Turf Wars in the Delta
Plotting a future for the new New Orleans isn't just about urban design. Try money--and politics
NEW ORLEANS--It was a thing marvelous to behold: the future in full color, projected onto twin screens in a hotel convention room where an overflow crowd packed four deep against the walls. Flashing before them was three months of work by the best and brightest in urban design, led by the superstar national planning firm Wallace Roberts & Todd, which resurrected the dying Baltimore waterfront and laid out a master plan for the national Capitol grounds way back in 1983.
What the crowd saw put the "new"back in New Orleans. Canals covered and converted into leafy bicycle and pedestrian paths crisscrossing the city. A gleaming $4.8 billion transit and infrastructure system, including rail links to the airport, Baton Rouge, and the Gulf Coast. For every neighborhood: a school, a park, and a retail zone.
But the dreamy PowerPoint presentation by the Urban Planning Committee of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission ended in a cold splash of harsh reality. Despite Nagin's plea that the meeting be held in a "spirit of peace," police eventually had to handle the line of furious residents gathered at the microphone. Amid cries that the plan was too academic or did too little to help people trying to return, Harvey Bender, a 44-year-old resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, pointed a finger at committee Chairman Joe Canizaro, a prominent local developer. "I hate you, Mr. Canizaro, because you've been in the background scheming to get our land,"he said. "I'm going to die on my land."
In the City That Care Forgot, the plan for a grander future has run headlong into the politics of race, class, and power, which, as in most places, translates to money. Resistance to the commission's plan, even outright defiance, still exists, but that may be the least of its problems. There's been good news, to be sure, some of it just last week. But the Bring New Orleans Back blueprint faces a host of daunting questions--questions about flood protection, about controlling scattershot redevelopment, and about Washington's willingness to foot the bill to bring back the Big Easy. For now, all that seems certain is that the New Orleans of tomorrow will be smaller in size and population, most likely a whiter, wealthier city, and perhaps more of a tourist theme park than the rich cultural gumbo that made the Big Easy a unique American experience.
The future is unfathomable in part because the present is unfathomable. Downtown and the French Quarter are bustling, but of the 480,000 residents who lived here before Katrina, only an estimated 130,000 have returned. Approximately 50,000 homes were swamped by at least 4 feet of water. The twisted ruins of thousands of cars litter neighborhoods like Gentilly and Desire. Scores of schools, public and private, are closed. Mortgage delinquency rates have skyrocketed. Per day, the metropolitan area is losing $15.2 million in tourism revenue alone.
Starting over. While vast swaths of the city still lie in waste, New Orleans also has the feel of a pioneer town, populated by those lucky enough to be spared by last year's hurricanes or those with the insurance or savings to rebuild quickly. On Canal Street and in moneyed Lakeview, hammers and saws provide a steady soundtrack. It's no accident that most of the construction is taking place in the city's wealthiest and, with some exceptions, whitest neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods, many in the lowest and least valuable quarters of the city, were hit disproportionately hard by Katrina. So a city that was once 70 percent black is now closer to 50 percent black. A Los Angeles Times analysis showed that the wealthy and white also stayed closer to New Orleans, making their return much easier.