Friday, October 07, 2005

Slow down and take a deep breath

There is a rush to rebuild.

Senators and contractors, Mayors and Presidents. Faced with the enormity of the challenge of rebuilding a destroyed city, the urge is to rebuild it now. $10 billion. $52 billion. $200 billion. $250 billion. Three brazillion. The numbers just keep on going up.

Insurance money. Federal spending. Give tax breaks for machinery. No, eliminate federal taxes. No, reduce wage taxes on low income people.

The utility system. The levees. The hospitals. Homes, buildings, casinos. $2,500 per house to put blue tarps on the roofs of damaged homes.

Bring the people home. No, wait, there are no services. Don’t let them back in.


Hurricane Katrina has wrecked devastation on a region and destroyed parts of a major American city. We need to take a deep breath. It happened. People fled. People died––though fortunately in far smaller numbers than originally feared.

Cities take years to build, and that growth evolves as communities evolve. Decisions are made through the rough and tumble process of local democracy. Planning and self-interest collide. Money is spent and money is made, and, over time, a city grows up as the heart of a community and of a region.

Look around the nation. Cities define so much of who we are, and the character of a city reflects the communities and politics and culture of a region and of a people. Even those cities whose great days have passed and are struggling remain central to the identity of a region. Detroit. St. Louis. Baltimore. Philadelphia. Surrounded by thriving suburbs that are increasingly independent of the urban core, these cities remain central to the identity of a region and its far flung communities.

New Orleans epitomized that centrality. The Cajun city. The Big Easy. Like the earth itself, it was not created in seven days or seven years, though seven decades can bring one closer to the scale. The urge to rebuild and rebuild now seems to hint at the modern real estate process of building gated communities. Make all of the decisions up front, raise the money, bring in the earth moving equipment. Bingo. Pleasant Acres South. Four hundred homes in the mid-300 range.

But cities are not gated communities and the process needs to slow down. We are watching the ultimate reality show. In the ring are the city, the state and the feds, each trying to take control, to win the hearts, make-up for the errors that were made, channel the money. Be the hero in a story that whose days of heroes are past.

Everyone needs to slow down. Most of the land is privately owned, and private owners need to make decisions. What to rebuild, when to rebuild. The urge to make decisions quickly, and even to throw money and tax credits at the problem, should be resisted. It is just going to take time, and it should take time.

The people who have been displaced need services to rebuild their livelihoods. Those who can return, can get jobs, will and should return. Many will find opportunities elsewhere, and should if it suits their inclination. The size of the city will be smaller, and that is how it should be. There are years of work to be done and decisions to be made. Communities need to be rebuilt, and many of those decisions cannot be made until there is a local decision-making infrastructure. Politics and planning serve the interest of communities, and it will take several election cycles for the will of the people––yes, the will of the people of New Orleans––to find its balance once again, and for long-term decisions to be made.

So, everyone, just slow down. Yes, there is money to be made. Yes, there are votes to be garnered. But this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and long after New Orleans leaves the news cycle, it will need attention and money and care.

Take a deep breath, and slow down.

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