29 August 2005

New Orleans: Tipping Point or Nadir

New Orleans is at a turning point. It is being pummeled by a category 4 hurricane, Katrina, which made landfall 40 miles from downtown. By itself, this is not the end of the world. There isn't a city in the Southeast that hasn't been hit by a serious hurricane at some point or another in its history.

But, New Orleans was not at a great point before this happened. No major city in the South has declined in population more markedly in the past twenty-five years (unless you count St. Louis as a major Southern city). The City has been bedeviled by corruption and crime. There are also doubts about whether the city's cycle of levee and pump building is a sustainable solution to the fact that much of the city is below sea level. There is a real risk that property owners with the buildings seriously damaged and an insurance check in hand will choose to leave now, rather than rebuild.

Certainly, a large share of the building stock in the city will have to be torn down or rebuilt. But, the options chosen in that process will remake the nearly 300 year old city more dramatically than any other event in its recent history. Obviously, new buildings will be built to a hurricane and flood conscious building code, but can the city be rebuilt in a way that will capitalize on its charm and vitality, as opposed to simply rechristening it as yet another generic city in the mold of places like Columbus, Ohio?

Like so many cities in crisis in the United States, New Orleans truly needs to hit bottom so that it can begin to rise again, rather than seeing a moment of bad fortune send it plummeting further and further down into irrelevance. This takes vision. But, it isn't clear that anyone in the Big Easy has the vision to make this happen.

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