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Planning for a New, Improved Orleans

The filigree of the French Quarter survived, but much of New Orleans would have to be rebuilt.
The filigree of the French Quarter survived, but much of New Orleans would have to be rebuilt. (By Shannon Stapleton -- Reuters)

Permanent dwellers are fanatical in their daily adoration of the city. Geographer Lewis, a professor emeritus at Penn State University, tells of a dear friend, a lawyer and a patriot, who says sincerely that he loves his city more than he does his country. Located now by necessity in Lafayette, La., some miles west of his home city, this man says he will return. No question.

So, outweighing the cold facts of geography and cost are these intense cultural memories and attachments. They give one the confidence not only that New Orleans should be rebuilt -- how possibly can we consign a national treasure to oblivion? -- but also that the city actually will be rebuilt.

The big question, then, is how to do the job. Getting the money and repairing the infrastructure are the easy parts, at least in theory. But who will do the thinking, the conceptualizing of a rebuilt New Orleans? And what, precisely, will be rebuilt? Who will live there, who will visit and what will be its economic engine?

These questions embody intellectual and organizational challenges unlike any that have faced the United States, where sophisticated urban planning on such a scale is practically unheard of.

Washington at the beginning of the 20th century is an exception, to be sure, but not a very transferable lesson. The McMillan Commission of 1901-02 -- which aimed to beautify the city and restore a fragmented Mall to L'Enfant's vision of a green axis -- dealt mainly with the capital's monumental core, and it delivered primarily a symbolic and visual plan. Also, its plan was what today we might call elitist: A few brilliant men created it, and that was that.

Then, too, there were the industrial cities built in amazing haste during World War II for the manufacture of materials for the atomic bomb. Hanford, Wash., ended up with 540 buildings, 600 miles of roads, 158 miles of railroad tracks and 132,000 employees.

But the New Orleans task dwarfs even Hanford in scale and is a much more complex challenge than was the District of Columbia a hundred years ago. We can, however, learn an important lesson from these examples.

It is, simply, that a sense of emergency and purpose is needed. The members of the McMillan Commission were intent upon making the nation's capital beautiful again after a century of haphazard growth. The military planners of Hanford knew the place was necessary to win a war with gigantic consequences.

The rebuilding of New Orleans needs to be approached with the same kind of idealism and dedication. Only in this way will the hundreds or even thousands of conflicts and cross-purposes that are sure to emerge in the coming months be resolved or overcome.

A few important issues already have become clear. Historic preservationists, for example, worry that local officials -- the mayor, state or city public health officials, whoever -- will demolish entire streets and even neighborhoods of water-logged buildings before their professional "assessment teams" will have a chance to assess anything at all.

"It's highly likely that a lot more can be saved than many local officials might think," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He has a good point, and not simply about the fancy houses of the Vieux Carre or Garden District. A century-old shotgun house built of swamp-grown cypress is likely to be much sturdier under duress than one built of pine at the same time.

Another major worry is whether poor, mainly African American denizens of New Orleans will have anything to return to, be it neighborhoods, houses or jobs. Geographer Lewis points out, for instance, that for decades now the increasingly mechanized port of New Orleans has declined as a source for low-income employment, and the tourist industry has become a huge question mark.

Builders will want to build, plan or no plan. Hoteliers will want full rooms, regardless of the authenticity of the city's rebuilt historic attractions. (Hey, even Disney World is authentic, in its way.) Engineers may want to move the river -- or, rather, let the river move itself -- and relocate the port. And so goes the cacophonous list.

And there are no quick solutions to any of these issues, or many others.

It is perhaps encouraging to learn that under the combined leadership of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the nonprofit group Heritage Preservation, various stakeholders convened in a conference call last week and plan another soon. The basic idea, says Lawrence Leger of Heritage Preservation, "is to put differences aside and figure out how the heck we're going to work with each other."

Whether this constitutes a sufficient level of coordination and leadership, however, is highly questionable. Competence is needed, to be sure, but where is the inspiration? Should we not call on the best brains the country has to ponder these issues and then lay out the alternatives in language we can all understand? (The meritocracy, after all, has its merits.) Should there not, finally, be a vast public debate about the means and ends?

Should we not all be aware that failure will be a great shame, in all senses of the word?


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