Entries for the 'Repopulation' Category

Opt Out Zone

March 6th, 2007

photo by Fiona Cooper

A belated hat-tip to Maitri for pointing out that the glowing quotes from Andres Duany about New Orleans being “the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities,” and singing the praises of our music, food and culture are excerpted from a BusinessWeek.com article culminating in the recommendation of

“…an experimental ‘opt-out zone’: areas where one ‘contracts out’ of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing – solving a problem that it created in the first place.”

There’s another name for the sort of “opt-out zone” he’s proposing, and that’s shantytown (he’s not the only one: economist Tyler Cowen explicitly suggests a shantytown reconstruction here). Duany, who is famously prickly about affordable housing (preferring, in true New Urbanist form, fantasies of past “good” poor neighborhoods bustling with Sesame Street-like cheerful activity), has finally announced what sort of decanter he’d like to pour the monoculture of poverty into, but he hasn’t yet proposed where to put it. Probably not in the vicinity of the Cuban-esque Marigny Creole Cottage that inspired his epiphany about New Orleans culture.

Another of Duany’s good-old-days fantasies is that:

“Until recently this [building by one's self, or by barter] was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option,”

forgetting that if one’s home burned down, flooded or collapsed, one was left with nothing, however individually responsible one was. Also forgetting that New Orleans’ building-code history actually pre-dates our Anglo-American period that Duany insists will kill our culture – when the Spanish acquired Louisiana and decided it was a bad idea to keep letting the Vieux Carre burn down every few years.

Could there be less red tape in permitting? Of course. Is building according to safety standards more expensive than not? Naturally. Will debt be hard to bear for those who must rebuild or restore homes that were previously paid off? Afraid so, although it seems like addressing that problem ought to entail putting insurance companies feet to the fire, eliminating the Road Home restriction to awards based on “pre-storm value” rather than real rebuilding costs, and holding the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for its negligence, before throwing up our hands in defeat and suggesting that standards and safety should be considered luxury commodities.

The materials for these new pioneer opt-out homes had better be damn cheap or free (maybe salvaged off of the moldering ruins of abandoned properties – blight and affordable housing, two birds with one stone!), since no lending institution is going to approve even a modest amount for a building with no insurance, which is another item this experimental zone will be opting out of. (And, should another disaster occur, the naysayers who question New Orleans’ “right” to exist in the first place will crow the world’s loudest told-you-so.) Will Entergy turn the gas and lights on with no assurance that the wiring etc. was professionally done? (No doubt it’s more romantically Caribbean to dine by candlelight.)

No insurance also means no legitimate business even if one has the means to start up without a loan. Liability, workers comp, and other forms of insurance required are hardly likely to be obtainable either, let alone business, as opposed to building, permits. But no matter – illegitimate business is full of the plucky New World entrepreneurial spirit, and organized crime already loves “lending” and “insuring.” Maitri wrote that one of her first thoughts on reading about what a well-run Caribbean city we have was “tell this to the families of murder victims whose killers walk the streets due to inefficient government.” A criminal justice system is one of our government “nannies,” and ours is so abysmal right now that faced with an Opt Out Zone, opting out is probably what it would do too.

Maitri explains better than I can how wrong it is to conflate laissez-faire culture with laissez-faire governance – under the latter, the bon temps doesn’t roule so well. But beneath the fawning over the Caribbean value of enjoying quality of life before retirement, sometimes by sacrificing a bigger salary (but not necessarily by not working much, as he implies – someone should remind him of how much laundry gets done on Mondays while those red beans are slowly simmering) laissez-faire economics are what “New Orleans: The Wealthiest City of the Caribbean” is all about. And plenty of lives were just as nasty, brutish and short in the Old Free-For-All Urbanism that the New kind selectively appeals to as they are now (what shall we opt out of next? child labor laws? wouldn’t little chimney sweeps be cute, crawling up the flues of all those gas- and electric-free houses? how retro).

Someone please tell me that The Onion bought BusinessWeek, and a super-star urban planner did not just go down that road, or I’m going to have to opt out of what little sanity I have left.

To everyone who doesn’t think repopulation is an issue; to everyone satisfied with a half-size New Orleans, who think it’s for the best economically, socially, and risk-wise; your fondest wish is about to come true – if you live anywhere on the East Bank, you too could be a participant in the grand “house swap” proposals promoted by the “clustering” crowd. Get ready to trade your Uptown townhouse, your Warehouse District loft, your Marigny Creole Cottage – whatever you call home right now – for whatever’s available wherever they’ll have you on the West Bank, because the White House is recommending that as much as $978 million be moved from East Bank Orleans Parish flood wall improvement, levee raising, and breach repair budgets to West Bank flood control projects, with no commitment to when, how or whether they’ll restore those funds. (Perhaps even worse, the Corps says that’s OK, because they weren’t going to be able to spend that money by the end of their fiscal year – September 30 – anyway. “They say they need more time to finish designing.” I beg your pardon? You can’t find any levee repairs projects to spend money on? Clearly they’ve assigned their best designers the job.)

Now, this isn’t to say the West Bank doesn’t have legitimate, urgent even, flood control needs. But as even Senator Vitter noted, this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Read between the lines: “Why pay to protect the bulk of the city that’s basically empty, or horror of horrors, encourage people to come back to it?” In a classic example of the recency effect logical fallacy, funding will go to the areas that are “safe” because they weren’t utterly devastated all that lately. But also because they’re presently populated.

No repopulation effort, no more East Bank New Orleans. And Peter hasn’t got much more to steal, for Paul’s sake or anyone else’s.