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.

The rest to the north of the river -- as distinct from the Algiers district on the south bank, which has always been something of an afterthought -- is under as much as 25 feet of water. For the last 90 years, this vast bulk of the city has required mammoth pumps to clear the streets every time it rains. This is where you'd find working folk -- cops, teachers and nurses -- with bathtub madonnas and colored Christmas tree lights. It's also where you would find areas of soul-destroying poverty, part of the shredding fabric of a city that had a poverty rate of 23 percent. Planners have warned for years that this area would be destroyed if the levees were ever breached.

Yet, as novelist Anne Rice wrote of her native city a week ago: "The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy. Which is why so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went north. They didn't want to leave a place where they felt at home in neighborhoods that dated back centuries . . . . They didn't want to leave a place that was theirs."

Sentiment, however, won't guide the insurance industry. When it looks at the devastation here, it will evaluate the risk from toxicity that has leached into the soil, and has penetrated the frames of the buildings, before it decides to write new insurance -- without which nothing can be rebuilt.

Distinct from Orleans Parish is the rest of metropolitan New Orleans, with a population of 850,000 -- twice that of the "city." These parishes, including Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. John, Plaquemines and St. James, were hard hit. There was four feet of water in some expensive living rooms in Metairie. But they were not scenes of comparable devastation.

Also distinct from the city are the region's ports, lining 172 miles of both banks of the Mississippi, as well as points on the Gulf. For example, the largest in the Western Hemisphere is the 54-mile stretch of the Port of South Louisiana. It is centered on La Place, 20 miles upriver from New Orleans. It moved 199 million tons of cargo in 2003, including the vast bulk of the river's grain. That is more than twice as much as the Port of New Orleans, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. The Port of Baton Rouge, almost as big as the Port of New Orleans, was not damaged. Also, downstream, there is the LOOP -- the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port out in the Gulf that handles supertankers requiring water depths of 85 feet. These ports are just a few of the biggest.

Illustrating how different the Port of New Orleans is from the city, its landline phones were back in business a week ago, says Gary LaGrange, the port's president and CEO. "The river is working beautifully," he reports, and "the terminal's not that bad."

Throughout the world, you see an increasing distinction between "port" and "city." As long as a port needed stevedores and recreational areas for sailors, cities like New Orleans -- or Baltimore or Rotterdam -- thrived. Today, however, the measure of a port is how quickly it can load or unload a ship and return it to sea. That process is measured in hours. It is the product of extremely sophisticated automation, which requires some very skilled people but does not create remotely enough jobs to support a city of half a million or so.

The dazzling Offshore Oil Port, for example, employs only about 100 people. Even the specialized Port of New Orleans, which handles things like coffee, steel and cruise boats, only needs 2,500 people on an average day, LaGrange says. The Warehouse District was being turned into trendy condos.

Compare that to the tourism industry, which employs about 25,000 people in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food sectors -- some 5 percent of the city's former population, according to the census.

New Orleans's economy is vividly illustrated by its supply of white-collar jobs. Its Central Business District has not added a new office building since 1989, according to Southeast Real Estate Business. It has 13.5 million square feet of leasable office space -- not much bigger than Bethesda/Chevy Chase, where rents are twice as high. The office vacancy rate in New Orleans is an unhealthy 16 percent and the only reason it isn't worse is that 3 million square feet have been remade as hotels, apartments and condominiums.

There are no national corporations with their headquarters in New Orleans. There are regional headquarters of oil companies such as Chevron and ConocoPhillips, but their primary needs are an airport, a heliport and air conditioning. Not much tying them down. In the Central Business District you will also find the offices of the utilities you'd expect, such as the electricity company Entergy. But if you look for major employers in New Orleans, you quickly get down to the local operations of the casino Harrah's, and Popeye's Fried Chicken.

Hardly a crying demand for a commercial entrepot.

This is not the first time that harsh realities have reshaped cities along the Gulf of Mexico.

The historic analogy for New Orleans is Galveston. For 60 years in the 1800s, that coastal city was the most advanced in Texas. It had the state's first post office, first naval base, first bakery, first gaslights, first opera house, first telephones, first electric lights and first medical school.

Then came the hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900. As yet unsurpassed as the deadliest natural disaster in American history, it washed away at least 6,000 souls. Civic leaders responded with heroic determination, building a seawall seven miles long and 17 feet high. Homes were jacked up. Dredges poured four to six feet of sand under them.

Galveston today is a charming tourist and entertainment destination, but it never returned to its old commercial glory. In part, that's because the leaders of Houston took one look at what the hurricane had wrought and concluded a barrier island might not be the best place to build the major metropolis that a growing east central Texas was going to need.

They responded with an equally Lone-Star-scale project, the 50-mile-long Ship Channel. It made inland Houston a world port. In the wake of the Spindletop gusher that launched the Texas oil industry, Houston became the capital of the world petroleum industry. As the leaders of the "awl bidness" were fond of saying, "Don't matter if the oil is in Siberia or the South China Sea -- you buy your rig in Houston or dig for it with a silver spoon." Houston went on to become a finance, medical, university, biotech and now nanotech center. The first word from the surface of the moon was not "Galveston." It was "Houston?"

What will New Orleans be known for in 100 years?

How a city responds to disaster is shaped both by large outside forces and internal social cohesion. Chicago rebuilt to greater glory after the fire of 1871 destroyed its heart. San Franciscans so transformed their city after the earthquake and fire of 1906 that nine years later they proudly hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to toast the Panama Canal and their own resurrection.

Not long ago, I co-taught a team of George Mason University students in a semester-long scenario-planning course aimed at analyzing which global cities would be the winners and losers 100 years from now. The students were keenly aware of the impact that climate change might have on their calculations, among hundreds of other factors. Yet in the end they could not bring themselves to write off such water cities as New York and Tokyo. They simply wouldn't bet against the determination and imagination of New Yorkers and the Japanese. As someone put it at the time, "If it turned out New York needed dikes 200 feet high, you can just hear somebody saying, 'I know this guy in Jersey.' "

Will such fortitude be found in New Orleans? In his 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," political scientist Robert Putnam measured social capital around the country -- the group cohesion that allows people to come together in times of great need to perform seemingly impossible feats together. He found some of the lowest levels in Louisiana. (More Louisianans agree with the statement "I do better than average in a fistfight" than people from almost anywhere else.) His data do not seem to be contradicted by New Orleans's murder rate, which is 10 times the national average. Not to mention the political candidates through the ages who, to little effect, have run on promises of cleaning up the corruption endemic to the government and police force. New Orleans is not called the Big Easy for nothing. This is the place whose most famous slogan is " Laissez les bons temps rouler" -- "Let the good times roll."

I hope I'm wrong about the future of the city. But if the determination and resources to rebuild New Orleans to greater glory does not come from within, from where else will it come?

Author's email : garreauj@washpost.com

Joel Garreau, a Post reporter and editor, is the author of "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier" (Doubleday).

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