The Old Man and the Storm
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The Future of New Orleans

Can the city come back? And will it be a different New Orleans?

Walter Leger
Board member, Louisiana Recovery Authority; chairs the LRA's Housing Task Force

Walter Leger

South Louisiana will come back. ... The region will expand, perhaps beyond a few parishes or counties to as far as Baton Rouge. The growth in that region will accelerate because those outerlying areas have already begun to accelerate as a result of the damage.

But what we're going to see is a lot of private and government investment over the next several years here in the New Orleans area, and that's going to accelerate reconstruction. And I really believe that we're going to see an unprecedented level of rebuilding. I don't mean just by numbers, but I mean qualitatively, that as we replenish our housing stock, it's going to be upgraded and improved housing stock; as we rebuild our infrastructure, it's going to be better and will be improved, but still, with our struggle here, preserving the uniqueness of the past. ...

Some people have said that we would be, when they talk about New Orleans, the first city of the 21st century. But really, we are going to be the first new coastline of the 21st century, from the Texas border to Mississippi. ...

There's a fear among, not just the poorest of the poor but also the working class in New Orleans, ... that there was a plan for a regional development prior to Katrina and that certain interests are taking advantage of the fact that folks got dispersed to accomplish what they wanted to do anyway. ...

I think there's been a legitimate concern and a fear that other areas -- adjoining states and other areas of the state -- would take advantage of New Orleans being wounded to build these communities.

But I think the good news is that, as that rebuilding takes place, we're going to see advantage flow back to New Orleans, because New Orleans truly is a hub. What distinguishes us from, I think, the Galveston/Houston of the early part of the 20th century is that neither Houston nor Galveston were really particularly strong economies. And the hub still remains in New Orleans.

Jed Horne
Former metro editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune; author, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City

Jed Horne

New Orleans is the port city closest to the mouth of the most important waterway in the nation, the Mississippi River, which drains two-thirds of the continental United States. New Orleans is also not a coastal city in that respect. New Orleans is far less vulnerable than Miami, Charleston, [S.C.], parts of New York City, which flooded in 1938. People drowned on the streets of New York City in 1938, lest we forget. That was a terrible hurricane that hit the Northeast, probably a precursor to other terrible hurricanes that will again clobber the Northeast. New Orleans is not more vulnerable to devastation than is Los Angeles, San Francisco. South Louisiana refines approximately 40 percent of the nation's gasoline. ...

Those are the reasons why New Orleans is being rebuilt, or why even the federal government, or elements of it, recognizes the need to rebuild a Democratic, black city in the South, reluctant as they may be to do that.

There's a question of how black it will be and for how long.

There's that question, too. It's going to be a majority black -- a less large majority, and that's not to mention the cultural and the historical value of this treasure. ... There's a huge infrastructure, a huge national investment in rail here, as well as the port facilities.

It connects the southern United States to Mexico and Central America, that rail system.

It all comes through here. There's something like seven major rail trunk lines that come through New Orleans. There's scarcely another city with two. This is it; this is the transportation nexus.

Beyond that, it isn't a difficult task to build state-of-the-art flood defenses in New Orleans. ... Only about half of New Orleans is actually at or below sea level. And of course the parts that are below sea level tend to be a couple, three feet below sea level, as is true of many, many parts of many, many major cities in the United States, as well as around the world. ... It would cost money to redo it; it would cost maybe $30 billion, I think is the figure. We're spending that much money every two months in Iraq right now. You can write off a large part of the United States, or you can do what you have to do. ...

From where you sit as metro editor, do you see a plan afoot to try to get rid of the poorest of the poor here?

Yes, clearly that is a plan, and more than just a gleam in the eye of certain parts of the political spectrum, no doubt about it. New Orleans had a larger population of poor people than its economy could support. ... If New Orleans were a smaller city, would it have fewer poor people? If so, there are plenty of bureaucrats who are prepared to say, "Bring it on; this would be fine." ...

Can it be done intelligently? Can it be done fairly? Should we be glad for the family that's been forced by a horrible event to Houston, where it finally discovers for the first time that it is possible to get a decent job and to get a decent education, as opposed to the atrocity which was the New Orleans Public Schools system?

