A Sad Truth: Cities Aren't Forever
Who, What, When, Where, Why?
By Joel Garreau
Sunday, September 11, 2005
THE CITY OF New Orleans is not going to be rebuilt.
The tourist neighborhoods? The ancient parts from the French Quarter
to the Garden District on that slim crescent of relatively high ground
near the river? Yes, they will be restored. The airport and the
convention center? Yes, those, too.
But the far larger swath -- the real New Orleans where the tourists
don't go, the part that Katrina turned into a toxic soup bowl, its
population of 400,000 scattered to the waves? Not so much.
When Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that it makes no
sense to spend billions of federal dollars to rebuild a city that's
below sea level, he added, "It looks like a lot of that place could be
bulldozed." In the face of criticism, he hurried to "clarify" his
remarks. But according to Washington lore, such a flap occurs when
someone inadvertently tells the truth. New Orleans has had a good run
for 287 years, but even before Katrina hit, the city was on the wane,
as its steadily dropping population figures for decades have shown.
All the brave rhetoric about the indomitable human spirit
notwithstanding, we may want to consider some realities. As much as it
causes heartache to those of us who love New Orleans -- the whole
place, not just the one of myth and memory -- cities are not forever.
Look at Babylon, Carthage, Pompeii.
Certainly, as long as the Mississippi River stays within its manmade
banks, there will be a need for the almost 200 miles of ports near its
mouth. But ports no longer require legions of workers. In the 21st
century, a thriving port is not the same thing as a thriving city, as
demonstrated from Oakland to Norfolk. The city of New Orleans has for
years resembled Venice -- a beloved tourist attraction but not a
driver of global trade.
Does the end of New Orleans as one of America's top 50 cities
represent a dilemma of race and class in America? Of course. There are
a lot of black and poor people who are not going to return to New
Orleans any more than Okies did to the Dust Bowl.
What the city of New Orleans is really up against, however, is the set
of economic, historic, social, technological and geological forces
that have shaped fixed settlements for 8,000 years. Its necessity is
no longer obvious to many stakeholders with the money to rebuild it,
from the oil industry, to the grain industry, to the commercial real
estate industry, to the global insurance industry, to the politicians.
If the impetus does not come from them, where will it come from?
New Orleans, politically defined, is the 180.6 square miles making up
Orleans Parish. (In Louisiana a "parish" is comparable to a county.)
This place is roughly three times the size of the District of
Columbia, though in 2004 it was less populated and its head count was
The original reason for founding La Nouvelle-Orléans in 1718 was the
thin crescent of ground French trappers found there. Hence the name
"Crescent City." Elevated several feet above the Mississippi mud, it
was the last semi-dry natural landing place before the open waters of
the Gulf of Mexico. That crescent today is where you find all the
stuff that attracts tourists, from the French Quarter, to the Central
Business District (the "American Quarter") with the convention center
and the Superdome, to the Garden District and Uptown. This area is
roughly comparable to Washington from Adams Morgan through K Street to
Georgetown and Foxhall Road.
That tourist crescent is relatively intact. (Only two of the 1,500
animals at the Audubon Zoo died.) But it is only perhaps 10 percent of
The rest to the north of the river -- as distinct from the Algiers
district on the south bank, which has always been something of an
afterthought -- is under as much as 25 feet of water. For the last 90
years, this vast bulk of the city has required mammoth pumps to clear
the streets every time it rains. This is where you'd find working folk
-- cops, teachers and nurses -- with bathtub madonnas and colored
Christmas tree lights. It's also where you would find areas of
soul-destroying poverty, part of the shredding fabric of a city that
had a poverty rate of 23 percent. Planners have warned for years that
this area would be destroyed if the levees were ever breached.
Yet, as novelist Anne Rice wrote of her native city a week ago: "The
living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed
more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy. Which is why
so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went north. They didn't
want to leave a place where they felt at home in neighborhoods that
dated back centuries . . . . They didn't want to leave a place that
Sentiment, however, won't guide the insurance industry. When it looks
at the devastation here, it will evaluate the risk from toxicity that
has leached into the soil, and has penetrated the frames of the
buildings, before it decides to write new insurance -- without which
nothing can be rebuilt.
Distinct from Orleans Parish is the rest of metropolitan New Orleans,
with a population of 850,000 -- twice that of the "city." These
parishes, including Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard, St. Charles,
St. John, Plaquemines and St. James, were hard hit. There was four
feet of water in some expensive living rooms in Metairie. But they
were not scenes of comparable devastation.
Also distinct from the city are the region's ports, lining 172 miles
of both banks of the Mississippi, as well as points on the Gulf. For
example, the largest in the Western Hemisphere is the 54-mile stretch
of the Port of South Louisiana. It is centered on La Place, 20 miles
upriver from New Orleans. It moved 199 million tons of cargo in 2003,
including the vast bulk of the river's grain. That is more than twice
as much as the Port of New Orleans, according to the American
Association of Port Authorities. The Port of Baton Rouge, almost as
big as the Port of New Orleans, was not damaged. Also, downstream,
there is the LOOP -- the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port out in the Gulf
that handles supertankers requiring water depths of 85 feet. These
ports are just a few of the biggest.
