What Has Happened Down Here Is the Winds Have Changed


An interesting article in City Journal describes the bottom-up reconstruction of New Orleans. Here's the heart of the argument:

In one crucial way, New Orleans's modern history of weak, ineffectual government helped it recover after Katrina. Though the [Bring New Orleans Back] luminaries drew up their plan swiftly, nobody had the political will, knowledge, or resources to enforce it. Property owners could show what they thought of the plan–and of various other utopian schemes bandied about by the nation's architectural giants–by ignoring them.

This approach–or better, lack of one–differs markedly from the reaction to the nation's other recent large-scale disaster, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In New York, the state government, which had a long history of centrally planning huge projects, quickly monopolized control over rebuilding. Ground Zero, unfortunately, seemed the perfect opportunity for such a project. After all, the World Trade Center had been built as a government scheme 30 years before the attacks, and the towers' single leaseholder, real-estate investor Larry Silverstein, sweated under immense political pressure to cooperate with the government in its ambitious reconstruction plans. Six and a half years later, Ground Zero is still an early-stage construction site. Worse, what's eventually built there could be a white elephant.

In New Orleans, by contrast, though the city and feds can still screw up the sites that they control, including now-vacant housing projects, they can't define the whole reconstruction process. Enterprising homeowners can experiment with what works, rather than being stuck with some starchitect's vision for the next century.

The article is filled with examples of those experiments. The people of New Orleans, Nicole Gelinas writes, have "been building and rebuilding on their own or with small-scale help, rather than under top-down decree–and, in the process, showing that thousands of individual planners are better than one master."

[Hat tip: John Kluge.]