Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Bus Ride with the Mayor

Today I was able to jump onto one of the two buses heading out on a tour of 17 designated Recovery Zones in New Orleans. Mayor Nagin, "Recovery Czar" Ed Blakely, and others were on the first bus- I was one the second with a few friends and other interested folks. It was a quick tour around New Orleans with a police motorcycle escor guiding us through red lights.

I was seated in the back near the motor, so I wasn't able to catch a lot of what our guide was saying. The way our guide (who's name I didn't catch) described the Recovery Zones was that they are "like dropping a stone in a pond," with the intended effect of making recovery/rebuilding/renewing a ripple effect in areas around the 17 zones. This generally makes sense and has been seen over and over again in cities- an anchor attraction leads to a center of urban renewal, which slowly expands block by block. I lived in Columbia Heights in DC a few years after a metro station was opened there. As I walked to the subway in the mornings, the homes and shops got nicer with each block. The neighbors near the brickstone we were renting said their property taxes had been skyrocketing as pressure built on their block for renovations and redevelopment- which could be good or bad depending on what one hopes to do with one's property. In any case, this is the type of situation New Orleans hopes its 17 Recovery Zones, spread throughout the city, will initiate.

Jeanette's home, where I worked for 3 weeks in February, is three blocks from the border of one of the recovery zones, "I-10 and Carrollton." It is encouraging to see this area targeted. It is full of entire square blocks that are paved and empty- not even used for parking. It was once a "vibrant" neighborhood, as our guide put it, until I-10 was built through it. Now they are hoping to rebuild a shopping center in its center, an idea which evidently received very positive receptions at a development conference in Las Vegas some city employees recently attended.

Our guide spoke of "making the city more friendly to developers" and about "redefining land use patterns," but neglected to add much detail about how these things might be done or what exactly they mean.

Zach noted that many of the federal monies and incentives meant to entice redevelopment are contigent upon the hiring of "local labor." Local is evidently limited to an area smaller than a zip code, which is encouraging- it means the people who live in the redevelopment areas stand a good chance of benefitting from it in more than one way. I don't know enough about the details to make a real judgment, however.

The guide also mentioned "decentralizing tourism" to give more tourist a "local flavor," which is great. Most tourists see the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, but not much else. In February and during all of Carnival I spent only a night or two in that area, instead seeing the parades in the family-friendly Uptown neighborhood. new Orleans' reputation as a "sin city" isn't deserved outside of Bourbon Street, and hopefully these efforts might help more tourists find that out for themselves.

A local on the bus I spoke with stated towards the end, "there are still so many question marks in this whole thing." He couldn't be more right. The idea from afar sounds smart and workable, but the details in all this will determine how successful it really is- and for now I don't have any details. In addition, there are the major questions hovering over the heads of most New Orleanians: what will the next hurricane show about our recovery efforts? When will it hit? Can the federal and state governments work out the problem they have with cooperation? What about climate change and rising sea levels? Ultimately, there are so many unknowns that will affect this recovery process that it will involve much more than hard work. Cooperation, compromise, and a whole lot of luck will be important too.

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