Entries for May, 2007

“Recovery also has to do with establishing legitimacy: understanding and responding to citizens’ priorities for the city. … With legitimacy, even if physical reconstruction is uneven and slow, citizens won’t necessarily feel their recovery was thwarted or denied.” – Diane E. Davis, Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital, March 18, 2002, at MIT’s Resilient Cities lecture series

Karen (of Squandered Heritage and Northwest Carrollton fame) asked the other day in conversation, why aren’t we looking at Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake more? Maybe because it wasn’t exactly a stellar recovery – but then, that makes it all the more relevant to our own faltering steps. Of course, the comparison hasn’t been completely neglected – nosing around a bit, I turned up this post, which in turn led to finding this video of Diane E. Davis’ lecture on Mexico City’s experience.

Do you have an hour or so to spare? WATCH THE VIDEO. The lecture portion is about 50 minutes long, with a 20 minute question and answer session following (although the sound isn’t great in that portion). Don’t have 50 minutes? Watch it in stages. I started jotting down a few notes about comments that seemed interesting or relevant to New Orleans’ situation, and ended up with 4 1/2 pages. I’ll try not to go into excruciating detail, but the Mexico City experience is so much food for thought I expect I’ll be chewing on this for a long time to come. So rather than attempt a blow-by-blow comparison of similar events here and there, here are a few points that especially stood out for me (in no particular order):

  • Responding to the title of the series, Davis argued that it’s not quite the case that cities are resilient. Rather, cities have multiple resiliencies, and some are less desirable than others. Corrupt intstitutions for instance, or violent crime. On the other hand, the resiliency of neighborhood and grassroots organizations was remarkable – even if they didn’t achieve everything they wanted or deserved, their political impact was definitely felt after the first faltering efforts that “followed the logic of money and power.”

  • Citizens asked, “is it possible that we can believe in the efficacy of the government, when it was the people who did everything?” Their questions were the beginning of the end of one-party rule, and did eventually bring about somewhat more participatory democratic institutions and greater accountibility.
  • Questions about urban recovery shouldn’t be limited to how cities recover; we should also ask what they recover. Since the center of the city, the concentration of the political, social, historical, cultural, and economic character of the city as a whole, was most severely affected, what exactly that character was and what it should become were hotly contested.
  • Failure to come up with a coherent, easily implementable recovery plan wasn’t due merely to the very real shortcomings of the local and national government of the time, but also to the competing priorities of different populations and the political pressure they applied. Less damaged areas pushed for more “macroeconomic” concerns while the homeless were still fighting for shelter; debates raged on whether low-income housing should be rebuilt in place, in long-standing downtown neighborhoods, or whether that would discourage higher-end downtown redevelopment with a focus on tourism and offices – again, the character of more than just buildings was at issue.
  • There’s conflict inherent in recovery – ignoring that fact won’t make it go away.
  • Dignity, la dignidad, was the rallying cry for citizens’ groups. They lobbied for specific material needs as well, and for government accountibility, but the recovery of dignity was the vital underpinning of all those efforts.
  • Although admirable concessions were achieved in housing policy, distribution of housing and assistance were still uneven in some respects, and that unevenness has had long-lasting effects, including exacerbating violent rivalries among street vendors, and the persistance of tent cities for years in some areas.
  • Many downtown hotels and private office buildings were left unattended for years to come. There’s been a resurgence of activity and investment in the area more recently, but there are still spots here and there, two or three blocks in size, that have been untouched since 1985, just a stone’s throw from thriving, rebuilt districts.
  • I could go on and on, but I’ll stop myself for now. I’m curious to know what anyone else thinks about the lecture, or about the Mexico City recovery experience in general.

    L 99 99 99

    That was more or less what my screen looked like the other day when I attempted to boot up. The 99′s ran to almost half the screen, taunting me without so much as an obscure command prompt or any sort of option whatsoever. I did what any sensible person would do – flew into a blind panic. What was this? Some hideous new White Album virus? Was the Number 9 all I’d ever see again on this machine (well, an L too, but that wasn’t very reassuring)? Turn me on dead man, indeed.

