The Washington Post

Book review: ‘The Inevitable City’ Hurricane Katrina and the rise of New Orleans by Scott Cowen with Betsy Seifter

There’s a lot of sensible stuff in this account of post-Katrina New Orleans by the outgoing president of its most prominent educational institution, Tulane University, but there’s a lot of soapy stuff, too. Scott Cowen writes with obvious passion and personal knowledge about the various ways in which the city has seized the opportunity provided by natural disaster to rebuild itself — “reimagining the city from scratch,” as he puts it — and he makes a strong case that the city is well on its way to becoming a better place for more of its citizens. But interwoven with this is what amounts to a 10-step self-help program for wannabe civic and/or business leaders, in the course of which he leaves little doubt that in his mind the exemplar for them to emulate is . . . Scott Cowen.

Though Cowen does not minimize the problems New Orleans continues to face — it “is an inner city that ranks extremely low on every key measure: jobs, income, safety, health, education, literacy” — at heart “the story I’m going to tell” is an optimistic one: “about jump-starting the university and rebuilding the city despite a miserably inadequate response from the federal government; about quelling racial animosity after the storm and partnering with Dillard, a historically black college, in the recovery effort; about salvaging the education system, creating high-performing charter schools that have helped kids from drowned neighborhoods and wrecked homes finish high school and go to college or get a job; about projects like Grow Dat, an urban agricultural experiment, and Roots of Music, a program that teaches middle schoolers how to play in brass bands.”

The problems New Orleans faces weren’t caused by Katrina but were given heightened exposure and urgency by the storm, which inundated the city in August 2005. For generations the city had been painfully divided by race and class, especially after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling against segregated schools sent whites in a mad dash for the suburbs, leaving the center city in the hands of a white minority that clung to prosperous neighborhoods such as the Garden District, Uptown and the French Quarter, while poor blacks were crowded into projects and slums — especially the Ninth Ward — that quashed hopes and bred crime.

That is still pretty much the case, but Katrina — the damage it caused, the worldwide attention it focused on the city’s shortcomings, the vast amounts of relief money it brought in from public and private sources — left New Orleans little choice except to face up to matters it had previously ignored or swept under the rug provided by its reputation as the Big Easy, party central: As Cowen says, “the New Orleans ‘brand’ is synonymous with hospitality, beauty, pleasure, and escape. . . . Come on down! Forget your cares! Let the good times roll!” Katrina stripped away that image and exposed the rot underneath, which simply no longer could be ignored.

Though Cowen is not loath to pat himself on the back for the role he played (and continues to play) in his adopted city’s rejuvenation, this role has indeed been large. Tulane is one of the largest employers in New Orleans and a source of great civic pride; countless city leaders, mostly but not exclusively white, were educated there and remain ardently loyal. So when Tulane stepped up soon after Katrina, it was a sign to the rest of the city to get on board. The university’s first priority was to get itself back in business, to lure back students who had fled to homes or schools all around the country, to make sure its faculty and staff had places to live and food to eat, but Cowen and his staff quickly realized that little would be accomplished if Tulane re-emerged as an island of prosperity in a sea of squalor and desperation.

The Pinstrip Brass band plays at the top of a levee during a candle light vigil to commemorate the fourth anniversary of hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2009 in New Orleans (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

So Cowen found himself a member of various commissions charged with rebuilding the city itself, not merely the university, and his commitment to these responsibilities obviously was heartfelt. In the aftermath of Katrina, he was exposed to parts of the city about which he knew little, if anything, and brought face to face with citizens whose prospects were considerably grimmer than those enjoyed by the privileged students at his excellent university. He writes with feeling about the city’s disastrously bad public schools, its corrupt and incompetent police force, its dilapidated public housing, and the many programs that were initiated after Katrina to turn these around. The undertaking is still very much a work in progress, but the city’s commitment to it does not seem to have faltered, largely because the poor blacks who had been invisible are now speaking out boldly and demanding their due place in the overall community.

It is while he discusses these efforts at rejuvenation that Cowen trots out his self-help program for aspiring leaders. There’s nothing wrong with anything he says, but mostly it consists of earnest bromides: “doing the right thing”; “finding common ground”; “understand the reality of situations”; “stand up for your beliefs”; “do the right thing — perform right and moral actions.” Et cetera. Or, in sum: “Have a vision and identify a goal; gather facts and face realities; understand context and embrace the community; work through conflict to compromise; hold to a sense of purpose and principle; and persevere until you arrive at a holistic solution.”

Wading through all these Dale Carnegiesque truisms, one is tempted to conclude that the title of this book really should be “How I Saved New Orleans,” but that is perhaps unfair to Cowen, whose fondness for self-congratulation should not be allowed to diminish his very real accomplishments. Instead let’s settle on the title he draws from a geographer who said, “New Orleans is the inevitable city on the impossible site,” which Cowen interprets as follows: “The drive to turn what looks impossible into something inevitable is a recurrent feature of the city’s long history of devastations and resurrections.” Katrina posed the most difficult challenge to that aspect of the city’s character, but there have been other natural disasters in the past, as well as wars and other conflicts.

The name of Louis Armstrong comes up a number of times in “The Inevitable City,” as well it should. That greatest of American musicians was also the paradigmatic New Orleanian, who left the home he loved for better opportunity in Chicago and then New York (not simply, as Cowen argues, to escape racial discrimination), but who remained a citizen of New Orleans throughout his life. “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” is among the loveliest and most plaintive of the songs he performed at almost every engagement he played, and to this day it says more about the love that city inspires than any other song, poem or book. It speaks to the spirit that has enabled New Orleans to rise above the most daunting challenges, today as in the past.


The Resurgence of New Orleans
and the Future of Urban America

By Scott Cowen with Betsy Seifter

Palgrave Macmillan. 242 pp. $27


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