September 4, 2005 in Nation/World

Retaining soul key to Big Easy rebuild

David Greising, Mike Hughlett and Tim Jones Chicago Tribune
 

BATON ROUGE, La. – It took centuries to transform New Orleans from a mosquito-infested swamp into one of the world’s unique cities. It took Katrina a day to demolish it.

Rebuilding New Orleans – and preserving its jazzy, gritty essence – will require Katrina-like energy.

The work will be grueling, complex and controversial. Add to that a cost pegged at $100 billion or more, and reconstruction becomes a challenge on the scale of epics, like the rebuilding of Chicago after the fire or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

But resurrecting New Orleans, a city below sea level, means more than just holding the waters at bay, though.

A city that mixes Mardi Gras beads with stately pre-Civil War mansions may physically be rebuilt. But how to reclaim its ragged, bluesy spirit?

“You can’t build that. Disney tries to. It’s a fake,” said C.B. Forgotson, a prominent New Orleans attorney who fought the incursion of casino gambling in the 1990s. “New Orleans has soul, and you can’t build soul.”

This gloominess can be tied in part to the shock of witnessing New Orleans as it first was deluged by water and then unraveled by strife.

“We had to send in 15,000 troops because the thin veneer of civilization was stripped from our community. That’s never happened before,” said Denis Mileti, a disasters expert retired from the University of Colorado.

But the shock and horror and human drama of Katrina will soon give way, as President Bush suggested last week when he vowed: “The great city of New Orleans will be on its feet.”

The path to recovery is fraught with its own perils. Said Mileti: “Disaster tends to bring out the best in people. But long-term reconstruction tends to bring out the worst in people. Competing interests come into play.”

Politics got right in the game last week. Even as New Orleans residents waited for helicopters to rescue them as shots rang out nearby, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives made a surprise statement: It might not be prudent to rebuild.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Dennis Hastert, D-Ill. “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”

The furor over his remarks forced Hastert to retreat, but his assessment reflected some of the thinking of urban planners who believe New Orleans is hopelessly at risk. It will be rebuilt, they concede, but at monumental cost and long-term peril.

“This is mind-boggling,” said David Godschalk, a professor emeritus in urban planning at the University of North Carolina. “My expectation is that parts of the city are just not going to be salvageable.”

Miles of New Orleans sit below sea level, and virtually all of it is below the level of nearby Lake Pontchartrain. Geographers have documented that the city is sinking under the weight of development and have known for decades that New Orleans is vulnerable to catastrophe.

New Orleans is singular, but it is not alone in trying to face down nature. Much of the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast were hit hard by Katrina. Miami sits in a hurricane alley. And California’s big cities have been shaken by earthquakes. Urban planners see an opportunity in New Orleans to build safe, smart accommodations. Some have suggested building houses on stilts. Others propose new levees that could criss-cross the city and contain floodwaters.

A sea wall south of New Orleans could be built to keep the Gulf of Mexico from pouring into the city, a proposal rejected before Katrina because of its projected $2.5 billion cost.

One far-out proposal: Raise the level of entire neighborhoods by “upfilling” with material dredged from the Gulf’s seafloor. In the flooded sections of New Orleans that comprise 80 percent of the city’s acreage, much of the wood-frame housing likely has been destroyed.

“Once you clear away the destroyed housing, you have a chance to raise the grade of the city,” said David Schulz of Northwestern University.

But such a costly, sweeping plan would risk unintended consequences, other experts said. Loading more landfill could simply weigh down the land and push New Orleans lower in a region that has sunk up to 10 feet over the last few centuries.

Cities that forge ahead with no plan do so at their peril. That’s what San Francisco did after its 1906 earthquake. Ignoring a grand redesign proposed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, city fathers pushed much of the earthquake debris into San Francisco Bay. There it became a wobbly foundation for the city’s Marina district, which suffered some of the heaviest damage during the 1989 quake.

Still, big plans are no guarantee of success, warned Mary Comerio, a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley: “They’re bad ideas, usually. The problem with those grand visions is they totally disregard property. People don’t want to wait 10 years to come to a solution. They want their houses back. And they don’t trust the grand scheme to serve them well.”

But the challenge for New Orleans is restoring the intangible, urbane essence that makes the city unique.

New Orleans is a city of paradoxes and riddles, and one of the most striking is this: The very poverty that has been on such raw display in Katrina’s aftermath helped feed the soul of the New Orleans mystique.

Nearly one in three of New Orleans’ 485,000 residents lives below the poverty level, according to a report by Total Community Action. The majority of the city’s poor are black.

The water that breached the city’s Industrial Canal flowed into one of the city’s core underclass communities. It hit black Storyville, where Louis Armstrong once played; the poor Uptown district, where Buddy Bolden helped invent jazz, and the lower Ninth Ward, where Fats Domino, who was rescued by week’s end, still lived before the flood.

Using aid from the government and insurance proceeds, land owners likely will build higher priced housing, development experts say. Unless local or federal officials step in, new money might gentrify the neighborhoods.

But New Orleans is nothing if not resilient. And inside the city’s French Quarter on Friday, a neighborhood high enough to escape serious flooding, residents of the Bourbon Arms apartments began collecting the pieces of their lives – and rebuilding their resolve. The owner has tried to persuade the mimes, tarot card readers and bartenders who live there to leave the city, but they have refused.

From a fourth-floor tower, apartment manager Valeree Johnson, 33, surveyed her surroundings. “This is the soul of New Orleans,” she said. “We deeply love this dust pile.”

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