Grimm Decisions

January 6th, 2007

The eldest went first into the room where the slipper was, and wanted to try it on, and the mother stood by. But her great toe could not go into it, and the shoe was altogether much too small for her. Then the mother gave her a knife, and said, ‘Never mind, cut it off; when you are queen you will not care about toes; you will not want to walk.’ So the silly girl cut off her great toe, and thus squeezed on the shoe, and went to the king’s son. – Ashputtel (Cinderella), Grimm’s Fairy Tales

The F-word is in the air again. Or rather, it’s conspicuously not in the air, since the BNOB taught everyone what a dirty word footprint could be. Now, the buzz is about unrestrained rebuilding in “risky” areas, thanks in particular to the Washington Post’s New Orleans Repeats Mistakes as it Rebuilds article yesterday. The blogosphere is once again awash in “why are we letting those idiots spend our to rebuild below sea level?” rants (note, though, mominem’s lonely voice of dissent ranked on the first page of Google’s blogsearch). Oddly enough, the Post’s previous day’s story on Sacramento’s potentially catastrophic flood risk, observing that (surprise) it’s levees are substandard, didn’t warrant much blogland comment that I’ve been able to find.

I wouldn’t give the footprint topic the time of day if it were confined to knee-jerk New Orleans haters who think that our massive losses are costing them somehow, as if some enormous Save New Orleans tax were being levied on them personally. But I’ve heard the variations on the “you have to shrink the footprint” line from too many friends and relatives out of town – people who sincerely love New Orleans, visit here, visit more than just the French Quarter and Jazz Fest Fairgrounds, and want the city to survive almost as desperately as we residents do – to brush it off.

After all, it does seem eminently logical both to consolidate the population for the sake of providing services, and to run like hell from the worst-flooded areas. It’s true that we can’t expect to come back to pre-Katrina population density any time soon, if ever (and no one here wants their neighborhood to suffer the jack-o-lantern fate, or be surrounded by blight and vacant lots), and it’s completely fair to ask why one should rebuild in the deepest flood-risk zones. The trouble is, I’ve never seen the inevitable, costly consequences of a smaller footprint adequately addressed, even if race and class inequities could be somehow swept aside. And it does cost. It’s not an abstracted matter of so many puzzle pieces to be shuffled around, or cars in a valet parking lot. It’s a question of where real people can live, and how we can afford to make decent housing available in a timely manner.

Even the UNOP’s Community Congress II acknowledged that one of the “cons” of the scenario of requiring people to resettle in ill-defined “clusters” was the greater cost than letting people rebuild where they lived before. If you think the Road Home program is falling short now, just imagine when homeowners are forced to take the buyout offer rather than renovate/rebuild, and the real costs of relocation come to the fore. I’m a little surprised that the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act hasn’t been invoked yet, given that it’s a federal project that deprived the majority of New Orleans of their homes, but you can be sure that if or when people are denied the option to rebuild, the meaning and value of “comparable replacement dwelling” in the post-Katrina real estate market will be a magma-hot flashpoint.

Plenty of pundits (including Recovery Chief Ed Blakely, cited in the Post article) have proposed some vague sort of “lot swap” between badly flooded homeowners who want to return and scarcely flooded homeowners who have left, but would someone please show me these high-ground lots ready and waiting to be swapped? I know there are lots of people with high-ground properties who have relocated to other cities due to work or disgust, but which are the ones who aren’t seeking their newly boosted market value? What do we honestly have to offer people who are willing to sacrifice their immediate sense of home: their house or apartment, for their general sense of home: New Orleans? (Incidentally, the Post article notes that “Officials in St. Bernard Parish … rejected closing off a particularly hard-hit 36-block section of Chalmette because they could not afford to buy out property owners.” That doesn’t influence their conclusion that we’re Repeating Mistakes as We Rebuild, though.)

Another glaring omission from the footprint argument is the acknowledgement that ours was an unnatural disaster, and that that fact figures significantly into both what risk property owners and dwellers thought they were assuming before Katrina, and what risk we’re facing after. The Post does acknowledges that “the levees … proved catastrophically fallible,” but doesn’t factor in what every local now knows – that our degree of risk has far less to do with elevation than with the x-factor of where the next breaches might occur. Given that so far, the levees have been repaired mainly where they breached, and that miles of levees are still as substandard as before, everywhere but the repaired breaches will be under the same strain as before should a Katrina-like event happen again, with no telling which spots might give way first. And heaven forbid that the next threat should come via the river rather than canals to the lake, because then the highest, “safest” ground will be obliterated. We just can’t evaluate true flood risk while it’s more contingent on man-made negligence than natural vulnerability.

