Friday, January 13, 2006

Back to New Orleans

There’s good news and bad news from New Orleans some four-plus months after Hurricane Katrina devastated America’s most distinctive city.

Herewith an update:

* A long-awaited rebuilding plan was trotted out by a blue-ribbon panel this week.

The Bring Back new Orleans Commission recommends closing down neighborhoods within a year if not enough residents come back, creating a new Jazz District, building a light rail system and eliminating a 76-mile long shipping channel along the city’s eastern edge that was blamed for much of the post-Katrina flooding.

Predictably, the neighborhoods provision is the most controversial.

The city will not prevent residents from returning to flood-prone neighborhoods. But it’s unlikely that money from a $1.7 billion federal reconstruction fund will be available for such areas, which would become parks and marshlands if they are written off.

* The real-estate market is robust as evacuees return to the city.

The caveat is that only applies to areas that did not sustain serious flood damage. By one estimate, about 267,000 of the city’s 565,000 homes are uninhabitable.

* Parts of the old New Orleans survived the disaster and are open for business.

This includes the French Quarter and its many fabulous restaurants, although there is a shortage of cooks and kitchen and wait staff, many of whom are scattered around the country.

(And, yes, there will be a Mardi Gras.)

To my mind, the big question is whether what eventually emerges from the muck and mire is really New Orleans.

The answer undoubtedly will be “No.”

The Crescent City already was well in decline. At its height, it had 600,000 residents, but the population had dropped to 462,000 before Katrina because some neighborhoods were so blighted as to be uninhabitable. About 144,000 people live there now, but that number is expected to increase by only 100,000 by 2007 under the most optimistic estimates.

My fear is that New Orleans will become a sort of theme park with residential areas unaffordable to the majority of the city’s poorest residents, and there’s little that I’ve read or heard to disabuse me of that notion.

This is not all bad considering that the federal response to the disaster was by turns belated, bumbling and half hearted, and the mere existence of the city seemed to hang in the balance a few weeks ago.

Is a quasi New Orleans better than none at all? It pains me to say it, but I suppose so.

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