Hurricane Katrina: The Aftermath

A Sad Truth: Cities Aren't Forever

By Joel Garreau
Sunday, September 11, 2005

The city of New Orleans is not going to be rebuilt.

The tourist neighborhoods? The ancient parts from the French Quarter to the Garden District on that slim crescent of relatively high ground near the river? Yes, they will be restored. The airport and the convention center? Yes, those, too.

But the far larger swath -- the real New Orleans where the tourists don't go, the part that Katrina turned into a toxic soup bowl, its population of 400,000 scattered to the waves? Not so much.

When Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that it makes no sense to spend billions of federal dollars to rebuild a city that's below sea level, he added, "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed." In the face of criticism, he hurried to "clarify" his remarks. But according to Washington lore, such a flap occurs when someone inadvertently tells the truth. New Orleans has had a good run for 287 years, but even before Katrina hit, the city was on the wane, as its steadily dropping population figures for decades have shown.

All the brave rhetoric about the indomitable human spirit notwithstanding, we may want to consider some realities. As much as it causes heartache to those of us who love New Orleans -- the whole place, not just the one of myth and memory -- cities are not forever. Look at Babylon, Carthage, Pompeii.

Certainly, as long as the Mississippi River stays within its manmade banks, there will be a need for the almost 200 miles of ports near its mouth. But ports no longer require legions of workers. In the 21st century, a thriving port is not the same thing as a thriving city, as demonstrated from Oakland to Norfolk. The city of New Orleans has for years resembled Venice -- a beloved tourist attraction but not a driver of global trade.

Does the end of New Orleans as one of America's top 50 cities represent a dilemma of race and class in America? Of course. There are a lot of black and poor people who are not going to return to New Orleans any more than Okies did to the Dust Bowl.

What the city of New Orleans is really up against, however, is the set of economic, historic, social, technological and geological forces that have shaped fixed settlements for 8,000 years. Its necessity is no longer obvious to many stakeholders with the money to rebuild it, from the oil industry, to the grain industry, to the commercial real estate industry, to the global insurance industry, to the politicians.

If the impetus does not come from them, where will it come from?

New Orleans, politically defined, is the 180.6 square miles making up Orleans Parish. (In Louisiana a "parish" is comparable to a county.) This place is roughly three times the size of the District of Columbia, though in 2004 it was less populated and its head count was dropping precipitously.

The original reason for founding La Nouvelle-Orléans in 1718 was the thin crescent of ground French trappers found there. Hence the name "Crescent City." Elevated several feet above the Mississippi mud, it was the last semi-dry natural landing place before the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That crescent today is where you find all the stuff that attracts tourists, from the French Quarter, to the Central Business District (the "American Quarter") with the convention center and the Superdome, to the Garden District and Uptown. This area is roughly comparable to Washington from Adams Morgan through K Street to Georgetown and Foxhall Road.

That tourist crescent is relatively intact. (Only two of the 1,500 animals at the Audubon Zoo died.) But it is only perhaps 10 percent of the city.

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