Planning for a New, Improved Orleans

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

Some things you just cannot rush, even after a catastrophe such as the one in New Orleans.

You can and should rush to rescue people, find them shelter and provide medical aid. You can and should begin right away to ask questions about what went wrong, why it did so and who is responsible.

And, of course, it is natural to wonder what's going to happen in the future.

What you shouldn't do, however, is to try to answer these questions in haste and rancor.

Rushing to judgment, though understandable, is a short-term response to a lot of serious, long-term issues. One is the very survival of a nearly 300-year-old city.

New Orleans, in the apt description of geographer Peirce F. Lewis, a longtime student of the city, has over the years come to resemble "a large shallow saucer with its center below sea level." As was many times predicted, Katrina's waters filled the saucer and the result was incalculable human, environmental, material, cultural and economic losses.

It is not unreasonable, then, to ask if we should rebuild a city in such a geographical bind.

The cost will be astronomical -- billions of dollars just to build an adequate levee system; billions more to do something about the degraded swamps that surround the city and which, when in good health, can do much to protect from hurricane-driven surges. Such a prospect implies an immense investment of federal money -- more by far than went to New York after 9/11 -- simply because there is no other capable source. And so, whether they desire it or not, all federal taxpayers have a stake in the future, or non-future, of New Orleans.

It is with such thoughts in mind, presumably, that House Speaker Dennis Hastert verbalized his doubts about the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans in the same spot. Hastert quickly wiggled away from his statements, but he cannot be the only person in the country with such concerns.

Of course, geography and money aren't everything. New Orleans also is a national issue because it is a national treasure. Simple as that. Actually -- because of its history, its unique blending of cultures, especially in architecture and music, and its unending sociability -- the city is an international treasure.

People love New Orleans for life after a single visit. Heck, people love it just by listening to its music and picturing the place in their minds. Folks are volunteering by the hundreds to conserve the city's art and architecture, several organizations report, reminiscent of the outpouring of volunteerism that followed the disastrous 1966 flood in Florence. (The difference, of course, is that folks could immediately get to work in Italy because the waters receded in one day.)

Perry Cofield, a local architect who got his professional degree at Tulane University in the 1960s, says his years there affected him for life -- the house he designed for himself and his family in Arlington's Lyon Village neighborhood has a second-floor balcony. "You adopt that lifestyle and take it somewhere else," he says. And Cofield was only a temporary resident.

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?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company