Monday, September 12, 2005

Should We Rebuild New Orleans?

I've heard and read this question a lot over the past week: Should NOLA be rebuilt? Usually voiced by people who have never lived in New Orleans, or Louisiana, or anywhere near the Delta, this question is invariably followed by a detailed and elaborate No. These very intelligent, very detached pundits explain that the city was a mess. Not only was it built incomprehensibly below sea level, (hard not to see their point, there) but it was also a morass of crime, corruption, poverty, and black people.

What amazes me about these articles is that they are written, not by Pompous White Neo-Cons, (a group I think might do or say almost anything) but by ostensibly well-meaning Liberals -- Yankee Liberals, generally -- but nevertheless Liberals who have Our Best Interests at Heart. Never have I understood more clearly my conservative friends' desire to choke these people. As one of my housemates, Nikka, said: “Here's a real American story: the town flooded; so no one came back."

By God, if we want to live in a smelly, dirty swamp filled with alligators and blues musicians, it is our right as free citizens. If the pursuit of happiness leads us to dress up in silver face paint and stand motionless for hours, then by damn no one can stop us. That's the American Dream. I’ve never lived in New Orleans, but Hell, by these standards we might as well clear out half the South.

These people tend to bolster their arguments by finding a few beleaguered refugees who honestly say, (shortly after undergoing terrible trauma and loss) No. I don’t think I’ll be going back. ‘Ah-ha!’ the op-ed writer proclaims, ‘Poor New Orleans: doomed like Atlantis to arise no more.’ What garbage. For every person they find who says they'd rather stay in Texas, there is some waterlogged New Orleanian saying: "I'd rather get lockjaw than live in Houston."

In fact getting some folks out of New Orleans in the first place has been damned near impossible. Not only is there Pat’s favorite at GulfSails, still tooling around taking snapshots of the damage, but there’s also the folks at Johnny White’s who have turned the bar which never closes into an impromptu bar/shelter/hospital.

And check out these guys still out on their front porch drinking:
Kirby Gee, who owns the house, works as a bartender at Miss Mae's down the street. He says the bar did pretty good business even through last Wednesday [August 31 two days after landfall] —the cops kept them in shotgun shells as long as they kept pouring drinks. Gee says the police taught everyone around here how to loot. They were the first to bust into the grocery store down the street and the Wal-Mart a mile or so up the road. He also says they took to breaking into car lots in the days after the storm and driving off with brand-new Escalades. I'm not sure whether to believe him, until a cop car drives buy towing what looks like a mint-condition Corvette Stingray. "And these are the people telling us to evacuate," says one of the porch dwellers. Every time a Humvee rolls by, a few of the guys make sure to flash the peace sign.

No doubt there are exceptions. Some holdouts change their minds, becoming eager to leave when they run out of essential supplies. Like this one ponytailed guy in bedroom slippers who has to skip town immediately because the city has completely run out of weed. (The date on that article, by the way, is September 8th, indicating it took New Orleans more than a week after landfall to reach that particular crisis. They obviously have not run out of booze. Nor will they. They haven’t even run out of mixers.)

The nail in the coffin, though, for those wondering whether or not we will rebuild our fair (if grubby) city is this: the Strippers are back in New Orleans.

Road Trip, anyone?

1 comment:

Patrick Armstrong said...

The reason folks are worried about "rebuilding New Orleans" is mostly about the money it would cost the country as a whole and how well it is spent and how much damage is done. The definition of insanity is, after all, acting in the same manner and expecting a different result.

When the rebuild does take place, there is going to be a lot of land that is not going to be 'inhabitable' the way it used to be. These are the places under 20 feet of water. It would be crazy to just go in and put up a new house there, because the next time this happens, we'll have to do it again. That's not spending national treasure wisely, and we're going to have to tighten our belts because of this thing already.

The hand wringers on the right like Dennis Hastert are using primarily this argument, and it is a credible one in my opinion.

The people that make me lose my mind are the leftie and rightie hand wringers who say not to rebuild because of this or that ridiculous reason "they're better off in the Astrodome" or "New Orleans is dead becuase we the artistes won't be going back because our beautiful decay won't be there anymore." Buch of wanky, out of touch crap all of that is.

No, New Orleans may never be the same, but you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. We don't have to raze the whole town, we don't have to rebuild slums under sea level. What folks aren't talking about is how the rebirth of this city will happen.

Because it will happen. Bourbon Street is the end of one of the many great American pilgrimages. Like the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge, Times Square and the New York Skyline, New Orleans is a place that makes America American. The nation understands this and is obviously ready to ante up.

New Orleans; like Atlanta, like Chicago, like San Fransisco, like New York, like Miami, like Berlin, Paris, London, Rome, Jerusalem, & Tokyo; has a chance to rebuild and start again. That ain't bad company, and all of those places came out better after than they were before. Yes, a little bit of soul was lost, but so much was gained simply by remembering that which was lost but celebrating the future.

New Orleans is no Atlantis. But we all have a say in how she is raised up. We vote for it with our feet and our wallets. The nation will sit down and really work on the place, given this opportunity. We have the best urban planners and engineers in the world, and the hardest working contractors. Young professionals, black and white, tired of the suburban life elsewhere, will move to this city to be a part of what will be. This place is still tops for where I will live someday.

Simply looking at other places "below sea level" shows me the possibilities. They have to stop fighting the water and work with it. New Orleans could put the low city on stilts (like we do down here in the 'low country') and become a sort of Venice of the West. New Orleans could build herself up on reclaimed land like so many parts of South Florida and Holland. Can you imagine the flavor of cajan neighborhoods connected by streets but surrounded by canals and footbridges? Can you imagine the mid-city flottilla parties during Mardi Gras? They'd have their own floating parade and call it Armada Gras!

The crime ridden cores of the city have had their backs broken, and with the eyes of the nation upon them, will be forced to take some of this criminal element elsewhere. But wherever they go, they will not be safe in their numbers and will find themselves rehabilitated quickly by new surroundings or incarcerated by better manned and equipped police forces.

Those of the underclass who do contribute with jobs will be able to take advantage of the rebuilding and revitalization to either start their lives elsewhere or join mixed use neighborhoods during the revitalization. Their kids will go to better schools because of the disbursement of the population that is sure to come, and a more equalized share of property taxes to fund them.

Big companies and deep pockets that have provided the core of the corruption will also be forced to toe a harder line as the nation looks in on them. The environmental cleanup will be heroic and will change the attitude of this nation towards big business that poisons our water and air.

Like I said, Hurricane Katrina is going to change American society in ways we can scarcely imagine right now. They will not be sweeping or immediate changes, but they will be the smaller, far reaching changes that will have effects for decades to come.

Rebuilding New Orleans will be just one of those steps. Everyone who knows what a Jazz Funeral is understands this.