Go Southeast, Young Man
By WALTER ISAACSON
The New York Times
June 8, 2006
NEW ORLEANS is a tale of two cities these days. In areas that were smashed and then sat for weeks underwater when the levees broke, the devastation still stretches for miles and the valiant cleanup efforts seem as daunting as mopping sand from a beach. But the older areas that make the town famous, built on higher ground along the river, are humming again. From Tulane University through the Garden District to the business district and the French Quarter, people are back at work while chefs and musicians ply their wondrous magic.
It is also a city of two moods. The difficulties of recovery have left jangled nerves, but there is also a sense of opportunity. As Tulane's president, Scott S. Cowen, said at a conference cosponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for anyone with ambition and civic spirit, there is no better place to be, nor better time to be there, than New Orleans now. And on the plane ride back from one of his 11 trips there, President Bush said that if he were young and looking to make his mark or some money, he would move to New Orleans.
The Army Corps of Engineers helped bring some clarity last week by issuing a remarkably forthright report accepting full blame for the design flaws and negligence that caused the breaks in the levees it built. That helped people everywhere understand why federal money should, as Mr. Bush has pledged, mitigate the damage to the houses, businesses and utilities that relied on those levees, just as a corporation would have been expected to help cover damages caused by its negligence.
The Corps is also providing New Orleans with an opportunity to create a safer city. It has been authorized to build fortified levees that should not break again, far stronger than ever, but it will not be spending the billions that would be needed to build ones that would prevent all overtopping.
That means people should be physically safe, but low areas will still experience occasional flooding. So the state passed a new building code, and homes must now be built a few feet above grade or flood level. The next step will be more complex. Residents of many flood-prone areas whose homes were destroyed will have to be convinced to move to higher ground.
A crucial piece of this puzzle should be in place in a few days: a Congressional conference committee is poised to give final approval to $4.2 billion in community development money that has been carefully calibrated to encourage this prudent rebuilding. Once officials realized that their finger-pointing was not helping anyone, the plan for how to allocate this money directly to residents, and to guard against fraud, was devised by the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the president's relief coordinator, Donald E. Powell, with the approval of Housing Secretary Alphonso R. Jackson. A sensible formula will compensate those whose homes were destroyed by the levee breaks, buy back property in dangerous areas and help people either rebuild or relocate to higher ground.
In the next year or so, in order not to choke off the recovery, the city may need help finding ways to assure that residents have access to affordable utilities and insurance coverage. And in the longer run, some of the royalties from offshore oil production should go to coastal restoration for all the states along the Gulf. But for the moment, now that the money from Congress is about to flow, here are some principles for how to get rebuilding right:
Nurture the older neighborhoods, the ones on higher and safer ground (which is where sensible people built a century or two ago). There are a lot of vacancies and underused space in these areas, rich and poor. For example, instead of arguing about whether to rebuild the lower Ninth Ward, start by rebuilding its beautiful old Holy Cross area, which is on higher ground near the river, and encourage residents of the washed-out low-lying parts of the ward to take the offer of relocation money and move there.
Harness the energy and coordinate the plans of the city's galvanized neighborhoods. The diverse Broadmoor section, for example, partnered with Harvard University to create its own rebuilding and economic development plan. Now comes the chance to meld these plans into a coherent vision for the city, and the Rockefeller Foundation has provided the money and expertise to do so. The goal should be to preserve the magic of the city's unique neighborhoods, which are the wellsprings of its soul and creativity, while avoiding random and scattered rebuilding.
Avoid new concentrations of poverty. The core of New Orleans has always been racially and economically diverse. It must remain, as its great jazzman Wynton Marsalis says, the last great integrated city in a nation of segregated cities. The new rental housing should be mixed-income developments that promote diverse, stable neighborhoods.
Let innovative schools blossom. The old Orleans Parish School Board ran one of the worst districts in the nation, and it has now effectively been abolished. A system of competing charter schools has sprung up, nurtured by the state and fostered in Washington by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Senators Mary Landrieu and Lamar Alexander. Eager local principals are getting to run their own schools, and education innovators who want to show what they can do, like the ones from the Knowledge Is Power Program, are rushing in to seize the opportunity.
Be gentle. The importance of New Orleans to the nation stems in part from its precarious location near the mouth of a great river. The region's people extract, refine and transport most of America's energy and ship much of its produce. But the city's value also comes from its creative and cultural heritage. In other cities, where the wind blew down whole tracts of houses, it was possible simply to bulldoze the rubble and build new developments. But the flooded yet still intact neighborhoods of New Orleans need more nurturing.
Towns and subdivisions elsewhere will offer an easier life than that in New Orleans these days. But many people will find that it's a great time to be back in a city they love. They will relish the rare opportunity to be part of something historic, creative and larger than themselves. More outside money will flow in than has for decades, so the city could become the entrepreneurial magnet it was a century ago. For students, few places will offer a more enriching education in what it means to be a useful citizen than Tulane, Xavier, Loyola and the other New Orleans colleges.
And it's now even a greater place to visit, because in addition to its old charms it provides the chance to see a fascinating civic revival.
Walter Isaacson, the chief executive of the Aspen Institute, is the vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the author of "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life."