And encompassing both the population-consolidation issue and the flood-risk issue is the self-fulfilling prophecy dilemma. Repopulation is a matter of both just compensation to those who lost their homes and everything in them, and prevention of becoming a theme-park rather than a city. People weren’t stupid or foolhardy to choose to live and work in New Orleans, any more than people are stupid or foolhardy to live in Sacramento, San Francisco, or any coast, riverside, lakeside, barrier island, earthquake zone, tornado-swept prairie, blizzard, or avalanche territory. Offering and encouraging the option of return to the people who were flooded out is a moral imperative as well as an imperative to preserve the viability – not just of neighborhoods – but of the city. We need our population to back our deserved political clout at the state and federal level, and to remain a diverse city – racially, industrially, and economically. To retreat to the Sliver by the River is to cement our past history of inequality into an even more go-nowhere status as a low-wage, low-opportunity tourism town; a barely-get-by-ism that we will deserve to lose to another hurricane if we’re the ones who let it happen.

There’s no Fairy Godmother to tell us how to deal with flood risk and population shrinkage, but more importantly, there’s no Prince Charming who will take care of everything if we only make ourselves fit someone’s idea of what size slipper we should wear. We have excruciating decisions to make, but no one is in a position to tell us which toes can do without, any more than the knee-jerk New Orleans haters can say that the nation can do without us – our neighborhoods are no more socio-economic islands than we are as a city or a region. Nor can anyone tell us that sacrificing the 9th Ward, Lakeview, Hollygrove, Gert Town, or any of the flooded neighborhoods will make us a Queen who won’t need or want to walk. We’ll be crying “let them eat bread pudding” all the way to the guillotine if it ever comes to that.

4 Responses to “Grimm Decisions”

  1. Ray Mikell Says:

    Excellent! Please also note that the ULI plan was suggesting green spaces, parkland. And there isn’t even money on hand to fix up City Park, much less any new places, without applying for competitive grants (not federal recovery dollars–monies for which NOLA will have to compete along with areas not affected by catastrophic damage to its infrastructure and housing).

    Meanwhile, the ULI plan suggested setting up a sort of quasi-public or public agency that would have eminent domain powers to (forcibly) buy out homes in areas that are delcared blighted. But that’s harder for any agency with the eminent domain authority to do now, given the amendment passed by Louisiana voters regarding such powers earlier this year. That is, the one passed due to the backlash over the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London decision.

  2. becky Says:

    Good points. Parks don’t maintain themselves, and even letting land go “back to nature” doesn’t come without a pricetag – a weed-choked vacant tract is a far cry from healthy native flora and fauna.

    I can’t really blame anyone for the backlash over the Kelo v. New London decision. I’ve never really seen this city do much about genuine blight – threats to the health and safety of neighbors, but the vagueness of Kelo opens the lid of Pandora’s Box even wider than Katrina and the planning processes have opened it already.

    I think in our situation, any consideration of Land Use policy has to put the Land Users first. We keep getting reminded, after all, that money’s scarce and it’s recovery we’re planning, not beautification.

  3. mominem Says:

    You missed my comment on the ACORN follow up. Maybe someone kind of gets it.

    I’m sorry to spoil the party but I never expected there to be federal money for new parks, bike paths and other Urban Design features.

    The whole planning kabuki dance is simply a performance.

    The only beneficiaries are the performers.

  4. becky Says:

    I did miss your ACORN comment – thanks for pointing it out. There are some people and organizations who at least kind of get it, and there’s some small cause for hope when they do.

    What troubles me is that most of the country only sees these summary judgments like the Post’s, and so many people jump to the conclusion that we’re misspending “their” money.

    It also troubles me that people sympathetic to our plight see these one-size-fits-all “solutions” like greenspace and footprints without seeing the costs and drawbacks associated with them that vary neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block. When our friends from outside aren’t given the relevant information to assess all the claims being made about the recovery, who can blame them for supporting what they’re told over and over again is best for us?

    And yes, I agree that this planning dance is mainly for the sake of the performers. Let’s hope they never get the chance to take their show on the road.