As an urban scholar, I have always seen the beauty and potential for New Orleans prior to the storm. This unique city had much to offer the rest of the country, and perhaps the world, in the way we can be both creative and carefree. It affected what we were able to create in the city (from food to Jazz) and how we paced our lives (what many call our "Live for the Day" attitude). I still believe New Orleans can come back with all of this and more. Apparently, there are others who feel the same way too. Let me know what you think:
February 22, 2006 Op-Ed Contributor From Hell to High Water By ROBERTA BRANDES GRATZ PREDICTING that a good number of evacuated residents will never return, a New Orleans mayoral commission recently declared that the city should abandon flood-ravaged neighborhoods, invest only in stable areas on high ground and shift residents to new developments. If a neighborhood isn't "sustainable," the city should raze it.
New Yorkers with long memories can't help but feel they have heard all this before. These proposals aren't much different from the ones for the "planned shrinkage" of New York in the 1970's, when abandoned buildings seemed more plentiful than occupied ones. The experts said that investing in neighborhoods where few people remained was throwing good money after bad; those areas were unlivable. Restoring old, deteriorating buildings was a waste of limited resources; the city was getting smaller. We should focus instead on populated neighborhoods and healthy commercial districts.
The experts, of course, were wrong. And the thousands of New Orleanians fighting experts' recommendations to shrink the city should take heart from New York's experience.
In the 1970's, New York was losing 36,000 residential units a year citywide to neglect and arson, after decades when cities were out of fashion and investing in them was discouraged. New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the assumption was that everyone wanted to escape urban life.
But the New Yorkers who stayed were undaunted. Residents in the communities that urban experts had given up on took back the streets, scraped together grants from foundations and meagerly financed city programs, occupied and renovated abandoned buildings, and turned rubble-strewn lots into neighborhood gardens. One building, one block, one neighborhood at a time, citizens chose to improve rather than move.
The South Bronx, one of the most devastated areas, saw an endless variety of innovative efforts starting in the late 1970's. By 2000, the South Bronx had 57,361 new units in rehabilitated apartment buildings and 10,000 units in new two- and three-family town houses.
A community group called Banana Kelly rebuilt three vacant four-story apartment houses scheduled for demolition by the city and went on to renew a 10-block area of the South Bronx, with regeneration spreading beyond. Another organization, We Stay/Nos Quedamos, resisted plans to force out residents and businesses in the Melrose neighborhood by razing old buildings and replacing them with a low-density, middle-income project. Today, mixed-income, high-density town houses and low-rise apartments reflect a repopulated and vibrant community.
Artists converted part of the monumental American Bank Note complex in Hunts Point into the Point, a cultural center anchoring a solid mixed-use district. Several groups came together to clean up the Bronx River. An old concrete plant is being turned into a city park, and a multifaceted greenway along the river is emerging.
In these neighborhoods, residents were the catalyst for renewal. City officials eventually recognized the momentum and responded with support. Citizen efforts made areas attractive to developers who, with generous incentives, then built housing and took credit for the renewal visible today.
Just as in New York, New Orleans residents can defy official prescriptions. As I saw on a recent visit, New Orleanians feel abandoned by everyone and cheated by insurance companies. But instead of quietly accepting the government's declarations that their houses are unsalvageable, they're cleaning out flooded homes and learning how to rebuild. Their outcry against the mayoral commission's recommendation that the city impose a moratorium on reconstruction in flooded areas effectively killed that idea.
It is those kinds of efforts that will bring New Orleans back. Organic urban neighborhoods are self-generated, not developer-built. The family enclaves, extensive social networks, well-attended churches, historic attachment to property and fierce dedication to local culture and place make New Orleans unique. If that authentic energy is stifled by misguided strategies, neighborhoods will die.
"Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration," Jane Jacobs wrote 45 years ago in "Death and Life of Great American Cities." This can be true of New Orleans today if its leaders allow those seeds to be sown.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of "Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown."