Monday, October 26, 2009

Entropy & Development

Jeffrey at Library Chronicles links to this op-ed on the Jack O'Lantern effect in New Orleans.

The Jack O'Lantern effect occurs when a neighborhood that was once dense and fully populated ends up with only a few homes surrounded by vacant lots (like a traditional Jack O'Lantern smile). It is reasonable to expect that this would happen in New Orleans after the flood, due to the lack of dynamism in the Crescent City economy on the one hand, and the inconsistencies of various recovery plans and funding mechanisms on the other.

And that is before race and politics enter the conversation, as Jeffrey reminds us: "At the time of the "footprint debate", people were still openly fantasizing about cleansing the city of "undesirable" residents."

After reading that, I found a Daily Dish link to this article on Detroit as an urban laboratory.

With pictures helpfully illustrating the Jack O'Lantern effect in Detroit.

The Detroit article goes further to boost and illustrate the prospective bright spots of having a major urban center empty out, but I'm not sure urban agriculture or urban hunting grounds are sustainable. That's the cynic in me though, I absolutely respect these folks' creativity to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

One thing that really caught my eye were the real estate prices. Folks in Detroit buying houses at $500 - $2000? The article goes on to explain what buyers are able to do when housing is that cheap.

Hearing such things, I can only think of the history of places like Athens, Georgia, where the urban core's real estate value plummeted with the opening of malls and loss of population to sprawl. The value loss made things more affordable for artists, musicians, writers and the like to move in. You could afford to live somewhere while going to school, waiting tables and spending long nights awake in your studio. Bolder souls opened bars and music venues and galleries, but not the chic "gentrification" style you usually think of when you hear that.

There is a reason Athens became a burgeoning center for creativity, culture and the arts. Hell, I remember sharing band practice space in a giant warehouse on the edge of downtown. The University of Georgia's College of Art rented part of that building for senior art studios. UGA eventually went ahead and bought the whole building, renovating it for their own purposes. Artists and musicians migrated to other parts of town, again, where the rents were cheapest and the noise complaints were fewest.

From conversations with folks in New Orleans, it sounds like that sort of dynamic used to be at play here. Unfortunately, NOLA is bucking the trend. Yes, there are Jack O'Lantern neighborhoods. Yes, there is an overabundance of blighted and wrecked property. Yes, the same city footprint holds almost 130K less people.

But rents and property values here are through the roof, making life harder for the creative classes (or at least the ones I talk to). It doesn't stop there, also affecting the students, the young couples, regular working class putting food on the table and the folks who would be the foundation of our Mom & Pop business class.

Doubtless, this city's culture sustains a self perpetuating group of artists, writers, musicians and the like who have always and will continue to buck the odds. But one wonders what types of things we would see if the pressure valve was released just a little.

And because I would love to find a practice space that doesn't involve a commute to Kenner. I weep whenever I see underutilized warehouses in the Marigny and Bywater, with no sound of horns or drums generated within.

One last thought on the article comes from these two quotes, which seem to place NOLA on par with Chicago, at least in the "efficiency" of government realm:

"In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases."

I wouldn't call that "strong" government functioning "effectively," because this happens in plenty of cities, large and small, with dysfunctional governments whose civil service staff thinks they might gain some advantage to stifling citizen creativity (or at least increase some sort of fee to the city coffers). None of that behavior fixes the streets. Hence our discordant public discourse with respect to the role of government, it always seems to engage in that which angers citizens most effectively.

"In most cities, municipal government can't stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out."

Entropy is a product of time and use, but also of misplaced priorities.

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1 comment:

mominem said...

Great Post.

Government in New Orleans never seems to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.