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Letting Go of New Orleans.

Sep
6
2005

New Orleans is gone. Do not rebuild New Orleans.
The arguments for New Orleans are self-evident, and will be repeated ad nauseum in the months to come. There are the arguments on behalf of the city itself: It is historical. It is a major port. It is an economic engine. It is the home of many people. Then there are the arguments on behalf of the rebuilding effort per se: that it is somehow a worthy act of defiance, ipso facto noble and American. There is much right with these arguments, but there is more wrong. Sane analysis is frequently absent in crises – and it is no exaggeration to state that this is America’s worst since 9/11 – but in the absence of a threatening enemy, we owe ourselves and the people of New Orleans the deliberation that was absent on the eve, and in the wake, of their catastrophe.


There is no question on the cultural and economic merits of New Orleans. Culturally, the city has been a font of much of what has become uniquely American civilization. Its musical influence is well-known; its literary influence has been profound; its architectural influence has been unique; and its role in the history of racial and intercultural relations within the United States is outstanding. New Orleans stands with great cities like Boston, Chicago and New York in having shaped the very concept and idea of the American nation. Economically, any city at the mouth of the great Mississippi basin would function as a vital port; that its delta lies athwart oil fields only heightens this importance.
So much for the history and economics of New Orleans. Let us now acknowledge two unspoken truths: most of that history is past, and the entirety of those economics is artificial. On the latter point, it is enough to note that the Mississippi river delta’s main channel, as with many such heavily-sedimented deltas, is apt to shift over time. When New Orleans arose as the major port of the North American gulf coast centuries past, the river met the sea where it is now. In the hundreds of years since, it has ceased wishing to do so. The steepest and most natural channel for the Mississippi is now the Atchafalaya river, with its steeper grade to the Gulf of Mexico, and long miles to the west of the port of New Orleans in which so much effort and infrastructure has been invested. The United States has invested titanic energies and ingenuity into thwarting the great river, lest New Orleans fade into insignificance with no outlet to the sea. We see the results today, with the city a shallow American Atlantis, and the work of decades of levees, dikes and pumps rendered for naught. (In a grim irony, the very act of control rendered New Orleans uniquely vulnerable to acts of terror.) America needs a port at the mouth of the Mississippi. With the port of New Orleans destroyed or degraded by the great flood, let the river go where it will – and let that port be at the mouth of the Atchafalaya, above sea level, and invulnerable to the present catastrophe until centuries of levees there have created another city in a low, lethal bowl.
The city having been destroyed, the economic argument for the reconstruction of New Orleans is gravely weak. But the cultural and historic arguments remain. These things, though, are past. New Orleans today – or rather, pre-Katrina – is among the most wretched cities of America, shot through with crime, poorly governed, and populated by an underclass of stupefying size and squalor. A recitation of statistics and stories barely suffices to tell the tale: In most indicators of child well-being, New Orleans reliably emerges near the bottom of the heap, with over 40% of children living in poverty. New Orleans’ poverty rate is roughly double the national average. New Orleans takes the legendary Lousiana corruption to new heights. New Orleans’ homicide rate is ten times the national average- rising while that of most other major cities are falling — and corrupt cops are among the killers. New Orleans’ adult illiteracy rate (defined here) is roughly 40%. Finally, New Orleans’ governance is pathetically poor in almost every way: this, one assumes, needs no substantiating linkage, but corpses at the city airport will serve as an illustrative example. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that New Orleans is a largely failed metropolis that brings more harm to its denizens than the salutary benefits of commerce and knowledge that cities are supposed to deliver.
None of this is to argue that the solution to urban blight and poverty is to annihilate the communities in which they occur. They are communities, and in an ideal world, we work to repair and strengthen them rather than eliminate them on the pretense that this is the same. But annihilation here is a fact, and we may now justly speak of an emergent New Orléanais diaspora. Let us help them; let us aid them; let us give them the relocation assistance that we give to refugees from outside our nation. Indeed, as they are our own, let us give them more. But let us not seek to re-create their old communities for its own sake without careful aforethought. They were often as not abodes of violence and ignorance, and inasmuch as the scattering of the New Orléanais smashes the power structures and milieus that abetted those evils, we might consider it a silver lining in a time of horrors.
The levees will be repaired, and New Orleans will be pumped dry in coming months. This is as it should be: people have a right to reclaim their property as best they may, and it is mere compassion to give them the chance. There is furthermore a national and community interest in the salvaging of records and historical items from the flood tide. That being done, though, the reclamation of New Orleans ought to end there. The Mississippi should be freed. The levees should be maintained: it will be simpler to maintain them once the great river’s main channel no longer flows past the city, and it is a basic duty of governance, even for conservatives, to render the land livable within reason. That being done, no further effort should be made to restore New Orleans to the status quo ante. Economics will depopulate it as the port withers; and incentives may be offered to the now-scattered residents to build new and better lives elsewhere. What remains will be a Williamsburg of the Mississippi delta: historic, preserved, kept alive purely by tourism – and small. This is just, and it is for the best.
There is a final cardinal reason we ought not rebuild New Orleans: government at every level has shown itself wholly incompetent to the task. We will visit this point shortly.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 1:39 AM | Permalink

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