These are tricky ethical issues, and I'm not prepared to say this is good or this is bad. I am prepared to say that people who smilingly clapped their hands as the housing projects were emptied are very foolish, because New Orleans' culture is rooted in poverty. And that culture of jazz -- that culture of second lines [in parades], of Mardi Gras itself, for all the aristocratic pretension, are parts of it -- is a culture of the streets. And if you lose the vitality, the seething cauldron of culture that created it -- much of which is black, much of which is rooted in poverty, rooted in the blues -- there's a lot [lost]. And if you want to bring back New Orleans as Omaha, then OK, so be it.

[But if you do that,] you can't do what the tourism industry wants to do, which is use that brand. There's this tightrope that you're walking, in that you want more tourists to come back to the city, and yet the thing that brings the tourists back to the city is also [the thing] that certain tourists are afraid of: poor black people.

It's obviously enormously tricky.

Pres Kabacoff
CEO, HRI Properties; his firm is involved in redevelopment projects in New Orleans

Pres Kabacoff

Do you see the city coming back?

Yes, I do. I think that there are several things happening. One is that there is going to be lots of money, anywhere from $15 to $20 billion coming through the city. It's the culmination of Road Home dollars, additional monies we can get with the Democratic Congress, insurance monies that are being released, levee monies. During the height of our success here in the city, back in the '70s, when oil and gas was booming, ... only a billion dollars came through here. So I believe we are going to have, in terms of industries, one of the largest construction industries seen in the country, and so this will have to have a positive impact on us.

Also -- and this is very controversial, and there two sides to it -- we've lost a lot of poor. Of the 465,000 people we had in Orleans Parish, we probably have 280,000 to 290,000 now. But of the 465,000, 180,000 were below the poverty line, which really had a stranglehold on the city in terms of the immense needs and the consequences of concentrated poverty, which resulted in high crime, bad schools, all of that. ...

Now, the positive of that is we don't have quite as many poor to maintain and handle as a community. The negative is we've lost a lot of cultural players and people that performed tasks that need to be performed in the tourist business. Musicians and artists have not been able to return. So there's been a negative cultural impact and a positive socioeconomic impact in that regard.

Overall, I think New Orleans will be not a wealthy city, but a wealthier city with a lot of development coming back to the city. ...

[You're still struggling with crime, however, and a damaged tourism industry.]

The criminal elements are rather interesting because they were probably in the poor category, but they've returned in greater numbers because they were more entrepreneurial. You may not like their profession, which is crime, but it is an entrepreneurial profession, and you have to have some skills to do it.

And so they returned, and one of the problems was, when they returned in the drug trade, they find that their neighborhood no longer works, so they had to go to other neighborhoods to ply their trade. And as a consequence, there were turf wars. Gangs are hierarchies, which actually sounds terrible, but they also play a role of stability in those areas. So you have a turf war going on without supervision from a gang, and that's caused a real and, I think to some extent, temporary crime problem here. So we need to address that. ...

The word on the street is, "Don't send people to New Orleans because crime is so high, and if there's a storm, you may be underwater." We really have suffered very bad brand damage to the city's tourist business, which is by far the largest business that we have. And so dealing with the crime issues is essential. ...

I think it's very important to our tourist industry that the cultural [activities] -- not just our buildings, because our historic corridor is intact; the playground for the tourists is still here, so that's fine -- but the street activities [come back]. The mimes, the musicians and the rest of it, we've lost a lot of those people. I hope you're right that many are still here because they were working craftsmen with talents and could afford to return.

I would suggest in that regard that, as we start building pots of money to change the brand image of New Orleans in advertising, some part of those dollars go to rebuilding and incentivizing the rebuilding of those cultural aspects.

Sean Reilly
Board member, Louisiana Recovery Authority

Sean Reilly

I'm worried about New Orleans because it faces unique challenges in coming back that other communities don't, like Lake Charles, [La.]; like Biloxi, [Miss.]; like the Mississippi Gulf Coast. ... Some of them are pre-existing; they existed before Katrina came ashore. The school system was, quite frankly, a disaster before the disasters. It was a civic institution in decline. Population decline in New Orleans was severe pre-Katrina. ...

