From the Ground Up

Frustrated by the federal and state response to Katrina, New Orleanians have begun making plans of their own.

The bodies aren’t hanging out of the trees anymore, but even the tourists look battered— probably because they’re evacuees and not tourists. The city still reeks of Katrina. Traffic lights don’t function in many neighborhoods; and even more than Manhattan, New Orleans has become a city of cell phones. The only souvenirs that seem to be selling here are emblazoned with caustic humor: “I Stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt, a New Cadillac, and a Plasma TV.”

The journalists and activists who say that only poor blacks suffered are wrong: just about everyone suffered. In the predominantly white Lakeview neighborhood, a father and son take a last look at the son’s house—before bulldozers flatten it. Pushing a shard of blue-green pottery with his toe, the younger man mutters, “I think that was from my bathroom.” The French Quarter was largely untouched but struggles for economic survival. Shops at Canal Place, at the edge of the Quarter overlooking the river, was still closed six months after Katrina; although the upper floors still smell moldy, the exclusive shops weren’t closed by flooding but because of looters.

As scores of urban-planning students flock to the city to study the myriad alternatives proposed, out in the neighborhoods—both black and white—New Orleanians are trying to come to terms with profound uncertainty. Should they or should they not rebuild their homes? What will the revised FEMA guidelines say? Will they ever get insurance again? What is the Corps of Engineers doing on those levees? Posters around town read “Stay Alive—Build Category Five.” But does the city need Category Five? They all seem to know that the storms and winds did not surpass even Category Three. If the levees had actually been built to withstand Category Three—as they were supposed to—would they have been breached? Many have decided to go ahead and rebuild anyway. After all, this city was built on shifting mudflats—and gumption.

But to some this gumption—manifested in a resilient spirit of defiance—may not be the wisest course. According to R. Allen Eskew, founding principal of architecture and urban-design firm Eskew + Dumez + Ripple, Katrina “has become a consuming event and a consuming adventure because—despite the tragedy and respecting the grieving still going on—there is an opportunity for what we can remake of New Orleans.” He wants to shrink the city, gradually shutting down the most devastated neighborhoods on the outer edge of the metropolis—areas that were somewhat dilapidated and underpopulated anyway. The city was losing population long before Katrina —from 620,000 in the late 1960s to 450,000 right before the storm. (The current population is estimated to be about 150,000.) Eskew says he would be happy to see 250,000 residents by September 2008, the projection made by the Rand Corporation.

While many agree that the tragedy presents an opportunity, “shrinking the city” has become a catchphrase for what some see as racist. For now there seems to be a moratorium on talking too much about that—many seem intent on allowing the neighborhoods to decide for themselves (with a little help from around the world). African-Americans did suffer more property damage. Richard Campanella, assistant director of Environmental Analysis at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier universities, says that whites made up 28 percent of the pre-Katrina (or “pre-K” as it’s referred to here) population; 20 percent of them suffered significant damage. Blacks made up 67 percent of the pre-K population; 76 percent of them experienced significant damage. “The question is how we can embrace and preserve the city as we knew it—without caricaturing it,” says Campanella, who wrote the 2002 book Time and Place in New Orleans. “How do you avoid overplanning?”

Planners came from as far as Tel Aviv and Beirut to debate that topic in a symposium sponsored by Columbia and Princeton universities in March, along with some of the major players on Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back committee. “How will these neighborhoods’ voices come into play?” Sarah Whiting, assistant professor at Princeton’s School of Architecture, asked at the conference. “How will the think tank of expertise in the schools be utilized? Is there a place for the academy?”

That remains an open question. But as Eskew puts it, “So far the adventure has been extremely bumpy.” President Bush is vilified by many here, and FEMA is the butt of jokes. Local politicians (especially Mayor Nagin, with his infamous “chocolate city” remark) are branded as useless. These politicians, says Jeanne Nathan—a spokesperson for the Bring New Orleans Back committee—are “merely playing to their old roles rather than tackling the real problems.”

At the Princeton seminar it was clear that an early report by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) also generated animosity—particularly its conclusions about planning for a smaller city. The report ran into a “buzz saw,” Nathan recalls. “The shrinking of the footprint part got reinterpreted, and it was DOA. That wasn’t really what the report said, but that’s how it was perceived. Everyone was suddenly aware how carefully we had to choose our words. We now have a moratorium on bad words!”

“In the chronology of New Orleans recovery it will be seen that the ULI report acted as a lightning rod,” says Warren Whitlock, director of Construction Coordination of Columbia University, who served as chair of the infrastructure committee for the ULI panel. “The ULI message got convoluted: when we said ‘phases of development,’ some people heard that the report was ‘telling black folks not to move back.’ That’s not what we said at all.”

New Urbanism has also entered the lexicon of “bad words,” with the terms pattern books and land-banking uttered only with derision. Even those who cautioned people against spending thousands of dollars to rebuild—without first waiting to see what the insurance guidelines were going to be—were accused of racism. “They felt they had to warn people: don’t get your building permits,” Whitlock says.

The “backlash” to the ULI report stemmed from New Orleanians’ not wanting to hear the truth, Whitlock says, adding: “Giuliani told it like it was after 9/11—politicians can be bold. Nagin’s a nice guy, but I don’t know if he’s the guy to say, ‘You don’t want to move back right now.’” He pauses. “People are out there cobbling together their little houses. I would not do that right now.”