Illustrating how different the Port of New Orleans is from the city,
its landline phones were back in business a week ago, says Gary
LaGrange, the port's president and CEO. "The river is working
beautifully," he reports, and "the terminal's not that bad."
Throughout the world, you see an increasing distinction between "port"
and "city." As long as a port needed stevedores and recreational areas
for sailors, cities like New Orleans -- or Baltimore or Rotterdam --
thrived. Today, however, the measure of a port is how quickly it can
load or unload a ship and return it to sea. That process is measured
in hours. It is the product of extremely sophisticated automation,
which requires some very skilled people but does not create remotely
enough jobs to support a city of half a million or so.
The dazzling Offshore Oil Port, for example, employs only about 100
people. Even the specialized Port of New Orleans, which handles things
like coffee, steel and cruise boats, only needs 2,500 people on an
average day, LaGrange says. The Warehouse District was being turned
into trendy condos.
Compare that to the tourism industry, which employs about 25,000
people in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food
sectors -- some 5 percent of the city's former population, according
to the census.
New Orleans's economy is vividly illustrated by its supply of
white-collar jobs. Its Central Business District has not added a new
office building since 1989, according to Southeast Real Estate
Business. It has 13.5 million square feet of leasable office space --
not much bigger than Bethesda/Chevy Chase, where rents are twice as
high. The office vacancy rate in New Orleans is an unhealthy 16
percent and the only reason it isn't worse is that 3 million square
feet have been remade as hotels, apartments and condominiums.
There are no national corporations with their headquarters in New
Orleans. There are regional headquarters of oil companies such as
Chevron and ConocoPhillips, but their primary needs are an airport, a
heliport and air conditioning. Not much tying them down. In the
Central Business District you will also find the offices of the
utilities you'd expect, such as the electricity company Entergy. But
if you look for major employers in New Orleans, you quickly get down
to the local operations of the casino Harrah's, and Popeye's Fried
Hardly a crying demand for a commercial entrepot.
This is not the first time that harsh realities have reshaped cities
along the Gulf of Mexico.
The historic analogy for New Orleans is Galveston. For 60 years in the
1800s, that coastal city was the most advanced in Texas. It had the
state's first post office, first naval base, first bakery, first
gaslights, first opera house, first telephones, first electric lights
and first medical school.
Then came the hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900. As yet unsurpassed as the
deadliest natural disaster in American history, it washed away at
least 6,000 souls. Civic leaders responded with heroic determination,
building a seawall seven miles long and 17 feet high. Homes were
jacked up. Dredges poured four to six feet of sand under them.
Galveston today is a charming tourist and entertainment destination,
but it never returned to its old commercial glory. In part, that's
because the leaders of Houston took one look at what the hurricane had
wrought and concluded a barrier island might not be the best place to
build the major metropolis that a growing east central Texas was going
They responded with an equally Lone-Star-scale project, the
50-mile-long Ship Channel. It made inland Houston a world port. In the
wake of the Spindletop gusher that launched the Texas oil industry,
Houston became the capital of the world petroleum industry. As the
leaders of the "awl bidness" were fond of saying, "Don't matter if the
oil is in Siberia or the South China Sea -- you buy your rig in
Houston or dig for it with a silver spoon." Houston went on to become
a finance, medical, university, biotech and now nanotech center. The
first word from the surface of the moon was not "Galveston." It was
What will New Orleans be known for in 100 years?
How a city responds to disaster is shaped both by large outside forces
and internal social cohesion. Chicago rebuilt to greater glory after
the fire of 1871 destroyed its heart. San Franciscans so transformed
their city after the earthquake and fire of 1906 that nine years later
they proudly hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to
toast the Panama Canal and their own resurrection.
Not long ago, I co-taught a team of George Mason University students
in a semester-long scenario-planning course aimed at analyzing which
global cities would be the winners and losers 100 years from now. The
students were keenly aware of the impact that climate change might
have on their calculations, among hundreds of other factors. Yet in
the end they could not bring themselves to write off such water cities
as New York and Tokyo. They simply wouldn't bet against the
determination and imagination of New Yorkers and the Japanese. As
someone put it at the time, "If it turned out New York needed dikes
200 feet high, you can just hear somebody saying, 'I know this guy in
Will such fortitude be found in New Orleans? In his 2000 book,
"Bowling Alone," political scientist Robert Putnam measured social
capital around the country -- the group cohesion that allows people to
come together in times of great need to perform seemingly impossible
feats together. He found some of the lowest levels in Louisiana. (More
Louisianans agree with the statement "I do better than average in a
fistfight" than people from almost anywhere else.) His data do not
seem to be contradicted by New Orleans's murder rate, which is 10
times the national average. Not to mention the political candidates
through the ages who, to little effect, have run on promises of
cleaning up the corruption endemic to the government and police force.
New Orleans is not called the Big Easy for nothing. This is the place
whose most famous slogan is " Laissez les bons temps rouler" -- "Let
the good times roll."
I hope I'm wrong about the future of the city. But if the
determination and resources to rebuild New Orleans to greater glory
does not come from within, from where else will it come?
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