Friday, September 09, 2005

The City of New Orleans

Jack Shafer in Slate dares to suggest that New Orleans is not worth rebuilding, and he makes a powerful if at times cynical argument. First, he correctly notes that overdevelopment and poor land and water management conspired to make last week's catastrophe inevitable. To wit:

Nobody disputes the geographical and oceanographic odds against New Orleans: that the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for hurricanes; that re-engineering the Mississippi River to control flooding has made New Orleans more vulnerable by denying it the deposits of sediment it needs to keep its head above water; that the aggressive extraction of oil and gas from the area has undermined the stability of its land.

"New Orleans naturally wants to be a lake," St. Louis University professor of earth and atmospheric sciences Timothy Kusky told Time this week. "A city should never have been built there in the first place," he said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Why was it? Settlers built the original city on a curve of high flood land that the Mississippi River had deposited over eons, hence the nickname "Crescent City." But starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, developers began clearing and draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake Pontchartrain to extend the city.
To chart the aggressive reclamation, compare this map from 1798 with this one from 1908. Many of New Orleans' lower-lying neighborhoods, such as Navarre, the Lower Ninth Ward, Lake Terrace, and Pontchartrain Park, were rescued from the low-lying muck. The Lower Ninth Ward, clobbered by Katrina, started out as a cypress swamp, and by 1950 it was only half developed, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Even such "high" land as City Park suffered from flooding before the engineers intervened. By the historical standards of the 400-year-old city, many of the heavily flooded neighborhoods are fresh off the boat.

But Shafer doesn't stop there. New Orleans, writes Shafer, was a morass of corruption and dysfunction. It's plagued by crime and failing schools, and its housing stock was crumbling even before it was washed away by the floodwaters. It's a city whose only real purpose anymore is to serve as a playground for decadent tourists. Shafer even comes to the defense of Barbara Bush, who suggested that the city's impoverished residents likely would be better off:

Only a sadist would insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime, and deplorable schools. Yet that's what New Orleans' cheerleaders—both natives and beignet-eating tourists—are advocating. They predict that once they drain the water and scrub the city clean, they'll restore New Orleans to its former "glory."

Implicit in Shafer's argument is that, absent the hurricane, New Orleans' decay would have continued unabated. A city on the upswing, no matter how many problems it faced, would have a much better shot at recovery, and the case for abandoning it under these circumstances would be harder to make. But New Orleans wasn't working. Its government failed it before the storm, and now that failure is complete. It sounds cruel to describe the storm as "creative destruction" as Shafer does, but here he makes an excellent point: Unless we can eliminate the poverty that plagued New Orleans in short order--which we likely can't--why stick it back in one place again? The poor are ill-served by being herded together, where they can be conveniently ignored by the rest of us. Shafer points out that many displaced residents already are settling down in new communities, with no plans to return. Who can blame them?

5 Comments:

Blogger djhlights said...

Why rebuild the only deepwater port in the United States served by six class one railroads, which enables it to access any city in the United States? Who cares that it holds the USA’s top market share for import steel, natural rubber, plywood and coffee for a port city?

It's just a playground for drunken decadence for the elite.

10:35 PM

 
Blogger Maria said...

From a quick google search:

The ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the republic. On its own merit, the Port of South Louisiana is the largest port in the United States by tonnage and the fifth-largest in the world. It exports more than 52 million tons a year, of which more than half are agricultural products - corn, soybeans and so on. A larger proportion of US agriculture flows out of the port. Almost as much cargo, nearly 57 million tons, comes in through the port - including not only crude oil, but chemicals and fertilizers, coal, concrete and so on...

AND

The New Orleans port accounts for 20 percent of U.S. export and import trade. Until Katrina, it had more than 107,000 jobs, $2 billion in earnings, $13 billion in spending and $231 million in taxes statewide, according to its Web site.

AND

The Port of New Orleans, one of the five busiest in the nation, is out of commission, and that threatens a mushrooming crisis for many U.S. industries.Farmers in the Midwest depend on it to ship their wheat, corn, soybeans and other grains. The Mississippi River links to the Ohio, the Illinois and the Missouri rivers, and manufacturers from across the Midwest depend on vast fleets of inland river barges to carry chemicals, steel, rubber and other cargoes to world export through New Orleans.Before Katrina, about 60 percent of the nation's exports of raw grains floated down the Mississippi, but Katrina brought the grain trade to a near halt. Grain elevator operators had been holding inventory for months because of low world prices. Now, as the approaching harvest season for corn and soybeans creates increased demand for empty storage silos, a grain-export crisis looms.

5:04 AM

 
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

It would seem to me that you can rebuild those ports and much of the infrastructure without trying to rebuild a city for 500,000 people, many of whom are unlikely to return. At least rebuild it a modest scale that respects the environment and takes into consideration the historical mistakes that contributed to this calamity.

Parts of the city are relatively unscathed by the disaster, as Shafer notes, and likely will be repopulated. The question that policy makers and elected officials will have to ask is how to determine what other parts of the city should be restored.

11:26 AM

 
Blogger fake name said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:41 PM

 
Blogger fake name said...

If I might speak as a native for a moment, again.

Jonathan is right. But he's more right than he knows because he doesn't know New Orleans.

Maria,

The vast majority of the stevadores, bureaucrats and suits who run the quays of New Orleans do NOT live in the city, a crime-ridden stew of slums left to people like me.

No. The goodly union rank-in-file on the wharves decamped to Metairie two decades ago. Their bosses sure don't live in the Ninth Ward or around my old digs Uptown.

This also is true of nearly every other sector of commercial life in the city, whether its the cotton exchange, law offices or shops. They got out a long time ago.

But there was no reason for them to stay. Why would they want to raise kids in a shooting gallery blessed with an onerous tax rate rigged to support one of the worst school districts in the developed world?

I don't blame them for leaving. But just because you rebuild one of the world's largest ports doesn't mean they will come back and settle in the city. They sure weren't living there when the storm hit.

See also, Pittsburgh's relationship with Cranberry. If the USX Tower turned into a roman candle and melted downtown, you can bet when they rebuilt it Joe Sportscoat wouldn't ditch the lawn and SUV in McCandless to pitch a tent on the Boulevard of the Allies.

As a man who not so fondly recalls growing up on welfare in a neighborhood better known for its murder rate than its Fullbright Scholars, might I make a suggestion?

Without appearing too Swiftian, fire up the bulldozers, and don't let a redevelopment authority read a blueprint after that.

I get so sick of hearing well-meaning Dems tell me that we must rebuild the poorest wards. Why? What fondness should we have for revisiting the worst vestiges of Great Society bungling?

If George W. Bush were to propose tomorrow that he wanted to build in Dixie a sprawl of walled-in ghettoes to house poor African-Americans, proposing to police them with a corrupt constabulary and educate their children with only a mockery of a school, he would be pilloried as a virulent racist.

But this, in sum, is what many in my party want us to do. Retain a pocket of pervasive poverty in the heart of a dying region that succumbs all too often to bad weather and a pox of crime.

No thanks. This is an epochal moment to actually change the lives of a great many people for the better. Strike while the iron is hot and people still give a damn as the fine people of New Orleans as victims, not as what they were the day before Katrina came ashore.

Those who want to return can do so after private enterprise reconfigures the city to make it adapt to the rigors of the sea and river. That they will come back with some newfound job skills, better educational opportunities and a sense of pioneer spirit will be all the better for my former town.

I might even make my aliya to the bayou, too.

6:48 PM

 

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