Posted by R. Neal

Our pal Toby Applegate is pursuing his PhD in Geography at Rutgers and wrote this research paper on New Orleans housing in the wake of Katrina. [Ed. note: the paper was an assignment for a seminar on Natural Hazards and not intended for publication.] It's an interesting paper about the historical and cultural aspects of New Orleans architecture in relation to the social and political interactions influencing the reconstruction. The entire paper is worth a read, but here's an excerpt that gets to the heart of the matter:

Housing has been an issue throughout New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane and its subsequent flooding. The sorts of housing that one finds in New Orleans run the breadth of American urban housing spectrum in terms of wealth from antebellum mansions to middle-class bungalows, from public housing to shotgun houses, from modern high rises to the oldest of Creole townhouses. The very fact that these houses exist is a testament that memory and cultural traditions are important to New Orleans residents, but also as a testament that poverty shapes a cultural landscape as readily as wealth. Therefore the sort of housing that the poor or those who remember poverty occupy might only be the sorriest of public housing projects, or, in the case of New Orleans, important vernacular [ed. note: "folk architecture"] houses that provide shelter and act as markers of identity on that cultural landscape.

Under the pall of a disaster, these houses do not serve to insulate their residents from the dissonance and disorder that follows. These houses ability to beam their cultural significance out to the world fails as quickly as their forms that do not protect them from flooding fail. The everyday quality of their existence is not enough to insulate them from their vulnerability. What is readily known about them becomes ambiguous. They become 'death traps' not shelters. They become 'rooftops' not 'double galleries.' They become 'shells' not structures. When their everyday, practical reality becomes ambiguous and (dis)order becomes the reality of a flooded neighborhood, how that (dis)order and its attendant reordering of the landscape plays out might be the subject of reinterpreting and recasting what that everyday life was like.

When the geography of a place is known so well, it is easily assumed that order can return in a fairly well understood and normal way. The people who remain or return would easily recognize the everyday aspects of the place they call home, but the wholly ambiguous nature of a disaster combined with the subjectivity of its victims can render this view of a place not so much impossible, but so utterly changed that what is similar to what existed before might not be so easily seen. The point here is that no place where people live goes unchanged by a disaster. The everyday cannot return to way it was ever. But, in the case of New Orleans, everyday life can be recapture to re-empower people who have been rendered subject to the haze of the disaster.

And here's an interesting take on a feminist approach to reconstruction dialogue:

Recent scholarship directly calls for the wealth of materialist feminist knowledge to start speaking directly to women in everyday situations using language that facilitates and eases the communication between subjects (Pratt 2004). This is not expressly a talking down to people who are not trained feminist scholars, but a talking across to people who share uncertainties about the world and are ill served by power/knowledge relationships guided by masculinist agendas.

If a subversion of how reconstruction occurs in New Orleans using an optic guided by feminist approaches to knowledge then a clearer portrait of what is at stake for the very landscape itself. If only the measured and presumed rational voices that make plans and govern accordingly are only heard then the reality for the vernacular landscape is this: a reordering where those whose identities are bound up in that vernacular landscape by virtue of the houses through which they speak will cleave to those whose intent is to speak not of cultural process but of cultural desire. The African-American landscape of New Orleans will disappear into the well-appointed pied-a-terres of well heeled interlopers. The ground gained and so tentatively held in these neighborhoods and the markers of that territory will be lost to a reterritorialization by those who don't desire their culture, but desire their beauty. Possibly this optic of everyday life guided by feminist voices could offer a way to keep some measure of the past in the hands of those
who wrought it.

In view of some of the proposals being put forth in New Orleans and in Washington, this paper serves as a warning that social and political forces are aligned for a "land grab." Toby also cites this Economist article about the controversial decisions facing New Orleans:

A mass migration to higher ground would appear to make sense-and not just because nobody wants a repeat of last summer's disaster. For the foreseeable future, New Orleans will be a smaller city. The city's population, which rose above 600,000 in the mid-1960s, had declined to about 462,000 before Katrina emptied the town. The mayor's commission puts the current figure at 144,000, but expects the population to be only 247,000 by 2008.

Even before the hurricane, city agencies struggled to fight crime, mow grass and keep streets and waterpipes in working order. After losing much of its tax base, New Orleans may be too broke to provide services over the same geographical area. The cost of subsidising services for a few foolhardy souls could be better spent in potentially viable neighbourhoods. Most urban planners insist that the city must write off some areas for the rest to survive.

Here, however, logic runs into principle and racial politics. Many politicians feel queasy about violating the property rights of individual householders, some of whom are determined to return to their homes come what may. There are also accusations of racism. Most of the city's highest neighbourhoods are also its oldest, wealthiest and whitest. There are some exceptions-Lakeview, a rich white area, and Eastover, a rich black one, were both hit hard-but, in general, plans to shrink the city's size could mean the end of a lot of poor black neighbourhoods.

And on the same subject, here is an interesting NOLA Times Picayune series on how other cities have rebuilt following disasters and the lessons learned. It is, however, difficult to recall an event in modern American history that encompasses such a complex set of practical, social, political, racial, and class issues, or to comprehend the work that will be needed to recover from a natural and social disaster of this magnitude.

OK, then.