Worrisome signals from New Orleans

Posted by R. Neal

N.O. considers bypassing historic preservation law

An unsigned proclamation by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that would temporarily suspend the powers of city agencies that normally must sign off before buildings in the city's older neighborhoods can be torn down has preservationists fearing a spate of hasty demolitions of historic structures.


The proclamation seems to give the Nagin administration broader latitude to raze buildings in the city's older neighborhoods, not including the French Quarter. But city officials did not offer any explanation of why they sought the extra authority.

Nagin spokeswoman Sally Forman said the document "speaks for itself." She said she did not know whether the mayor plans to sign it.


Representatives of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and Preservation Resource Center expressed concern about the effects of the order, and Meg Lousteau, executive director of the landmarks group, said it might be challenged in court.
Janet Howard, president of the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research, questioned the wisdom of the proposal.

"Whether the city's damaged housing stock is something that can be preserved is a major issue that should be debated as part of a planning process," Howard said. "Eliminating the procedural safeguards for historic neighborhoods would be tantamount to making the decision before the community has had the discussions."

Howard compared the proposed suspension of the HDLC and other panels to Nagin's announcement last week -- without any public debate or discussion -- of a plan to create a casino zone along Canal and Poydras streets.

"These things should be flowing out of a planning process," she said.

Residents scatter with the wind

Sociologists say residents' decisions to return are based on a variety of factors, not the least of which is their attachment to the city.

"If you lived in Chicago or Los Angeles, you can go to most other cities and find McDonald's and frozen yogurt and Blockbuster and re-create that society you're used to," said Rick Duque, a sociology graduate student and lecturer at Louisiana State University, who has interviewed nearly 100 evacuees as part of a study in Baton Rouge. "New Orleans has this unique culture you just can't replicate anywhere else. There were many people who wouldn't leave their block during the storm, and that may explain why some people evacuated and some didn't. . . . A lot of people sort of just stay in risky situations because the risk of losing your place and your identity connected to that place is much more of a risk than losing your life."

At the same time, University of Louisiana at Lafayette sociology professor Bob Gramling noted how many of those residents who didn't have a way to evacuate before the storm were picked up outside the Superdome or the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and taken to places like Minneapolis, Minn. or Salt Lake City, Utah.

"The reason many people didn't evacuate is probably because they couldn't," he said. "And if they couldn't evacuate, they probably won't have the means to come back. . . . If there's no systematic way to try to encourage people to return, it may very well be that they never will, and that's something the mayor needs to consider."

City services to low-income families could also be better in other places, Gramling said. "It would be hard to find places worse than New Orleans was in terms of its public school system," he said.


Nagin and other city officials have said they expect the city to be vastly smaller once those still planning to return come back, with population estimates at 250,000 -- about half the residents the city had.

Still, Gramling concedes, there's no way to predict what will happen.

"There has been virtually no research on this because it's never happened before," he said. "There is no literature on it. We have literature on Third World countries, but those people don't lose the amount of stuff that people in the U.S. lose when their house floods. . . . It's unprecedented."

Business leaders looking for some answers

A group of 48 New Orleans business leaders met with about half a dozen state lawmakers in Houston on Tuesday to express their concerns about the city's future and the lack of clear communication about a hurricane recovery plan, according to people who attended the meeting.

Most of the business executives are living and working in the Texas oil town, pondering whether to move back to New Orleans.


[State Sen.] Hollis said the basic message from the business people was that "Every minute of every day, we're getting more comfortable over here" in Texas.

Foremost, the group was looking for concrete commitments that the New Orleans levee system would be repaired in a timely manner to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, Hollis and others said. The executives have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the company does not make investments that will be washed away by another storm, Hollis said.

In the meantime, the lack of a state income tax combined with the business-friendly environment and better schools in Texas have made the executives seriously question whether to return, Hollis said.

Clearly the region is still reeling from the disaster and is still in the process of digging out and restoring basic infrastructure. But there also appears to be a lack of vision and planning for the future. Or is there?