[Paleopsych] LAT: Joel Kotkin: A NEW New Orleans
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Sun Sep 18 01:24:52 UTC 2005
Joel Kotkin: A NEW New Orleans
Forget crawfish étouffée -- look to ugly Houston for a vibrant economic
Joel Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is
the author of "The City: A Global History" (Modern Library, 2005)
BECAUSE THE OLD New Orleans is no more, it could resurrect itself as
the great new American city of the 21st century. Or as an impoverished
Founded by the French in 1718, site of the first U.S. mint in the
Western United States, this one-time pride of the South, this one-time
queen of the Gulf Coast, had been declining for decades, slowly
becoming an antiquated museum.
Now New Orleans must decide how to be reborn. Its choices could
foretell the future of urbanism.
The sheer human tragedy -- and the fact that the Gulf Coast is
critical to the nation' s economy as well as the Republican Party's
base -- guarantee that there will be money to start the project.
Private corporations, churches and nonprofits will pitch in with the
But what kind of city will the builders create on the sodden ruins?
The wrong approach would be to preserve a chimera of the past,
producing a touristic faux New Orleans, a Cajun Disneyland.
Sadly, even before Hurricane Katrina's devastation, local leaders
seemed convinced that being a "port of cool" should be the city's
policy. Adopting a page from Richard Florida's "creative class"
theory, city leaders held a conference just a month before the
disaster promoting a cultural strategy as the primary way to bring in
This would be the easy, bankable way to go now: Reconstruct the French
Quarter, Garden District and other historic areas while sprucing up
the convention center and other tourist facilities. This, however,
would squander a greater opportunity. A tourism-based economy is no
way to generate a broadly successful economy.
For decades before this latest hurricane, public life, including the
police force, were battered by corruption and eroded by inefficiency.
Now Katrina has brought into public view the once-invisible masses of
desperately poor people whom New Orleans' tourist economy and
political system have so clearly failed.
Although the number of hotel rooms in the city has grown by about 50%
over the last few years, tourism produces relatively few high-wage
jobs. It encourages people to learn extraordinary slide trombone
technique, develop 100 exquisite recipes for crawfish and keep swarms
of conventioneers happy -- none of which are easy or unimportant
tasks. But this economy does little to nurture the array of skills
that sustain a large and diverse workforce. Contrary to Florida's
precepts, having a strong gay community, lively street culture, great
food, tremendous music and lively arts have not been enough to lure
the "creative class" to New Orleans. The city has been at best a
marginal player in the evolving tech and information economy.
Meanwhile, the tourism/entertainment industry is constantly under
pressure from competitors. Once, being the Big Easy in the Bible Belt
gave New Orleans a trademark advantage. But the spread of gambling
along the Gulf has eroded that semi-sinful allure. Mississippi's
flattened casinos, with their massive private investment, will almost
certainly rise years ahead of New Orleans' touristic icons.
For all these reasons, New Orleans should take its destruction as an
opportunity to change course. There is no law that says a Southern
city must be forever undereducated, impoverished, corrupt and
regressive. Instead of trying to refashion what wasn't working, New
Orleans should craft a future for itself as a better, more progressive
Look a few hundred miles to the west, at Houston -- a well-run city
with a widely diversified economy. Without much in the way of old
culture, charm or tradition, it has far outshone New Orleans as a
beacon for enterprising migrants from other countries as well as other
parts of the United States -- including New Orleans.
Houston has succeeded by sticking to the basics, by focusing on the
practical aspects of urbanism rather than the glamorous. Under the
inspired leadership of former Mayor Bob Lanier and the current chief
executive, Bill White, the city has invested heavily in port
facilities, drainage, sanitation, freeways and other infrastructure.
At least in part as a result of this investment, this superficially
less-than-lovely city has managed to siphon industries -- including
energy and international trade -- from New Orleans. With its massive
Texas Medical Center, it has emerged as the primary healthcare center
in the Caribbean basin -- something New Orleans, with Tulane
University's well-regarded medical school, should have been able to
Attention to fundamentals has always been important to cities.
Hellenistic Alexandria was built in brick to reduce fire dangers that
terrified ancient urbanites, and it lived off its huge new man-made
harbor. Rome built stupendous, elaborate water systems and port
facilities to support its huge population.
Amsterdam and the Netherlands provide particularly relevant examples,
as they offer great urban culture at or below sea level. For centuries
the Dutch have coped with rising water levels with ingenious
engineering. In this century, the most notable example was the
determined response to the devastating 1953 North Sea storm, which
killed more than 1,800 people. Responding with traditional efficiency,
the Dutch built a massive system of dikes, completed in 1998, which
has helped them to remain among the most economically and culturally
vibrant regions in Europe.
Giving priority to basic infrastructure may not appeal to those who
would prefer to patch the structural problems and spend money on
rebuilding New Orleans as a museum, or by adding splashy concert
halls, art museums and other iconic cultural structures. Ultimately,
the people of the New Orleans region will have to decide whether to
focus on resuscitating the Big Easy zeitgeist -- which includes a
wink-and-nod attitude toward corruption -- or to begin drawing upon
inner resources of discipline, rigor and ingenuity.
Some may argue that such a shift would diminish New Orleans' status in
cultural folklore as a corrupt but charming waif. Yet that old ghost
is probably already gone. Even a rebuilt, reconfigured Latin Quarter
would no doubt seem more Anaheim than anti-bellum. In contrast, a new
New Orleans -- a city with a thriving economy, a city of aspiration as
well as memory -- would in time create its own cultural efflorescence,
this time linked as much to the future as the past. This should be the
goal of the great rebuilding process about to begin.
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