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After the flood: rebuilding the physical and social fabric

By Michael Sorkin

October 2005

How to comprehend the disaster of cities destroyed? It begins with the rush of analogies: the 9/11 attack, Baghdad, Dresden, the Chicago fire, Johnstown, Pompeii, the San Francisco quake. We assemble fragments and screen them on our own neighborhoods, imagining the high-water mark on our own streets, grappling with what would be lost here, speculating about the frayed ties and deepened bonds that a flood would produce. How would we deal—personally and collectively—with the lost commerce; the failure of public services such as power, water, and sewage; the unleashed misery; the greed?

 
 
  Flooding threatens New Orleans’s complex social ecologies as well as its buildings. Photo © AP photo/david j. Phillip.
   
 
  Residents with cars escaped on their own, while many of the poor needed to be rescued. Photo courtesy Federal Emergency Management Agency.
 

Living through 9/11 shapes my ability to assimilate the horror. Four years later, Ground Zero remains unreconstructed and controversial, a magnet for bad behavior. Only recently, ground was “broken” for the new transportation center designed by Santiago Calatrava. Just a few weeks ago, the city coughed up an enormous package of tax breaks to induce Goldman, Sachs to build its new headquarters near the site. Architects and developers preen. The memorial is un-started and its features still contested, caught in arguments that continue to bring out the worst in people, focused now on how much free expression is to be permitted in the shadow of the “Freedom Tower,” itself distilled to an imaginatively shriveled, heavily fortified symbol of triumphalist paranoia and real estate go-go.

Much of the early reaction to Katrina seems eerily familiar. Billions are appropriated for incompetent agencies of our government-hating government. Halliburton is to be further engorged with public funds, and money-grubbing lobbyists queue to the horizon. The New York Times runs a photo of a model of a house someone in Libeskind’s office roughed out to try to get a piece of the action in Sri Lanka: The architect hero is ready to save us once again. Accusations fly about intelligence failures, starting with the refusal of the federal government to take seriously study after study that pointed out the jeopardy to coast and levees from major storms, maliciously cutting the budget for reinforcing the system year after year in blithe denial. Coastal wetlands—indispensable barriers and biological engines—are disappearing at the rate of 50 square miles a year, ravished by development secured by taxpayer compensation for those vacation houses that predictably get knocked down again and again. Bush continues to deny the impact of global warming, which everyone else on the planet acknowledges is contributing to the frequency and energy of hurricanes, to rising water (7 inches in the last century, 18 to 36 predicted for this one), to the decomposing heat.

Recriminations are important, and important now. Like the Trade Center attack, it was an unnatural disaster that doomed New Orleans. The city came through Katrina’s wind and rain relatively intact, and citizens were already returning to the streets, relieved, when the levees were breached by the risen water of Lake Ponchartrain.

Bring on the media spectacle. Sensitive celebrity reporters tear up and jabber endlessly about the stench, as the screen shows creepy subtitles proclaiming “State of Emergency” and armed troops pass in the background. Bill O’Reilly and his cohort of self-righteous talking heads mount their high horses over the immorality of looters (Fox-speak for black folk), depicting them as part of a culture that simply awaited a hurricane to liberate them from constraint. But no one in the media questions his or her own fundamental role in the manufacture of the array of unsustainable longings that figure in the American dream. Their moral parsing is sanctimoniously fine: One pair of sneakers might be justified because of nakedness, the second pair proves the intrinsic immorality of the poor. After all, if these “people” had gotten the message of the commercials that helpfully punctuate the TV coverage and owned cars like the rest of us, they would have been easily out of there.

Now we must really help. The huge appropriations coming out of Congress must be used deliberately, wisely, expeditiously. Urgent needs for food, medicine, shelter, and repairs must be quickly and compassionately met. But Katrina has not simply created a need for compensation; the storm has raised crucial questions about how we’ve lived, how we will live. Reconstruction is not enough, not a sufficiently capacious category to guide the mass action that will both produce and define recovery. This is even more true now than it was after the 2001 attacks. While that disaster was enormous, its site was remarkably small, given the scale of the havoc. Reconstruction was charged with a huge weight of symbolism but never allowed to raise fundamental questions about the nature of New York’s form and development.

Biloxi and New Orleans do not have the same luxury of a little-questioned return to business as usual and a focus on the aesthetic niceties of a lavish program of commemoration, of simply tearing down the Superdome, as if it were a Republican Bastille. September 11 caused death on a massive scale, but little homelessness. Many lives were lost, few jobs. For the planners of the future of Ground Zero, the issues are circumscribed. Much of the energy of the post-9/11 debate has been liberated by the artfully narrowed parameters of the reconstruction, which never exceeded the apportionment of proper ratios of office and civic space and the apt forms of symbolic commemoration of an event of frighteningly and deliberately Manichean clarity. And even this cannot, it seems, be accomplished.

Rebuilding and renewing our Gulf will be much more difficult. Calls to bring on the bulldozers to complete Katrina’s remarkably focused urban renewal are irresponsible. New Orleans and Biloxi are treasures to be saved, not erased or reprocessed as Disneylands. And the ripped fabric is not simply architectural. New Orleans has the highest proportion of native-born citizens of any American city, and these connections in and to place down the generations are at the core of its genius. While it would be callous to talk about 9/11 or Katrina having “silver linings,” both have wiped slates clean. To reflexively reproduce the status quo ante without vigorously questioning both its values and its defects would slight the disaster and obscure the urgency of the opportunity. Reconstruction must be modeled at all appropriate scales, and the complex ecologies of regions, cities, neighborhoods, and architectures harmonized with art and care, slighting none. Coastal development must be dramatically regulated. Wetlands must be massively renewed. The levee system must be rebuilt to a standard raised to the level of experience. The social fabric of neighborhoods must be mended and people restored to comfortable and familiar surroundings, to reestablished continuities. Buildings must be repaired.

But this is not enough. The easy theodicy of justification and blame must be put aside in favor of work that focuses not simply on restoration but on making life better, more responsible, more attuned to the realities of our prosperity and to a renewed sense of our shared project as Americans. The discourse must become high-minded, not merely high-flown, and the opportunity to shape truly sustainable communities immediately engaged. This is ultimately not more than a strategy for survival, the question Katrina most vividly begs. There’s a powerful juxtaposition of the offshore city of glistening oil rigs (and the fantastical onshore refinery metropoles it supports)—all surely to be back online in no time, thanks to resources of a level never available to protect the public—with the stricken city ashore. This is the time to question the relationship radically, to reflect on the intimate connections between the fossil-fuel economy and the future of urban development.

Rebuilding must meditate decisively on sprawl and density, engage the role of renewables in powering our cities and lifestyles, act dramatically to expand public transportation, and revisit planning and building codes for sustainability and self-protection. Decisive, careful, and comprehensive planning is an imperative, the only way to mitigate the effects of outrageous poverty on the fabric and organization of the city, to recast urban organization along lines informed by 21st-century knowledge. It is the only way to deal with new pressures like the relocation onshore of the casinos that float along the Mississippi coast and the need to create new neighborhoods from scratch. Neglecting this is an affront to the dead and to the survivors.

And hope itself must be restored by making victims into collaborators in the creation of their own better futures, not simply spectators or consumers. A wonderfully encouraging moment in the midst of all the bleak coverage was a brief interview with a small contractor in New Orleans who was taped standing in front of a damaged house, visibly straining to get to work. Pleading for plywood and shingles, he put the urgency eloquently: “The faster we can build, the faster we can wake up from this nightmare.” Time for us to help.

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