Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Rebuilding a Beautiful Mess

A very intriguing article just popped up in the newest installment of The New Republic, describing a process many of us would prefer not to think about: the logistical and physical rebuilding of the city of New Orleans.

After life in the city begins to stabilize in the coming months, a debate will open as to how, or even if, we should fundamentally reshape this vital city. Naturally, much of the planning will go towards making the city safer in the event of future natural disasters, reinforcing levees and so forth.

But the ultimate question lies in what to do with the vacant and utterly devastated neighborhoods devoid of their former residents. Sound urban planning, as it pertains to zoning codes and architectural design, has great capacity to shape the existence of New Orleans.

Will New Orleans be rebuilt to resemble its former self, a city of legendary charm and character yet also with widespread corruption and shocking disparities in wealth, perhaps the way its former residents may want it?

Or can the hurricane be used as an opportunity to make New Orleans ultimately better? With such a large infusion of federal cash and countless property seizures by developers and landlords, could this be the time to rectify the city's inequities?

Perhaps with a refreshed vision and comprehensive planning, civic leaders, both federal and local, can come up with a design scheme that offers more to the city's residents in the form of improved healthcare, public housing, and mass transit, all the while redeveloping the worst slums.

This may seem tempting for some, but it is important to remember what brings so many tourists to New Orleans, its flamboyant culture and vitality that celebrates the theme "let the good times roll."

As the history of post-disaster planning has shown us, often civic authorities leave their progressive ideals in the dust as profit for developers becomes the focus of reconstruction.

This was seen in postwar German cities, whose historic centers were artificially reconstructed using architectural "aging techniques," making a mockery of the city's former self. Other major reconstructions, in Tangshan, China, Mexico City, and Kobe Japan took place in countries that had given their reconstruciton authorities certain "liberties" with regards to private property that we would never allow in this country.

Recall the World Trade Center site in New York City. At first the site was to be composed entirely of a memorial park, a public place of remembrance for the victims of 9/11.

Then came the international design contest, where buildings were to be designed around the original footprints of the twin towers. According to recent reports, many of the original features in the memorial park have now been scrapped to make way for infrastructure for the office buildings, one of which will be a colosal 1776 foot "Freedom Tower."

All of this happened because the property owner, the Port Authority, had a contractual obligation to redevelop the lost 10 million square feet of office space, regardless of the detrimental effects that such horrendous architecture (take a look of it for yourself) has on the public.

Whatever ends up happening to the city of New Orleans during the course of its reconstruction, let's keep in mind a central goal to preserve the city's essence, its vibrancy and cultural life that kept us coming back for more.

After all, what makes up a city, as the social historian Jane Jacobs once said, is "not the sum of its wealth, but the some of its parts;" that is to say, cities are made for the people who inhabit them, not for the profit or greed of developers.

Be sure to read both articles: the first one, and the second.

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