Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Orleans: The Quiet Time is Turbulent

From Harry Shearer:

In the old, pre-disaster days, this week was the quiet time, the brief period (before the Sugar Bowl inundation) when the tourists left New Orleans, and the city belonged to the locals. Now as I drive or walk through the Quarter, my spirits lift when I see clumps of tourists, walking in shorts despite the few days of relatively frigid temperatures.

But the calm is disturbed by the impending climax of a long-simmering dispute. The local housing authority, taken over by federal HUD in 2002 due to long-standing management issues, is determined to raze four major public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments. In ordinary times, that might not have been a terrible idea, although, as the New York Times' architecture critic points out in a blistering attack on the program, these projects are not the sterile high-rise prisons of inner-city East Coast fame: they're two or three stories tall, solidly built, some with notable architectural pedigrees. They did commit the crime common to such projects--destroying the street grid, so that they are "communities" devoid of corner stores, corner bars, corner anythings, which are so intrinsic to the neighborhood fabric of New Orleans.

But these are not ordinary times. A hundred thousand people (at a minimum) remain evacuees from the city, at least 50,000 rental housing units were damaged or destroyed by the floods, and the best evidence is that a good number of the project apartments slated for demolition are actually or (with some work) potentially habitable.

The Times' Adam Nossiter, a day before, weighed in with a peculiar piece, asserting a trend--in this case, the exiles turning their backs on the city--while quoting only four individuals and one statistic. The latter--the dropoff in voting among exiles between the Mayoral election in May 2006 and the runoff election last October--is a peculiarly unconvincing piece of information, since the election for Mayor was widely viewed as a crucial one for the city's future (ironically, in terms of the result, which seems irrelevant to the city's future), whereas the October runoff was an anticlimax, in which voting statewide was down because the crucial race for governor had been decided in the primary weeks earlier. I'd cite, in contradiction to Nosser's reporting, the account of a friend who works in housing assistance in the city. She says her phone rings off the hook every day with calls from exiles desperate to return. But, with the supply of rental housing so depleted, rents have risen, and, Brad Pitt's best efforts notwithstanding, affordable housing in New Orleans is being destroyed, not rebuilt.

N.B.: The City Council votes on the proposed demolitions today (Thursday