluent, with a large influx of Latino tradesmen and laborers looking for recovery work.

For the immigrant workers, for those who might prefer a smaller, whiter, more affluent city, the incipient moment has truly been an opportunity, one that could profoundly transform New Orleans. What about the rest of us? What are we doing to take this moment and make it into an opportunity?

Some other changes have already begun. The charter school secession from the Orleans Parish Public School system and the state takeover of almost all remaining public schools is a transforming moment, one that could address one of the city's most profound antediluvian weaknesses (after, of course, the defective Federal levees and floodwalls).

The announcement of plans for a large jazz park to transform the Superdome end of Poydras street shows that some people are ready to turn the moment of danger and change into one of opportunity. Plans by the US Postal Service to try and convert vast swaths of the city to efficient, ugly and inappropriate cluster boxes, is another example. These groups see the opportunity in the moment. What about the rest of us, the rest of the city?

I attended the city council's New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan meeting for Planning District Four (which includes my new home in Mid-City) this weekend. There was the expected: short pep talks from our new city council members and the facilitator, belly aching about postal service plans to end house delivery, debris piles and irregular garbage pickup, high Sewerage & Water Board bills, Home Deport buying an abandoned grocery store on Carollton Avenue: all of the things you would expect to hear if you take a room full of neighborhood activists and politicians and turn on a microphone.

I also heard complaining from some that this was the third time some residents had been asked to participate in a recovery planning process: first the Bring New Orleans Back committee's, then the Louisiana Recovery Authority's and now the City Council's. One man asked the question: why another plan? What happened to the other processes? Who, in the end, is in charge? Others suggested that it was the city government's role to take the lead, and not foist it off on neighborhood groups.

What I took away from the meeting was the facilitator's clear statement that this process is to develop a recovery plan, one that would identify projects for which federal or other funds could be sought to assist in the recovery, a people's plan developed by the neighborhoods with technical assistance from professional planners. It is what the Mayor's BNOB plan proposed but did not follow through on. We, they tell us, are in charge.

This process is our windows to make opportunity out of the incipient moment , when something not yet here can first be glimpsed, when things can begin to change. Members of our largest neighborhood group , the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, have begun to draft a document outlining ideas for this process including traditional planning issues such as land use, but also discussing transforming projects such as converting the Lafitte Corridor rail line into a trail/bicycle path, and creating a downtown-to-airport light rail link running down Tulane Avenue.

The idea that caught my attention is the Lafitte Rails-to-Trails project. I have to confess the line runs a block behind my home, and my patio yard backs up to a high cinderblock wall of one of the light industrial buildings that line the corridor, so I have a close personal interest in this project.

I think this is an example of a project could profoundly transform the character of Mid-City east of Canal Street for the better, by breaking the city's patchwork land-use pattern in older areas, by transforming a light industrial area in the residential heart of the city into desirable residential land facing a park space. It fits with the recovery plan because it would provide more space for people in the most threatened areas to move into the heart of the city, as LRA vice chair Walter Isaacson suggested in the New York Times this week. The need for more housing in the city is the lever by which we can lift a project like this onto the recovery aid conveyor.

In my view, this is the sort of transforming recovery project we should all be looking for. How do we take existing problems and turn them into opportunities? Can we use the city's August deadline to address flooding homes to address previously blighted properties? A bill was introduced by the legislature (then scuttled by the mayor) to give the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority bonding authority to enhance its powers to acquire property.

If we're going to address flood blight, why not try to turn every homesite in the city into a home, when housing is our most desperate need? There should be an emphasis on home-ownership, and on providing housing for the working class of New Orleans that staffs the city's tourism industry, the one need every agrees is critical to our economic recovery.

The city is deeply in crisis, and this is the incipient moment the professor of Mandarin talks about, the moment when things begin to change. In order to make that into the opportunity of the in-flight magazine business brief, we can't wait for the government or someone else to do it for us. We have to make the opportunity ourselves. This planning process is one way we can do this. Yes the city is full of debris and other problems, but if you look at it through the lens of recovery and rebirth, it is also full of opportunity.

Just to chirp in on the blighted property issue - It is confusing to me why there are two government entities, the City's Dept. of Housing and Neighborhood Development, run out of the City Attorney's office, and the State's New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), created by legislation. It is my impression that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. Nagin looks like he is going to thwart NORA. It's not very encouraging to me that the appointed head of NORA is the husband of one of the members of New Orleans' state legislative delegation - more nepotism. I am worried that the neighborhoods are in the middle of a power play. We all need to keep an eye on what is going on here.
I presume you saw my earlier post about the Hollygrove experience. They bent over backwards Saturday to stress that we were in the drivers seat, but that could all be a lot of blather.

I'm going to have to trust that our newest council members (who all attended) are on the up and up, and will keep this under control.

I think it's clear that the right hand doesn't now what's up with the left and that Nagin doesn't know what either is up to.
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