The crime issue is one that really weighs on people. And again, it's in terms of the recovery of New Orleans; that's not an issue that's holding back places like Biloxi and Lake Charles. The issue of levees and will the levees hold, again, is unique to parts of New Orleans. ...

And when you think about these issues in toto, you can kind of sum it up with the issue of security. There are security issues and personal security issues: crime, levees, economic security. Is my job going to be here in five years? And what we need to do is address head-on that sort of crisis of confidence that exists in New Orleans.

Now, there are things in New Orleans that are going fabulously and doing well. The port is at levels that are above pre-Katrina in terms of tonnage, port visits -- great. The airport is almost back to pre-Katrina level. ... The tourism industry is looking pretty good. So you have pockets of performance where you can say, this is doing well. ...

The jack-o-lantern thing is sort of happening that's not happening anywhere else. ... What do they mean when they talk about the jack-o-lantern?

What they mean, particularly in New Orleans, is that some people were rebuilding neighborhoods but their neighbors won't. And a neighborhood isn't a single house. A neighborhood is comprised of neighbors and churches, schools, health facilities, basic services, dry cleaners and groceries. And unfortunately -- and I think this has been a failure of planning in the city of New Orleans -- there will be people who rebuild their houses and their neighbors won't, and that's going to be a process that's going to be painful over the next 10 years.

So what's going to happen in those neighborhoods?

I think that some neighborhoods in New Orleans are going to be just fine, and because of the uniquely wonderful things about that city, they attract people from all over the world. ... I mean, it's not a great leap of engineering faith to protect Gentilly, Lakeview and the Ninth [Ward], because they're inside that core of the Industrial Canal to the 17th Street Canal. Nor is it very expensive, given the population, to build those levees to withstand whatever it takes. There are other parts of New Orleans that are going to be challenged, though, and where development is going to be very slow and could take generations.

Stacy Head
New Orleans city councilwoman

Stacy Head

How do the homeowners and the businessmen and the public housing projects all exist in one district?

They haven't existed together well, but I am more and more surprised every day by the commonalities between the desires of the business community and the desires of the activists, people who are focused on public housing.

Now there's, of course, a fringe group that truly believes that redeveloping public housing and distributing or de-concentrating poverty is a bad social policy. They truly believe that. They believe that any gentrification is a negative. Those people -- we have philosophical disagreements, and we will never see eye to eye unless one of us changes dramatically. ...

The vast majority of public housing residents and advocates -- think tanks who deal with this issue; the Brookings Institute who have studied this issue; businesses, who want to see a healthy community because it helps their bottom line -- they all have the same ultimate goals in mind: decent living arrangements, safe communities and opportunity for people to get themselves out of poverty. ...

[Talk about the redevelopment principles that you and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agree upon.]

One is, first, opportunity to return. Second is working with the community so that they're not isolated. Third is de-concentration of poverty. Fourth is concentration of people, density. That also leads to community and commercial opportunities within and around the developments, so that you can walk to a cleaner's, you can walk to a coffee shop, you can walk to employment opportunities.

There is also a group that wants to encourage day-care centers to be located so that you can encourage people to get jobs but also give them the opportunity to find places for their children so that they can get jobs.

If you read some of the Brookings Institute's [reports], these are some of the issues that the community wants the federal government to do quickly. That's the key, because they make these plans and they never do anything, and so you've got the people living outside of Louisiana with nowhere to come home to. And then you've got people in New Orleans who are trying to rebuild their lives, and they've got vacant, falling-down buildings next to them. So it's a bad situation, no matter what your perspective is. ...

How would you describe the debate that's going on now about the future of the city?

I don't think there's as much of a conspiracy theory as a legitimate dissatisfaction with the level of input in government. And I think that it's also respect. It's disrespectful for higher levels of government to make decisions about your community without giving you a seat at the table when those decisions are made. ...

[As an example, you said the River Garden development project] wasn't done well. The way it was handled sort of tore the city apart. Can you talk about that?