    I couldn’t. Thankfully, after laboriously accessing google through on my teeny-weeny cell phone screen, I found (and was actually able to read, after a fashion) this post, which reassured me that this was not a virus or any such thing – just a hexadecimal error message. Thanks a million, Josh Highlands Blog – or rather, thanks 99 99 99. I had uninstalled Linux some weeks earlier, and long story really short, my Master Boot Record was exposed somehow to overwriting or something like that. Unfortunately, IBM Thinkpads don’t come with a Windows CD – in their infinite wisdom, they put the rescue and recovery business on the hard drive, in a special hidden “pre-desktop” area for those idiots who misplace their Windows disks. Well, the pre-desktop area was exactly what I couldn’t access, and although once upon a time I’d made my own set of recovery disks, I’m that idiot who misplaced them (I’m not even sure that they would have done the trick). Booting from an installation disk and running FIXMBR was not going to be quite so easy.

    I called around to see if anyone else I knew with Windows XP still had their installation disks, but wasn’t having any luck, and I kept scouring the web for any alternative solutions. Fortunately, after I got crabbier and crabbier, Alan found a solution while I was at the grocery store, muttering Luddite curses under my breath, and I’m back in action again.

    Of course, this L 99 99 99 business isn’t really the fault of Linux. After all, it came after the uninstall – well after. I’ve dabbled with Linux for several years, and for relatively long stretches of time I’ve used it as my primary OS. I’ve sung the praises of Open Source (and still do), and I’ve even enjoyed the many challenges of finding and installing the appropriate drivers to make fiddly hardware work. I found I wasn’t one to relaxen und watchen das blinkenlights, and gefingerpoken und mittengrabben have brought me close to schnappen der springenwerk, blowenfusen und poppencorken mit spitzensparken more than once. Ironically, my first installation was by far the easiest, and they’ve gotten more difficult with each subsequent PC. Then again, the next attempts were on laptops, which are notoriously trickier. But I soldiered on, skirting disaster with partitioning tools and bootloaders and reams of competing advice, and generally came out OK. I always kept a Windows partition as well, for the occasional bit of software that had no Open Source alternative, but rarely needed it. Until I went wireless.

    I combed all the Linux for Laptop advice I could find, scoured everyone’s accounts of their installs on IBM T-series ThinkPads, and tried every avenue I could find. I’d battled with the “winmodem” issue in my first Linux install, which I ended up “solving” by buying a new modem (at 28.8, it was badly needing an upgrade by then anyway). It just wouldn’t work. Plugging in to DSL worked just fine, but I don’t have a laptop to just leave it tethered in one place, so I used the dearly-bought Linux partition less and less. I suppose by now there might be a solution, but I was just worn out with the constant searching required to catch my hardware up every time I upgraded. The Linux world is friendly enough not to throw around RTFM too often, but I’ve often wished there actually was an F-ing Manual somewhere. But Moses hasn’t come down from the mountain with that quite yet. Between the myriad flavors of GNU/Linux and the myriad flavors of hardware that vary even within the same make and model of PC, even the most patient, detailed, step-by-step accounts weren’t always enough for someone like me.

    I like to think I’m a relatively savvy user, but I’m no system administrator, and I’ve spun my wheels in perpetual “newbie” status. In fact, I think I’ve aged out of newbie, and I’m reduced to Linux Dilettante (Linuttante?). Not that I haven’t learned quite a bit about the Man Behind the Curtain by having to solve Linux installation problems, but I just don’t have the time and attention to spare any longer. I’ve had to admit defeat. Temporary, I hope. I’m back to cursing and fuming at XP, but at least I’m online cursing and fuming.

    It’s probably not a permanent abandonment – I keep hearing that the Linux desktop market is growing, which would seem to mean that the hardware and software conflicts that frustrate more “casual” users are getting sorted out faster and better, but then again, the immanent Linux desktop explosion has been “just around the corner” for years.

    So, Fare thee well my OS Linux, / And farewell for a while.