Engaging the City—New Orleans: Strategies for a City in a Soft Land
After Katrina pulled back the lid on a hitherto invisible urban underclass and unimagined levels of civic failure last summer, America promised itself a vigorous national debate on poverty.
frieze, Issue 99, May 2006
After Katrina pulled back the lid on a hitherto invisible urban underclass and unimagined levels of civic failure last summer, America promised itself a vigorous national debate on poverty. That this collective soul-searching about how, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘so much want could exist amidst so much plenty’ never really gained traction is perhaps less surprising than the fact that so many people seemed oblivious to it in the first place. Nearly one year later, as the federal government looks the other way and another hurricane season approaches, the fact remains that while a Potemkin village semblance of normality has returned to New Orleans’ central tourist districts, 60 per cent of its population is gone, scattered in camps, trailer parks and temporary housing from Provo, Utah, to Augusta, Maine. Significantly, 80 per cent of this nationwide diaspora is African-American. There is a lot of impassioned talk about ‘rebuilding’ New Orleans, but in the absence of a clear federal mandate or national consensus about what kind of city should rise out of the devastation, the term ‘rebuilding’ remains as loaded as it does rhetorically pliable.
This may be why this round-table discussion at the august National Arts Club among architects and planners from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and Tulane University, New Orleans, was a standing-room-only and sometimes contentious affair, characterized by a palpable sense of professional urgency and eagerness on the part of the audience as much its participants. Organized as part of a monthly series called ‘Engaging the City’, the evening brought together Ila Berman, Joan Busquets and Felipe Correa, the authors of New Orleans: Strategies for a City in a Soft Land (2006), a book synthesizing a year-long examination of the confused infrastructure and delusional natural and urban environment of New Orleans. The joint project between the two universities was completed just weeks before Katrina hit, which may explain the level of occasional disconnect between those who came expecting in-depth expert solutions for a city’s possible rebirth and those presenting pre-Katrina findings on a staggeringly complex skein of overlapping ecological and artificial systems that were in dire straits even before the city’s destruction. Felipe Correa, design critic at the GSD, ran through a fascinating if abstruse slide-show examining the ‘regional fragmentation’, topographic morphology and architectonic relations of ‘edge to boundary’ in ways that before Katrina would have fascinated but in the current context came across as jargon-saturated academic disengagement. Joan Busquets, professor of planning and design at the GSD, took the historically long view in a discursive talk about the unlikely evolution of a loose networks of 18th-century plantations into an urban metroplex lying mainly below sea-level. Citing examples from the survival of Venice to Dutch reclamation projects, Busquets seemed to be of the upbeat humanistic opinion that imaginative hydro-engineering and communal flexibility would win out in the end. It was Berman, associate dean of urbanism at Tulane and newly appointed member of the Urban Design Committee of the Mayor’s Council in New Orleans, who was the most engaged with the grim realities on the ground in her city. While she floated controversial proposals about how a viable ‘New’ New Orleans might have to shrink to a dense ‘sliver city’ built on the scarce high ground along the Mississippi River’s banks while the lowlands revert to the flood plain that they are, she tacitly acknowledged that a smaller city may be built by and for those who have the economic means to shape it. The poor may not find any voice in that future.