Rebuilding, and Redesigning, New Orleans

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Since Hurricane Katrina, there have been promises that New Orleans will be rebuilt. But those plans will also likely include a redesigned New Orleans. Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane's architecture program, says the city's "fine grain" must be preserved. Sociologist George Wooddell shares his pessimism that the population will return. Landscape architect Walter Hood, a University of California-Berkeley professor, says New Orleans must become a denser, more integrated city, both in race and class.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There is no question that the city of New Orleans has been devastated, and to many there is no question about New Orleans' future.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We'll rebuild the great city of New Orleans.

Mr. ADAM SHIPLEY (Music Director, Tipitina's): We will rebuild this city. It's just too much soul, too much of our hearts and our lives.

Governor KATHLEEN BABINEUX-BLANCO (Louisiana): We will recover, we will survive, we will rebuild.

Mr. IRWIN MAYFIELD (Trumpeter): We have to rebuild, we have to move forward. Cities must be resilient if we're going to show the resilience of our country.

BLOCK: That was New Orleans trumpeter Irwin Mayfield; before that, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineux-Blanco; Adam Shipley, the music director of the famous club Tipitina's, and President Bush--all of them in agreement that New Orleans should be rebuilt.

SIEGEL: But how to rebuild? Well, today we're going to hear some suggestions for ways to design a new New Orleans. First, Reed Kroloff, the dean of the architecture school at Tulane University in New Orleans. He says the city can be restored to its former grandeur, but it's critical to keep in mind a key detail about the city's unique architectural character, what he calls its `fine grain,'

Mr. REED KROLOFF (Dean, School of Architecture, Tulane University): By which I mean if you think of a piece of wood and you look at it, you can see the grain, and it's made of many, many, many pieces that create a whole. New Orleans is the same way because of the way property ownership was set up by the French a couple hundred years ago, trying to give everybody a thin, thin slice of the Mississippi River to carry their goods to market and made for a city that's a wonderful quilt of thin, thin, thin, thin slices. And it created a city full of remarkably narrow buildings placed very close to one another. So the average home in New Orleans is often no more than 25 feet wide and many, many of them 15 feet wide. And I think in rebuilding we must pay attention to this grain in order not to lose the character of the city.

SIEGEL: Just as a practical microcosm, a stretch of a few blocks of single-family homes that have been significantly under water now and that should be bulldozed--let's just say we can imagine this somewhere in the--near the lake.

Mr. KROLOFF: Sure.

SIEGEL: ...what do you do? Do you go back in and build a stretch of more single-family homes? Do you put in nicely designed, semi-attached or attached town homes? What's the approach to housing that you take?

Mr. KROLOFF: Well, I think it depends upon the area, of course, and the economics of the particular situation. Higher-income neighborhoods are going to be rebuilt, thanks to the availability of insurance, much like they were before. I think areas where we have moderate income and lower income we do have to look at different kinds of approaches. And I have to say there's a big difference between taking down a neighborhood that was built in 1966 and the neighborhood that was built in 1806, a big difference. There are very few neighborhoods in the United States--and I don't think Louisiana is any different--where there's tremendous architectural character in the later neighborhoods, developer-driven neighborhoods, whereas the 200- and 250-year-old neighborhoods we've got a lot of architectural character we need to protect.

SIEGEL: Is there also a hazard in our day of, let's say, the neo-precious, particularly when approaching a city that has a wonderful aesthetic to it?

Mr. KROLOFF: There's a terrible danger of it. The whole new urbanist movement, which is a group of architects and planners who believe that within the traditions of 19th century city planning in the United States are most, if not all, the answers to 21st city planning in the United States. And some of what they talk about is terrific, but it's wrapped far too often in this trekily sugarcoated, neo-precious architecture that tries to re-create your grandmother's hometown for no reason, other than that Americans are just besotted on historicism. They love historicism. If we let New Orleans do that, we're going to have a silly, Disney-fied, cartoon version, and the danger is very much present.

SIEGEL: That's Reed Kroloff, who is the dean of Tulane's architecture school.

BLOCK: Efforts to redesign a modern New Orleans may be irrelevant if the people don't return. New Orleans was a city of about 480,000. About 28 percent of those people lived below the poverty line. For them, it may not be easy to go home, says George Wooddell. He's a sociologist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and he's concerned that not enough people will move back into a rebuilt New Orleans.

Professor GEORGE WOODDELL (Sociologist, University of Louisiana): The latest announcement from the public schools in New Orleans says that schools won't be open this school year. Obviously you can't have a city without children. And if that's the case, then we have lots of families who are going to be putting down roots elsewhere and may see little reason to move back.

BLOCK: What could planners be doing, do you think, to try to entice them back, to make the city an attractive place to come home to?

Prof. WOODDELL: It's probably more a question of preventing people from preventing residents coming back. We're talking about a huge amount of land here. How many real estate brokers will be seeking out displaced people and offering them pennies on the dollar for their property? And how much property will then by those means become consolidated into the hands of a very few corporate interests? Way down the road you think about enticing them back, but first you have to make sure that it's possible for them to come back, make sure they do still own their property.

