Monday, October 03, 2005

A battle to rebuild looms in New Orleans - The Boston Globe

Officials compete to have say in plan

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff | October 2, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- Sensual, complicated, fascinating New Orleans is mostly silent and sterile now, more like an abandoned Hollywood back-lot than the vibrant palette of cultures and lifestyles that have made this city unique.
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Rebuilding ''The City That Care Forgot" represents the greatest urban renewal project in American history, but nearly everyone with a stake in the city's future agrees that the outcome is far from certain: Will officials oversee a process that yields a stunning model for 21st-century living, or will fighting among special interests produce a more homogeneous, tourist-centric New Orleans?

''The positive side of this is that it's unprecedented," Kurt Weigle, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said of the rebuilding project. ''No one will be able to say that it can't be done." But where Weigle envisions mixed-income, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that retain a sense of history, some residents fear city officials will tilt New Orleans toward a Las Vegas-style entertainment mecca at the expense of its hard-hit working class.

Lining up for battle, which many observers said could pit developers against preservationists, affluent against poor, and business interests against the neighborhoods, are bureaucratic forces from city, state, and federal government. So far, those forces have been reluctant to put aside their turf and philosophical differences to reach consensus in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

On Friday, Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced the creation of a 17-member, racially mixed commission to draft a broad rebuilding plan by year's end. Nagin urged his fellow New Orleanians to return home, but he also acknowledged that parts of their city will never be rebuilt. ''We're finding some pretty startling issues," Nagin said of the city's battered housing stock. In some neighborhoods, he said, more than half of the housing stock has serious structural damage.
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In addition to the city's plan, the state is certain to want input in the redevelopment of its largest city and greatest source of tax revenue. And the federal government, which Governor Kathleen Blanco has petitioned for $250 billion in statewide aid, is expected to monitor reconstruction closely in a city infamous for crippling corruption.

Geoff Coats, cofounder of the Urban Conservancy, which works to preserve the textured fabric of New Orleans life, said he is not confident that harmony of purpose will be found. ''People from across those divides didn't necessarily trust each other before this," Coats said. And Kalamu ya Salaam, a writer and black resident of the city's Algiers section, is gloomily pessimistic. To his thinking, most black residents evacuated from New Orleans will have no chance to effect the planning process. ''These people didn't have the money to leave, so what makes you think they'll have the money to come back?" he asked. ''They're not going to put 150,000 poor black people back in one place. It's not going to happen again."Continued...

In Salaam's view, the hurricane has given the monied powers the chance to reconfigure a crime-plagued city whose population, before the storm, had been 67 percent black and 28 percent below the federal poverty line. ''We've seen the end of an era," Salaam said. ''Our way of life is gone."

Compounding the worries over racial politics and bickering is a concern that the city's architectural magnificence could fall prey to developers who see golf courses, strip malls, and cookie-cutter homes where shotgun houses and Creole cottages now stand vacant. Because 53 percent of the city's housing units were rented, community activists said, absentee owners will be tempted to pocket their insurance settlements rather than rebuild. Such a scenario would be devastating, said Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, because no other US city can boast of such a splendid mix of use and design that extends to even the city's poorest neighborhoods.

''You're looking at layers of history here. You can't come in and bulldoze that," said Lousteau, as she drove along deserted streets in the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood that was among the city's hardest hit. ''You're surrounded by architecture that is just mind-blowing."

Coats said one concern is that New Orleans will be transformed into a ''theme park" lacking a complex human element that has sustained it for nearly four centuries. Minus a middle class and its lower-income population, Coats said, ''we'd have a very different city. In the worst case, you'd have this strip that hugs the river that includes the French Quarter and is fun for tourists and the conventions and becomes a caricature of itself."

What makes New Orleans so special, Coats said, is a blend of incomes, races, and architecture that is the antithesis of new, generic development across the country.

In the Treme neighborhood, a racially mixed enclave near the French Quarter, Lousteau pointed out the variety of housing on one block of Ursulines Avenue. In succession, a blue Greek Revival home, a beige Creole cottage, a five-bay shotgun house, a white Italianate home, an Italianate-Victorian mix, and a Creole cottage that now is a Baptist church combined to form a detailed row of diverse but harmonious neighbors.

None of the residents have returned to this block, and water had flooded some of the structures, but Lousteau was adamant that a way must be found to repair and preserve homes like these across the city. ''We would be fools to do anything else," she said.

Alphonso Jackson, the Bush administration's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, touched a nerve last week when he questioned whether the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Jackson also questioned whether New Orleans would retain as many black residents as it once did.

''Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people again," said Jackson, who is black. ''New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again."

Other observers have speculated that the Lower Ninth Ward might never be rebuilt and that its low-lying property will be razed to form a natural buffer against future floods. But to Lousteau and Coats, such a move would rob New Orleans of irreplaceable architecture and the cultural wellspring that creates this city's legendary music and cuisine.

''Where do you think the musicians live who play in the clubs? They don't live in the French Quarter. The cooks, too," Coats said. However, he added, ''we may have to make very difficult choices as to whether some areas get rebuilt or not and how they get rebuilt. . . . They're going to be very painful and very hard."

The pain is likely to be felt by the newer and poorer sections of New Orleans, which were built on lower ground than older neighborhoods such as the French Quarter and Uptown. Those areas, because of their higher elevation, fared better when the levees breached in Katrina's devastating aftermath and onrushing water flooded 80 percent of the city.

In New Orleans East, for example, residential development in the 1970s and 1980s created a sprawling neighborhood of mixed races and incomes. But developers built most of the homes on concrete slabs with lighter-density wood, Lousteau said, instead of the raised foundations and sturdier building materials used in older parts of the city. The result was devastating flood damage that threatens the return of a black middle class, considered essential to a racially diverse New Orleans.

Salaam said mistakes made in the development of New Orleans East must be considered when the new city is conceived. ''What they did didn't work," he said. ''There was absolutely no [flood] protection there."

As much as some preservationists want to duplicate the pre-Katrina city, many residents believe such hopes are neither practical nor desirable. Scott Veazey, a real estate investor who restores old homes, suggested that parts of the Lower Ninth Ward be razed for flood control and that its residents be relocated to vacant housing in the city's less-damaged parts. ''I would really like [planners] to pay attention to the high ground," Veazey said. Much of the older construction in New Orleans, he said, occurred there ''for a reason."

In the end, Weigle said, the vibrancy of the ''new" New Orleans will depend on its economic opportunities. If the jobs are there, residents will return to a place that he predicted will not regain its prestorm population for a decade. And jobs, Weigle said, ''will attract people of all classes back."

In the meantime, Weigle and other observers said, urban planners have a chance to mix the best of the past with a creative blueprint for the future. ''We have to make sure," Weigle said, ''that as we are rebuilding these neighborhoods, even if there are some we can't save, that they are built according to principles of good urban planning."

Those principles include neighborhoods with mixed uses, mixed incomes, pedestrian mobility, and accessibility to public transportation, Weigle said. ''I'm just confident that building that ideal city is just such a powerful idea that it will help to overcome some of the [political] problems we've encountered in the past," he said.

Lousteau, the preservationist, agreed. ''The world will be watching," she said.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.
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