Shifting Visions of a Rebuilt New Orleans
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now that some residents are coming back to New Orleans, thoughts are turning to rebuilding the city. Some estimates of the cost of recovery reach $200 billion. With all that potential money in the pipeline, many have grand visions. NPR's Jennifer Ludden met with a leading real estate developer who put forth a vision for reviving New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. Now he's being called on to help imagine the city's future.
JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:
It is striking here that no one ever says they want their old New Orleans back. Here's what a consortium of radio stations is putting on the air in something of a campaign to boost morale.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Announcer: And we will be back. We will rebuild a greater New Orleans with better schools, better housing, better opportunities for you and me. We...
LUDDEN: Better because, as one resident put it, it can't be any worse. The old New Orleans had some of the highest poverty and murder rates in the country, and so well before Hurricane Katrina was ever a blip on the radar screen, Pres Kabakoff was wrestling with how to make his hometown more liveable and attractive.
Mr. PRES KABAKOFF (Real Estate Developer): We're a very poor city. I think we made some strategic errors as the leadership of the community did.
LUDDEN: Kapakov is tall and laid back in sandals and jeans. He's evacuated his New Orleans office for now, setting up shop in a generic office block an hour south. Kapakov says New Orleans fancies itself the queen city of the Gulf Coast, but it doesn't compete well in the larger region. Houston made hospitals an industry, Miami's the international gateway to Latin America, and Nashville sold itself on music with, Kapakov points out, no more and certainly no better entertainers than New Orleans. Kapakov turns to his computer and a PowerPoint presentation called Operation Rebirth.
Mr. KABAKOFF: What we imagined was that if we could look like a Prague or a Paris where you can walk 50 or a hundred blocks and have an interesting experience the whole time.
LUDDEN: More precisely, Kapakov talks of an Afro-Caribbean Paris. There would be an African-American cultural district and more sites to take advantage of what New Orleans does best.
Mr. KABAKOFF: And so in the State Palace, for instance, which is a totally empty grand old theater today, what we're suggesting is actually renovating it into what we call a Louisiana music experience where gospel and jazz and rhythm and blues is highlighted, and with not only interactive video like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but also a great stage where the musicians could actually play for the public that wanted to come down and visit that site by streetcar, and then put next to it a food museum.
LUDDEN: Kapakov also wants more densely concentrated mixed-income housing, and he sees a greater need for this now since, he believes, not all the areas blighted by Katrina are likely to be rebuilt. All well and good, one might say, looking around this shell of a city, but Kapakov believes in an odd way Hurricane Katrina has improved the chances of a project like his. He says his original budget of 3 or $4 billion seemed staggering at the time. Now, with talk of $200 billion pouring in, why not? But he says the city must move fast.
Mr. KABAKOFF: Well, I know with 9/11 they're still talking about what they might do in that area. I don't think we can afford--this is a much more serious--I don't want to overstate it--but more serious than 9/11 in terms of losing population in the city, and so we need to send a message that we know where we're going, this is what we're going to do and as the federal money gets spent, it doesn't all get spent before you get to your long-range planning.
LUDDEN: New Orleans' developer Pres Kabakoff says given the horrible stories of loss wrought by Katrina, it's hard for him to get up in the morning and keep going after his dream city. It's easy to get discouraged, he says, but more important than ever that he doesn't. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, New Orleans.
MONTAGNE: At our Web site, npr.org, you can read about other American cities that have faced catastrophes and bounced back.
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