BLOCK: What about business? Who do you figure decides that New Orleans is still the place that they want to run their business from?

Prof. WOODDELL: Those who can have employees and customers/clients nearby, which is pretty much going to mean parts of the tourist industry, I think; certainly the port. We--I mean, that's a matter of national security, and the entire economy of the US depends on it. But I do not anticipate that the people who work at the port will, in fact, be living in New Orleans. I more expect them to move in either north of Lake Pontchartrain or across the river in Algiers.

BLOCK: If someone were to come to you, Professor Wooddell, and say `You've got a very dark view of what the future of this city is. Help us make it better. What can we do to restore this city, make it a vital place to live?' what are your solutions?

Prof. WOODDELL: Well, one thing I can't figure out a solution for is how to keep the displaced citizens of New Orleans from selling their property. If I could figure that out, then we'd have a prayer. Certainly, number one, build a sensible, rational, sane hurricane-protection system, not only for the city proper but the Ninth Ward as well and other places in and around the city. Probably step two is for some--no doubt it would have to be some federal government intervention toward the end of making loans and insurance available to those who wish to rebuild.

BLOCK: Could you say this is a tabula rasa, this is an opportunity, to completely rethink this city, make it a more equitable city, make it a city that is more integrated on any number of levels?

Prof. WOODDELL: Yes, sure, it is tabula rasa, and we can essentially do what we want with it. But the question, I suppose, is: What do we have the skill to do, and what do we have the will to do?

BLOCK: That's sociologist George Wooddell of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

SIEGEL: Walter Hood is a landscape architect, who's based in Oakland, California. He's focused much of his work on low-income neighborhoods and how design can build a stronger sense of community. He says that when New Orleans begins to make its rebuilding plans, it can look to other cities as examples of how to create more diverse neighborhoods.

Professor WALTER HOOD (Landscape Architecture, University of California, Berkeley): Ghettos are not good at either end, high end or low end. And so scattered housing has become a large planning mode for a lot of cities, where they take, you know, these neighborhoods that was once ghetto-ized--you have large populations and large pockets--and you try to mix them in with other types of housing. And this takes a lot of willingness, a compassion from other citizens who are willing to have their next door neighbors not be maybe of the same economic class as them, not be of the same race as them but be acceptant of them.

SIEGEL: Let's say you start with a vision. What's the next step in terms of moving from this ideal to a plan that one might be able to execute?

Prof. HOOD: Well, I think you have to begin to understand, OK, if we're going to live within a specific environment, how do we best build? It might be denser than we might expect--compact development vs. development that sprawls out. We might look at our transportation systems. But then I think it really requires a vision that we might have to live in a different way. The single-family, open-lot plan might not be the best physical plan for these areas. So it begins to suggest that architecture and planning might create a different type of housing typeology. And I think that's something we have to be willing to sort of acknowledge and really have the vision to sort of open ourselves up to ...(unintelligible) etc.

SIEGEL: So the message is, `You folks in the Garden District or in the French Quarter, your poorer fellow citizens of New Orleans perhaps will be living a lot closer in than they were before, a lot closer to you.'

Prof. HOOD: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's really interesting--I was thinking this morning there is a duality of life in a lot of these tourist towns, for no better word. You know, you can walk around and enjoy the sights, and you don't really see where the help live, so to speak. And there are places in Charleston--a bell captain was telling me at a hotel, you know, `Don't go five blocks north.' And I'm like, `Why?' And you go five blocks north and you all of a sudden see these are the enclaves of the working class that are supporting the backs of the tourism. And when you begin to mix these things up, you don't have this kind of segregated understanding of a place. You have a much more sort of diverse understanding of a place, the people. You have to invest in that social infrastructure. That social infrastructure is what runs the city. We should not be ashamed of that.

SIEGEL: Let's say that you could work on a plan to present to the authorities who will be considering the future of New Orleans, and you could pitch them on something that would lead toward a city that's in keeping with your values and with the value of compassion. What's the key point you make to that imaginary commission that hasn't been impaneled yet?

Prof. HOOD: I think one of the key things would be to look at New Orleans through its rich history--French Quarter, the Garden District, the transportation corridors--but to also pay the same amount of attention to that natural system--to the Mississippi River, you know, floating above your head; to the once marsh areas--and to begin to say, `How do we begin to construct an equilibrium here? How do we allow there to be some recharge, return some of the land that we know is at risk more to a state where it can be much more symbiotic while also thinking about the city in the same way that we've always thought of it, as this place of quality, of this place of rich history and try to spread that out?' But through that mix, you're going to have to make certain sacrifices.

SIEGEL: Well, Walter Hood, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. HOOD: All right, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Walter Hood. He's a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

BLOCK: We also spoke with sociologist George Wooddell of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Reed Kroloff, the dean of Tulane University's architecture school, all talking with us about the possibilities for rebuilding the city of New Orleans.

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