A Visit to New Orleans

Nola Resize I hope.jpgThis photo shows a tour bus on what appears to be a “Katrina Devastation Tour” in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Virtually nothing has been reconstructed there, and a weekend visit evidenced lots of rebuilding to be done elsewhere in the city.

I’ve just gotten back from Nola, where I was celebrating a wedding of two friends. That was terrific, and the French Quarter is still going strong (I highly recommend Broussard’s for dinner and Palm Court for music.) But I had no idea what it meant for 80% of a city to flood, and for FEMA trailers to dominate the residential landscape over a year after the deluge.

What’s going on? I don’t have a deep grasp of the dynamics here, but one narrative kept repeating: the chicken & egg dynamic of residents not wanting to come back until businesses returned and businesses not wanting to re-open until residents returned. I stayed in a middle class enclave near the University of New Orleans, which apparently had cafes, fitness clubs, restaurants, and grocery stores before the storm—but all were still boarded up. The only food I passed was a mobile cart labeled “Pizza Milano.” So it’s no wonder many houses are abandoned, or fronted by the ubiquitous (and quite small) FEMA trailers.

In this way, Nola resembles many inner-cities that seem trapped in cycles of middle-class flight and declining amenities. I imagine there might be some good lessons for reconstruction from other cities that managed to revitalize.

Obviously government has a lot to do here, as a boatload of gallows humor reveals. Hartman & Squires’s collection “There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster” suggests the depth of local government dysfunction and malign federal neglect. Apparently hundreds of doctors are likely to leave Louisiana by the end of the year, due to a lack of hospitals and general uncertainty about Nola’s economic future.

I also noted a number of charities active, including ACORN and Catholic Charities in the Lower Ninth Ward. But when all’s said and done, the city has to get back on its feet economically. I think it’s important for people to have a sense of just how much would be lost if Nola fails to recover. I doubt I’ve ever been in a place with as much good live music, friendly people, and fantastic food. The architecture of the French Quarter is striking, and most of its streets free of the cookie-cutter corporate banality that makes so many other locales pale replicas of one another. (But for those of you who like that kind of stuff, there is a Hard Rock Café and an Urban Outfitters tucked away by the Mississippi River.)

The whole situation poses some of the same dilemmas that bothered me when I lived in some pretty marginal neighborhoods in Washington, DC. On one level, I wanted the Washington Post to cover the the social problems that plagued neighborhoods like Petworth and Shaw, in order to get the city government to respond. On the other hand, I also cringed when they did so, fearing that property values would take a hit and small businesses would get scared away. It seems to me that Nola has a similar problem–stories of just how dire the reconstruction situation are could drown out the more helpful (and equally true) positive message: that it’s still an amazing place to live in and visit.

Anyway, I’ll try to think a bit more about what law can do for Nola during the week. I’ve got to read the series of posts on the topic at Jurisdynamics to get my bearings…

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