Voices of New Orleans

Further discussions on the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Big Easy’s future.

Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane University’s School of Architecture and former editor in chief of Architecture magazine:

On the role of designers and architects: “The unfortunate reality is that we’re not in positions of power. We don’t control the financial or political levers, so it becomes a challenge. We’ve got to figure out a way to rapidly co-op the forces of capital and politics and bring them into a more intelligent discussion of the future of the city. It’s a huge and unprecedented role. And if we can’t find a way to enter the mainstream conversations about these issues, we might as well just hang it up. We’ll all be interior decorators soon.

On alternative sources of energy for the Gulf region: “There are all kinds of ways in which the ocean is being used to harvest energy. And we’re right there, so we’d be stupid not to look at them. But I fear politics being what they are in the nation now and in Louisiana—this is still an oil state—it’s unlikely that these issues will be given the attention they deserve.”

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On insuring a diverse mix of people in New Orleans: “The wealthy and the middle class are going to be fine. The insurance companies will see to that. But those for whom insurance is a luxury—they’re not going to be fine. So we’re going to have to work very hard to see to it that there’s an opportunity for people to return regardless of their economic status.”

John M. Barry, author of The Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America:

On the unique social character of the city: “New Orleans is probably the most insular major city in the country. They don’t welcome outsiders. Even in the upper income levels, newcomers are not necessarily invited to the Mardi Gras balls. In the past that’s been one of the attitudes that has hindered development. But this ingrown nature also means that people are not willing to abandon the city. And that feeling extends all the way through the social stratas right down to the 9th ward. I think if something comparable happened to a Dallas or Houston, there might be a greater willingness to just pack up and move someplace else.”

On the question why rebuild if New Orleans is likely to flood again: “We’re vulnerable largely to the benefit of the rest of the country. The land is sinking, because the Mississippi River is levied to protect the shipping interests of the upper Midwest. New Orleans doesn’t benefit from that—the rest of the country does. The coastal marsh has been rapidly eroded, not only from the lack of sediment deposit caused by the levies, but because energy and shipping companies have cut canals and pipelines through them. Again that’s for the benefit of the rest of the country. By the same token, Los Angeles and San Francisco shouldn’t be where they are either. When you have major earthquakes there, are you going to walk away from them too?”

R. Allen Eskew, founding principal of architecture and urban design firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple:

On the real character of New Orleans: “There is a difference between the postcard presentation of New Orleans and the real soul of city. The tourism business is our largest industry. It uses the character and fabric of the city as its platform, but I’m fearful that in our rush to reestablish the tourism business the authentic spirit of the place will be lost. Neighborhood development—building consensus, especially in under-represented communities—is hard, complicated work. It’s much easier to gather together the heads of the convention business and the major hotels and people who have clear business objectives in hand. But the mayor and governor and federal government need to put in place a parallel effort, using architects and planners, to bring back our neighborhoods and rebuild them with a commitment to social justice.”

On the special responsibilities of architects and planners: “The true measure of our individual characters will be what blends of projects we elect to work on. I hope all of us will make sure that we keep a balance of socially responsible assignments in our studios in addition to the large institutional and commercial projects.”

On the question of why rebuild New Orleans: “Why rebuild Venice? Why not just close down Istanbul? We have the technology to live in improbable places. The question now is: do we have the political will and design leadership to keep those two things in balance? I have absolutely no patience for people who argue the logic of not rebuilding and, frankly, I’m concerned about the blatant racism involved in those types of questions.”

Lake Douglas, landscape historian co-author of Gardens of New Orleans:

On improving the levee system: “The pre-Katrina levee system was designed for a category 3 hurricane, so the answer isn’t higher flood walls. We ought to look at where we should and shouldn’t build, where the city should and shouldn’t develop. Much of East New Orleans, which was severely flooded, was at one point swamps. Maybe it should become swamps again. Maybe the city needs to become a lot denser.”

On maintaining New Orleans’s diverse culture: “A lot of what made the city special was the mix of really good musicians who were just everywhere. Before Katrina you could go to any neighborhood bar and hear really good music. The big name acts will always get gigs, but it’s the second, third and fourth tier musicians—the ones who’re good and were here because they loved being here—where will they go? These guys live from hand to mouth. They weren’t here for the money. What happens to the city if these people just disappear?”

On returning home in the immediate aftermath of the storm: “It was surreal. The one thing that struck me was how devastated landscape was. We’ve probably lost about 50-75% of the trees in the city. I was shocked by the number of felled trees, and the ones that remained standing looked as if they’d been vacuumed of their leaves. Because of the tropical climate here, things grow fast, lush and green. We have a lot of oak trees, and they have this characteristic horizontal branching so that when trees are planted on both sides of the street the leaves converge in the middle, providing a tunnel of shade and shadow. A lot of that is gone. It will be a completely different city.”

Elizabeth Mossop, director of the School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University, and principal at Spackman + Mossop Landscape Architects:

On maintaining social diversity: “To create a range of different population types will require the intervention of the state and federal government to help address issues of affordability and employment. You can’t just keep saying: “We want all those desperately poor people back” so they can perform the crummy hospitality industry jobs that nobody else wants. That’s not morally tenable. If you want to attract these people back, you need to think about generating a greater diversity of economic activity that goes beyond petrochemical support and tourism.”

On the lack of intelligent planning in New Orleans: “A number of actions could be enacted—engineering measures related to drainage and levee systems; zoning initiatives, which would take people out of the most hazardous areas and facilitate denser forms of development elsewhere. This is relatively straightforward and would reduce the impact of future hurricanes dramatically. There are many things that could be done in the restoration of swamps and marshlands that would also reduce the impact and increase water-holding capacity. Over the last 20 years suburban development has gobbled up what had historically been marches and wetlands. A little bit of intelligent conservation zoning could prevent that from happening. Unfortunately there’s a tremendous reluctance in this part of the country to do any kind of planning. So there’s very little institutional expertise in the public sector. And I don’t see how it’s possible to do strategic land planning unless you have some ability for central coordination. You have to deal with bioregions and catchments, and yet the only people who have that sort of purview are the Army Corps of Engineers, who historically have been very single-issue.”

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