I think most of the motivations were good, and the end results in many respects were very good. The way that it was handled, we moved [residents] from a community that had generations of poverty -- you had two or three generations; that was their family home -- moved them from that area to another area that had turf wars. So you took people out of their comfort zone and moved them to another area where they were seen as the enemy. So a lot of violence resulted from that. ...

There are ward wars, and if you are from one ward, you have to hate the person from the next ward. ... So if you take these kids who have grown up with nothing but knowing they're not supposed to like people from the ward next door, and you move them into the ward next door, you're setting yourself up for a huge problem.

And then you have the debate on the far-right side that, well, you shouldn't have generations of poverty, and if you move someone to public housing to another area, they ought to just be happy to have somewhere to live. Well, that may be OK in a vacuum, but we're talking about real life here. Why set yourself up for failure if you have any alternative? Why not do it so that it works? So moving people was a huge mistake. The other part was that there were a lot of rumors about impropriety that happened: payoffs, things like that; people getting contracts that didn't deserve the contracts. ...

So that was one huge mistake that we've learned from that, and apparently it's being handled much better in a development on the West Bank of New Orleans, that people had been moved to another part of the property so they weren't taken entirely out of the community, so the kids didn't have to go to new schools.

David Voelker
Chairman, Louisiana Recovery Authority

David Voelker

It's a very delicate balance to pay the people the respect and the homage due them, but also to try to say, "Let's plan the whole city," even the dry parts. Because there's the dream; that's what the future is, and [that's what] we can create.

What do you mean?

If you take a piece of your city that is damaged, ... and you're going to fix it and put the street back and do all that, then you missed the chance. We have $10 billion coming in here in the next several months, and if you don't plan the entire city and spend the effort to do that, then you['ve only] fixed the street. ...

There was an opportunity to move this whole city forward and create a middle class, which we did not have. And that's the thing that I want most from the recovery from New Orleans. ... I want it to have a middle class, because every government, every country, every place in the world lives on its middle class. ...

They have lost a lot of middle class [residents]. But if you look now, who's coming back right now? It's the middle class. ... What I do is invest in businesses, and I talked to them, and I see who's coming back, what the ideas are. And I've said many, many times, in many talks around the state, you'll first see the social entrepreneurs come in, and they'll do a wonderful job. And then you're going to see the entrepreneurs come in. And when you start to see them, you'll know you're recovering, and you're on your way.

And they are coming, and they're coming with the ideas. They're always the first, the risk takers; they're what I was when I was 20. They smell the profitability of being invested in New Orleans in different areas and ways.

Bill Hines
Lawyer and civic leader

Bill Hines

Some of the big national banks that have operations here showed a number of business leaders, and my guess is [also] showed the mayor and others, something called the J curve, which evidently is an economic formula and graph that that they use all over the world, post-disasters. ... And it shows that you're in a point when the disaster occurs -- picture a J -- and you go down. But then picture the good part of the J; then you just rocket up. ...

Most of 2006 you would have been in that bottom, which is the worst time, actually. You go down after the disaster, because it is a little bit of a frenzy right after. But then by now you would be on your way up that J. Now maybe some people would argue ... we are actually at the very beginning of going up. I think we're still more in the bottom of that J, and I think a lot of people are disappointed about that. ...

[Do you foresee any change in the level of corruption in the city?]

... This corruption that we talk about here, it exists in all the other cities, but here ... it has been made part of the culture. It's something people almost just smirk at, like it's amusing, charming. It's like Louisiana is one big Guys and Dolls play or something. ...

I think this is one of the things where Katrina has done us a favor. ... It just ripped the scab off of all of it; it's just all out there front and center. And if you look at some of these corrupt activities -- particularly in our state government, what went on the '60s and the '70s and '80s -- when you now realize the business it's scared off, ... we pay the huge price for that. Many of us just didn't realize, and why didn't we realize it? Because the oil and gas wealth was so great, and the oil and gas business was so strong. ...

Katrina, thinking about it, is probably the worst thing that's ever happened to New Orleans, [but], you know, in a perverse way -- and [be] very careful how you say it -- it could be the thing that, on a more permanent basis, saves New Orleans.

posted january 6, 2009

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