New Orleans: One year on

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Over 1,500 people were killed. One year on, amid fierce fighting over the city's regeneration, widespread disillusionment with the state and federal authorities and with hundreds of thousands of residents still displaced, New Orleans is gearing up to commemorate the storm.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A preservation conundrum

When the levees broke, New Orleans filled up like a bowl. After the toxic soup of oil, chemicals and sewage eventually drained away and the extent of Katrina’s damage became clear, a debate immediately started about what should be preserved and what should be surrendered to the bulldozers. It’s a debate which is still being played out today.

When talking to New Orleanians, what always strikes me is how devoted they are to this city and enthused by its culture. Every town generates some feelings of loyalty within its populace but here it’s a passionate, almost irrationally charged attachment. And it helps explain why so many are willing to risk everything financially and psychologically and come back to the devastation.

When it comes to planning the future of the area, the challenge is to preserve that spirit; retaining the unique nature of New Orleans (the clash of Creole, French, Spanish, African and American culture here is electrifying – and almost impossible to find elsewhere in the States) is the key to getting its people back home. Today I had two interesting conversations with people seeking, in different ways, to do exactly that.

Patty Gay is the director of the city’s Preservation Resource Center, an admirable organisation that fights to defend New Orleans’ historic neighbourhoods. They have published a book that pictorially depicts the soul of the city and it covers a lot more than architecturally significant homes. Patty believes that historic architecture is a fundamental building block of what makes the Big Easy special; if that is maintained successfully then the vibrancy of local, distinct neighbourhoods is far more likely to survive the creeping process of homogenisation that has corrupted many cities in America (and worldwide). “This is what is going to save our city, our culture,” she says. “The architecture of a neighbourhood is a very important part of that – it’s why people want to come back, and why you hear so many people regretting the fact that they can’t come back.”

That is not to say the city has surfaced unscathed from large-scale development. Construction of the interstate highway decimated a bustling black neighbourhood including the legendary Basin Street, the notorious Superdome was plonked slap bang in the middle of a colourful residential area that included a nineteenth century cemetery, and some believe that it was only the city’s bankruptcy in the 1980s that saved it from modernist transformation into a soulless concrete jungle. But the fact is that in many parts of the city, softly painted Creole cottages and shotgun houses remain standing, not as historical monuments but as living, breathing centrepieces of their neighbourhoods.

The most historic of these neighbourhoods were largely spared by the floodwaters, although the PRC still faces a battle with the city authorities to prevent the demolition of some important houses. But the spirit they are fighting to preserve – the sense of community that keeps New Orleans’ heart beating, is also under threat elsewhere. The shuttered-up public housing developments look set to be replaced by ‘mixed-income’ developments accommodating both poorer, working class residents who are subsidised by the state and wealthier residents who can pay the market rate. It’s a bold and contentious move, and its being pioneered here by Pres Kabacoff, an influential local property developer whose River Gardens complex is being used as a model for New Orleans regeneration.

The charge against Kabacoff and his vision is that by levelling the public housing projects, the city is making it impossible for those that lived there and who are now scattered around the country to return. There are dark rumours of developers eyeing up the prime real estate that some of the projects sit on, and the numbers of affordable housing units available in mixed-income developments simply don’t stack up. There is a fear that some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents are being culturally cleansed out of the future Crescent City.

It’s a charge Kabacoff vigorously denies. “What the international community knows of the city (the French Quarter, the business district, etc.) is still intact, it wasn’t damaged by the storm,” he says. “But what we’re missing are the characters that give the city its life, and as a city we need to make sure we bring that culture back. And what’s more we need to recognise that the city’s workforce is of course comprised of poorer residents as well, and we need them back for economic reasons.” So why stop people returning to the projects? “We cannot recreate the ghettos of the past. Previously we segregated poor housing away from wealthy and gated communities but we’re now working with the federal government and the Louisiana Recovery Authority to change the rules of that game.”

The ideals sound laudable – integrating New Orleanians into communities that aren’t defined by the spending power of their residents. On the face of it, such a plan certainly seems preferable to replicating the projects as they were before Katrina, with disproportionately high crime rates and abject poverty. Yet one only has to look at the much-vaunted (and in many quarters, maligned) River Gardens to see what can go wrong with mixed-income developments. The complex replaced the 1,500 units of public housing at St Thomas yet only 400 of the new units will be 'affordable', displacing many families who have lived in St Thomas for generations. A Wal-Mart was thrown into the equation for good measure, making a mockery of the idea that the new development would foster an independent, socially vibrant community full of small enterprises. What’s more, as part of the deal, the revenue from Wal-Mart’s sales tax goes directly back into the coffers of Kabacoff’s company, giving nothing back to the city.

From Patty Gay’s perspective, River Gardens is an example of the dangers large scale planning caries with it. “It’s really a worst case scenario, to have to demolish completely and start building all the way up again. What we think really makes a neighbourhood and a city is incremental development, with people buying their own house and fixing it up themselves or working with smaller developers. There’s certainly a role after a disaster like this for big developers but for me it should be a last resort.”

It’s easy to knock Kabacoff or cloak him in conspiracy theories. Certainly his company, like others, stand to make a lot of money from the rebuilding of New Orleans. But it is a local company and there is no doubt that the previous divide between disadvantaged black neighbourhoods and privileged white ones (with a black middle-class lying somewhere in between) was unhealthy and made social cohesion more difficult. Mixed-income developments are an attempt to find a way forward. The problem is that in practice, they have been used to displace poor residents and destroy the fabric of their own communities without providing an alternative. In the long-term they could be a solution (although, one hopes, without the addition of Wal-Marts), but in the short-term they should not prevent what are essentially entire neighbourhoods from returning home to New Orleans. The right to return – something which Kabacoff supports – has to be a practical reality rather than empty rhetoric, and that means reopening the projects.

“This is a tough time to look at the crystal ball and feel very positive,” says Kabacoff, who is at least doing something to find a way out of the malaise. I genuinely believe that he has the best interests of the city at heart. But if the spirit of New Orleans is going to be preserved, and the culture of local neighbourhoods is to thrive, then large-scale, brand new mixed income developments need to be reconsidered. It makes more sense to try and identify why many poorer public housing residents feel as if they have no stake in their community and work on tackling the root causes of those feelings – promoting the public school system instead of allowing corruption to decay it, keeping public medical facilities like Charity Hospital open instead of abandoning them, give those who have to rely on subsidised housing the impression that city cares about their community rather than neglecting or attacking it. Only then, when people are allowed back into their homes and can start building their neighbourhoods up again, can the character of the city that both Patty and Kabacoff hold so dearly flourish again.


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