This is not a message many want to hear. It is unclear how the planning subcommittee appointed by the mayor—cochaired by Reed Kroloff, dean of the School of Architecture at Tulane University, and Raymond Manning, a local architect—will fare. One thing is certain: they’re moving forward with a strategy to involve neighborhoods in ground-up plans. In fact local plans are seen as the only approach that will sell. “We don’t need anyone to plan for us,” says Nathan, a 33-year resident of New Orleans. “We will plan for ourselves.” Yet she certainly concedes that prestorm “the city was in an economic decline. We were talking about a downward spiral—something had to happen.”

What did happen was a catastrophic storm and the forced evacuation of an entire city. “The dreadfully botched evacuation,” Nathan says, “is part of what is making the rebuilding so difficult: the anger of how the evacuation was carried out, the civic leaders who made people feel unwelcome to return, and the activists who dismiss any planning as land grabs by the rich.”

What has followed has been more confusion. The initial Bring New Orleans Back committee was shaped by the mayor and was very business dominated. It was not well received. Thousands of evacuees participated in planning charrettes held in New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Austin, and Memphis. While most turned into venting sessions, the process had begun—and community participation was quickly seen as the only way to go. “We’re still pretty raw,” Nathan says. “You really have to take that into your process.”

Manning is among those who regard the much publicized ULI report with evident distaste. “I would suggest that you disregard the Urban Land Institute,” he says. “We aren’t even going to use that as an opening discussion. The starting point is the Bring New Orleans Back study. One of the central points of that value system is that it’s the right of every citizen to return.” Indeed the final report of the mayor’s Urban Planning Committee specifically backs any resident’s right to return but doesn’t spell out how it will be decided. (On the day the report was released, the mayor dropped his previous insistence that to receive city services a neighborhood must have 50 percent of its homeowners back in place; it had proved too controversial.) But the committee report does insist that residents who elect to sell but wish to stay in New Orleans will have the choice of relocating to another neighborhood in the city. The group is pushing that residents in the most heavily damaged areas receive 100 percent of the pre-Katrina value of their homes.

According to Manning the city is creating a Redevelopment Authority “not so much to take land but to receive and be responsible for the money coming in.” Although the rhetoric generally appears to have calmed down, the city is still recovering slowly, house by house, block by block—and clearly in some blocks there is no recovery at all. On one formerly million-dollar house near Lake Pontchartrain, a plywood sign is nailed across the arched doorway: “Nothing Left to Steal.” A side door is left deliberately open, the empty first floor visible to all.

People like Nathan and Manning are trying. “There obviously has to be some citywide planning,” Nathan says, “but it is being considered district by district and not merely a matter of inviting two or three groups but really asking anyone who’s interested, leaving no one out. It started with the Lakeview and Lower Ninth Ward folks, but it’s spreading. Folks are out there having big meetings—300, 400 people.” Some neighborhoods have even hired professionals to help them plan, in many cases working on their own master plans in ad hoc sessions. “They’re acting freelance—making it happen—sometimes working with architects who live in the area,” she says. “The neighborhoods do need help. They need expertise and a lot more inventive thinking.”

In New Orleans “disaster has become a kind of class war,” says Michael Stanton, associate professor of architecture at the American University of Beirut and a New Orleans native. “The feeling is that what happened is so drastic, so insurmountable, that if you’re not there you don’t understand.” After a protracted stay in his damaged hometown, he believes that salvation lies in what he calls “the micro level.” The most likely scenario, Stanton says, is that the burden will fall on private individuals. These returning residents should be given buildable and sensible designs—“no prescriptions.” Planners can be useful in offering “design resources, templates to be given away or sold at city hall or Home Depot.”

Back in March the city was still trying to hold on to a commitment made by FEMA to finance a neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning process, but they’ve given up on the federal agency and are looking for other funding sources. At one point Louisiana’s governor threatened to withhold certain oil leases in the Gulf. But the residents seem wary of not only the federal government but the state government, in Baton Rouge. “At issue is whether the city will get to plan for itself or whether Baton Rouge will issue plans,” Nathan says. “If it’s the latter, it’ll be war.”

But in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward war is unlikely—it’s hard to fight a battle without combatants. These former neighborhoods (one cannot call these abandoned wastelands neighborhoods anymore) desperately need people. Block after block remains absolutely devastated. Black or white, it is impossible to tell who lived here. A large framed print of Jesus hangs on someone’s front facade. Nearby a dummy of Santa Claus hangs backward on the entrance, as if trying to get in. What was once a thriving cul-de-sac full of tricycles and 1960s brick ranch houses is deserted.

Nearby, in the Eighth Ward by an underpass of Interstate 10, Druscilla Galloway and her husband, Roy Galloway Sr., a retired freight handler, stand in the driveway next to their brick house, which looks as if time had stopped on August 29, the day Katrina struck. The roof has been ripped off and the contents are strewn around, but the red drapery still flutters at a window now missing all its glass. A condemnation order—as if it were necessary—is posted on the storm door.

The Galloways, like many residents here, are still waiting to collect their homeowners insurance; the company won’t pay for flood damage. “They only want to pay for the upstairs,” 68-year-old Druscilla says. “They want us to get a loan. We don’t know how we’d ever pay it back.” Somewhat surprisingly, the Galloways say, they’re being approached “all the time” by investors trying to buy their house, but they haven’t been interested—at least not yet.

The Galloways have heard about the neighborhood meetings but haven’t attended any. “We don’t know much about the meetings, but as far as we know nobody’s told us exactly what we can build back,” Roy says. “We figure that if we build it back, we’d have to raise it three feet. What we need to know is how safe we’ll be if we did raise it three feet.” That’s exactly what everybody wants to know. As of yet there aren’t any answers—and maybe there won’t be. Until the next flood.

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