May 13th, 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.