Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Do you know what it means . . .

To miss New Orleans?

Plenty of people are saying what needs to be said about the present situation, and the national disgrace that it represents. So I'll try to look ahead a bit.

In an earlier posting, I suggested that the Free Market™ would not result in the rebuilding of New Orleans. That was just a factual observation, not a judgment about what ought to happen. From what I have observed, the consensus of the hair-hatted newsbots is that WE WILL REBUILD as a demonstration of American indefatigability. Most of the questions about whether rebuilding makes sense seem to be coming from the right. Dennis Hastert asked the question and got savaged on AmericaBlog. Some commenters said that the question at least makes sense to ask, and got flattened by a cavalry whose noble cause was loyalty to the city they love. There appears to be a movement among libertarians and neo-cons to write the city off -- waste of tax dollars, distortion of the Free Market™, and all that. Liberals like Atrios ask why we can spend hundreds of billions to secure and (ostensibly) rebuild Iraq and we can't spend a few bucks to rebuild New Orleans, while black commentators see racism. What is being written off is the overwhelmingly African American, largely low and moderate income parts of the city.

Before we try to answer this question, we need to deconstruct it. What do we mean by "rebuild," and most important, what do we mean by "New Orleans"?

Rebuilding: The French Quarter and much of the area known to tourists and convention goers is on high ground and was little damaged. The major structures downtown will require considerable cleanup and repair, but probably few if any will need to be razed. At least that's my guess right now, though it depends how long the water stays and whether tidal currents undermine any of the footings. Roads and sidewalks may also be damaged to a greater or lesser extent. Restoring the water, sewage, electricity and communications infrastructure will be a huge task. And of course, no-one will contemplate making this investment unless the flood protections are greatly improved, and that will be mind bogglingly expensive -- especially since Katrina caused massive erosion of barrier islands and marshes and brought the ocean considerably closer than it was last Sunday. The land is still subsiding and the sea level is rising (thanks to that non-existent, communist inspired myth of global warming), and NOAA says we're in a long-term era of more and bigger hurricanes. But all this expense might appear to be worth it if downtown New Orleans retains its economic and cultural value. That depends in part, however, on the rest of this story, which is most of the city -- those residential neighborhoods and suburbs that were destroyed.

All of the flooded housing will almost certainly have to be razed because of mold, which is impossible to get rid of, even if they have not suffered structural damage. I expect the roads in the heavily flooded districts will also need to be rebuilt, and of course all of the utilities. So rebuilding, per se, mostly means replacing vast tracts of low quality, largely rental housing, along with some more affluent suburban communities, on what is properly the bottom of the ocean. Insurance, by the way, will pay for almost none of this, as it is flood damage. Would this rebuilding honor the people and communities that were once there? I expect that few of the survivors would return. They need housing, they need jobs, they need communities, somewhere. Does that necessarily mean they need to move into copies of their old apartments at the same latitude and longitude? Well then . . .

What is New Orleans? Great cities have personalities. They become characters in novels and plays. People love them, rather as they love other people. Leaving them can be like leaving a lover, visiting them like seeing an old friend. Some people are inseparable from their cities, including many artists. What is Woody Allen without Manhattan?

Of all the cities in the United States, all that is most true of New Orleans. It gave us our national music and remade the music of the entire world. It is the central character in some of our greatest literature. But that is history. The New Orleans of Louis Armstrong and Blanche DuBois is not going to be rebuilt. Modern New Orleans has (I'll stick with the present tense for now) an important music scene, although it's been more about conservation than innovation for a long time. As a literary character, it's still going strong, though it's barely recognizable as the mise en scéne of Tennessee Williams.

But here we are talking about a city of the mind, a landscape of the imagination. How much does it depend on the physical structures, and conversely, will restoring those structures bring the character of the city back to life? Or will it just be a theme park, like a commercial faux Amish Village in Lancaster County or a Wild West Adventure?

These, to my mind, are among the important parameters of the problem. What do people think may be the answers?

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