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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

My Commute with : New City, Jack

This week, Morning Edition is running a series of reports on the future of New Orleans. Yesterday, they spoke to Michael Olivier, Louisiana's Secretary for Economic Development, who described his vision of New Orleans as a smaller city filled with green spaces that would serve as both an inviting locale and protection from flooding. Today, the guest was Bill Roberti, chief turnaround officer for the crisis management firm that was advising New Orleans woeful school system before Katrina struck.

Although we are only two days into the series, by reading between the lines you can hear what we can expect as federal money comes flooding back into New Orleans. First, the only money-making areas of town, the French Quarter and the central business district, are likely the only ones that will survive relatively unchanged. The overwhelming majority of the rest of the town sustained heavy flood damage and will likely have to be condemned and leveled, if only because vacant buildings will have and adverse impact on any city planning. As most commenters have noticed, the poorer areas of town were the lowest and therefore took the most flood damaged.

What it seems few people are acknowledging is that New Orleans no longer exists -- at least as it was known. The head is salvageable, but the body is gone. It's no secret that New Orleans was a poor city by U.S. standards, filled with a good share of urban blight, as it used to be called. The houses and buildings that have sustained major flood damage -- a majority of New Orleans -- will be leveled, and the "slums" will be the first to go. Estimate show that 150,000 homes were totaled. Huge swathes of what was little more than tenement housing will be bulldozed to the ground.

This is the dirty little secret that the planners on NPR skirt but refuse to acknowledge. The hundreds of thousands of poor -- those who were a net drain on the system -- are gone. They are scattered across the region and, indeed, the country. These poor, who where driving New Orleans schools and other public services into the ground, will be forced to spend months in their new host cities -- be they Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, or Boston. Thousands will accept the free rent. services, and superior job opportunities offered by their new, thriving host cities and will likely be better off in six months than they were when they left New Orleans. Will these people return when New Orleans dries out? What would they return to? A city where there is no available housing and where the threat of future flooding remains?

If those interviewed by NPR appear to be suppressing their excitement, and they do, it is because they are. They know that the next likely flood into New Orleans will be of federal money and insurance payoffs. They are only too aware that this is their opportunity create the city they always wanted, a city with both a historic side that draws in tourists by the millions, yet also a modern city free of slums and high concentrations of poor. It's a cinch that any investment money flowing into the region will not be used to create Section Eight housing. As Olivier is dreaming, where rundown neighborhoods once existed, there will now be "green spaces," created and cultivated in the name of flood protection. Gentrifying areas will get facelifts. Businesses will rebuild better than before.

Katrina has given New Orleans an unprecedented opportunity. In all likelihood it will go from one of the poorest cities in the country with a history of corruption and violence, to the most modern city in the country with an accompanying huge demographic change.

Interestingly, I do not believe that this transformation will come at a great long-term cost to the poor. There is no doubt that they sustained short-term losses and that they will experience several months of tumult and confusion. However, many have relocated to areas with stronger economies and better job markets than New Orleans. Polls already show that half of the evacuees have no intention of returning to New Orleans -- a number that will no doubt rise as time passes and the dispossessed get jobs, put their kids in schools, and become absorbed into their new homes.

So, say hello to the "new" New Orleans. It's smaller, newer, richer, whiter, and greener than the "old" New Orleans. Unfortunately, it's no higher.
Centinel 7:50 AM #


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