The Wealthiest City in the Carribbean – and other housing tales

I’m back on my couch beside a snoozing M.A.S., after we got up at 5:45 am this morning to fly from Raleigh,NC home. Of course, in this wintry post-Jet Blue world, our 9 am flight was delayed three hours, and with commuting via T from the airport, it was 4:45 pm before we finally came through my door. I’m not much longer for this day myself.

But of course, there’s a whirlwind of thoughts going through my mind, spurred in part by spending the weekend in an American exurban subdivision, one from which the M.A.S.’s sister has wracked up 83k miles on her car in only three years in her daily commutes between home, work and leisure. I’m not a great navigator in M.A.S. road trips by any stretch (I’m definitely a driver, and not one who’s keen on asking directions), but I was particularly pitiful this weekend with nothing but fields and farms and sparsely dispersed strip malls as my landmarks.

Needless to say, I was out of my element among the highway culture and no Starbucks in sight, even if the M.A.S. clan and friends offer rich conversation on cities and planning and keep me busy trying to keep pace with their family dynamics. But then he and I took a road trip Sunday to Greensboro and, along with my latest academic read, we were back in more familiar territory of exploring urban history, decline, struggle and activism. We also visited with my lovely friend K and her delightful new babe, and I got to give more yummy baby clothes in my role as Auntie Redstar, you know the glamorous one with the retail addiction.

And after seeing his sister’s custom built home with the paint on the walls and the china in the hutch, I am back on my couch confronted again with my own need to paint my condo and renovate my kitchen. Some people find the prospect of design exciting. I dread it, and can only think, irritably, what a hassle.

Meanwhile, tonight on the Newshour (far be it from this NPR-junkie to defame the M.A.S.’s treasured news program, but I think it’s BO-RING…I mean their investigative journalism doesn’t even involve blacking out people’s faces and protecting my consumer rights!), they talked about the lagging, abysmal performance of the Louisiana’s Road Home rebuilding program, so New Orleanians can’t even roll up their sleeves and fix up their own homes or even grumble about having to do so. My perspective is that the program kicked off with too much emphasis and worry about fraud in an effort to combat stereotypes of local government corruption, and that combined with already byzantine legal and building rules in an evolving post-storm world, that it’s 1% success rate is not surprising, if totally dismaying. Never mind that the state allocated to homeowners the bulk of the federal funds received for individuals, virtually eliminating more than 50% of the individuals impacted in the Greater New Orleans area, which sustained the worst of the damage throughout the state. Beyond its performance, the program is uncreative, and unresponsive to a significant percentage of its population.

Instead, I found this recent article by Cuban Andreas Duany about rebuilding New Orleans more compelling. Surprisingly, because I am not a fan of his Miami-based, new urbanist work.

(e.g., by TSW)

But he’s got a lot of the essence right about the Crescent City in this piece, in which he stresses the Carribbean aspects of NOLA culture, and how that links to people building their own homes, affordably, to fit with the climate, culture and lifestyle in the city.

Some of his analysis will seem anathema to U.S. readers:

The lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure.

There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life. (my emphases)

This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off� houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.

What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated…the professionalism of it all—eliminates self-building. Without this there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn’t mean just owing money—it is the elimination of the culture that arises from leisure.

But it resonates with me. With much of this I agree, am envious, as he describes, have tasted this way of life in Africa, even within my family, where members remain poor, or are comfortable but have accepted less money in life in union and teaching jobs that offer fewer hours and more leisure time for friends and family. And seek to create some piece of that life for myself even as I pull all nighters to build a reputation in the ruthlessly competitive academy.

But then he arrives at this conclusion, and I pause:

To start I would recommend 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.

However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently this 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. Of course, this is not for everybody. There are plenty of people in New Orleans who follow the conventional American eight-hour workday. But the culture of this city does not flow from them; they may provide the backbone of New Orleans but not its heart.

Suddenly we are back around to American anti-government, individualism and self-determination, not condemnable characteristics on their own, but aspects of our society that seem to have run rampant in the last three decades as we’ve abdicated caring for the vulnerable and marginalized to the market. Such as those in New Orleans of whom Duany speaks so fondly, and over whom I subject you to long-winded blog posts. And I’m not sure a platform of “opting out,” while admirable in its intent to keep the city affordable and culturally alive, is the best political strategy for a place that feels so ignored even as it still prides itself on its individuality. Furthermore, “opting out” is more or less occurring anyway, as neighborhoods and residents take matters into their own hands, and rebuild with the assistance of kin, community institutions, and friends.

New Orleans seems like the time for coordinated and strong government, if ever we needed it, though Duany’s point at how our current government programs can end up thwarting all our best intentions, is very well taken.


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