08
Aug
06

The Sum of Personal Economic Decisions

Greetings from New Orleans, Willow Street dining room table.  Morning to all.  Are your windows steaming up from the absolute humidity outside?  It’s not even that hot; just wet.  I’d been warned about air this thick, but I couldn’t imagine it.  Last night exiting the airport to get a cab, it took a minute for the weather to hit me, to seep in, not unlike the time it takes for clothes to soak when hit with water. And then finally the sensation of, Jesus, it’s hot and THICK here.

But that’s just to give you a sense of the August weather as we sit 3 weeks out from the anniversary of Katrina.  As my 63 yr old African-American cab driver told me last night (prior to launching into a diatribe about his ex-wife and children), “only God knows” if another Katrina-level storm will hit this city.  And so folks move forward with planning and rebuilding and holding out hope that they’ll somehow recover their city, largely through their own individualized and mildly collective efforts.  The NY Times gives a sufficient if incomplete summary of the neighborhood planning process underway right now:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/08/arts/design/08buil.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

Though I prefer how the spokesperson from the Louisiana Recovery Authority (the LMDC equivalent here) summed it us at a neighborhood planning meeting weeks ago: “what it really boils down to is a personal economic decision.”

Or, more appropriately, thousands of personal economic decisions that hopefully sum to some sort of collective vision that addresses the flaws in the city’s physical and social environment that left it so vulnerable to Katrina in the first place.

And what a gruesome, frightening thought.  While I may be known as the capitalist in my pseudo-socialist department at MIT, my true titans of industry friends from Stern know that this concept does not sit well with me, and it shouldn’t with you either.  This mode of interpretation leads to the “hamlets” of existence the NY Times article describes, or what planners call the “jack o’ lantern” effect – where individual homes are rebuilt among abandoned ones, so that an aerial view offers a jack o’ lantern image of lights on among darkness.  For those of you with your homes in the NJ or MA suburbs, or your co-ops and condos in the city, imagine being the only one on your block, or on your floor, and then trying to get the services you need from the city without the critical mass of your community to demand it.  Sounds a little exhausting.

Of course, with a process like this, your fate and the fate of your neighborhood might be left in the hands of the neighborhood activists who typically bubble up in any civic conflict/debate.  You know them, the women sitting on the school committees, the men who hammer the signs into their front yards and speak up at town meetings, etc.  This planning process that the powers-that-be down here describe as “democratic” is really being pursued by a handful of returned New Orleanians with the time and means to attend the endless, mildly chaotic stream of meetings that comprises this planning process.  What’s remarkable about being a newcomer to a city of 150 – 250k people is how small that is and how quickly you recognize faces, know names, and start to understand how everyone’s connected.  Tracking this planning process,  I see the same faces over and over and over again, predominantly white, mostly women, leading the charge to save the various neighborhoods around the city.  So there’s your other option.  To have that busybody around the corner from you determining what gets built on the now vacant, adjacent lot to your house.

The NY Times points out a small positive to this process, that people are getting an education and a sense of civic engagement that they might not have experienced otherwise.  And this reminds me of the public planning processes that followed 9/11, the decision-making around the memorials, the ways I saw the small businesses organize and take care of one another in a spirit of solidarity following the attacks.  And in my Virgo way, I find it useful that people are keeping busy, participating, feeling industrious or productive or empowered.  But, all this does is set them up for the harsh reality that there’s no $$ for implementation of any of their suggestions, that all this running around brainstorming and planning is taking place alongside private deal-making, private investment and development efforts, of which the city is ceaselessly supportive since it has no $$ to chart its own course, and the state is spending the bulk of the recovery funds on individual homeowners (relatively unhelpful to a city/region that sustained the bulk of the storm’s damage but had a population of 2/3 renters).  Look at the still empty 16 acres at Ground Zero, where recent changes in authority and power and calls for cost cutting over just the memorial are the most recent dramas as we approach the 5 yr anniversary of 9/11.  For different reasons, rebuilding New Orleans is another exceedingly politically-charged initiative, like rebuilding Lower Manhattan.  And in both cases, its highly likely that all the efforts of individuals will come to naught while the powers-that-be drive (or stall) actual development.  The risk down here is that LA and New Orleans have so little resources that their ability to temper private decision-making with public initiative (like the Port Authority or the LMDC, though neither are known for speaking for the people) is extremely weak.  As it stands, this current privately-sponsored planning process overlaps with a City Council sponsored process that suited some residents just fine.   And the results of both will ultimately be “merged.”  Bottom line: it’s chaos down here.

And planners, hot or not, try to make sense of this chaos, whether we do it by co-opting a few neighborhood elites and making decisions behind closed doors, or whether we embed ourselves in the community for months on end to make sense of the various calls to action from different community factions.  It’s pretty fascinating, and like many of my faux-socialist planning colleagues, at least in the Gulf Coast I am longing for a revolution, a change in the power structure that puts some weight behind citizens’ desires. 

Of course, as Wesley pointed out to me this weekend, in my vision of revolution, I don’t want to overthrow the government, I want to be the government.  And with this I’m sure both my Stern AND planning friends would agree. 

 

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