Wednesday, September 14, 2005

More on the future of New Orleans

Joel Garreau, author of Edge City and The Nine Nations of North America, wrote an article in Sunday's Washington Post exploring the future - or lack thereof - of The Big Easy. It is interesting to compare his take on the city's future with George Friedman's Stratfor article that I referenced last week. Friedman argues that, since a port at the mouth of the Mississippi River is critically important to the nation's economy, and ports need cities to support them, New Orleans will be rebuilt. Garreau agrees with the need for the port but is not convinced of the need for a city, because modern port operations are extremely automated and do not employ enough people to support a large city. Garreau argues that “a thriving port is not the same thing as a thriving city” and that New Orleans, with its high office vacancy rates, tourist-reliant economy, and crippling poverty, was anything but thriving. “The city of New Orleans has for years resembled Venice -- a beloved tourist attraction but not a driver of global trade,” he writes. Garreau looks back at Babylon, Carthage and Pompeii to remind us that “cities are not forever:”

What the city of New Orleans is really up against, however, is the set of economic, historic, social, technological and geological forces that have shaped fixed settlements for 8,000 years. Its necessity is no longer obvious to many stakeholders with the money to rebuild it, from the oil industry, to the grain industry, to the commercial real estate industry, to the global insurance industry, to the politicians.

Garreau is among those (such as myself) who suggest that New Orleans, with its population scattered across the nation – “the biggest resettlement in American history,” according to Rice professor Stephen Kleinberg in this Christian Science Monitor article – might end up much like Galveston did after the 1900 hurricane. “Galveston today is a charming tourist and entertainment destination, but it never returned to its old commercial glory,” he writes. “In part, that’s because the leaders of Houston took one look at what the at what the hurricane had wrought and concluded a barrier island might not be the best place to build the major metropolis that a growing east central Texas was going to need.”

This sentiment is echoed by an article in Tuesday’s USA Today regarding the instant boomtown of Baton Rouge, which is currently Louisiana’s largest city as well as its commercial center. The city is in the process of absorbing 200,000 new residents and at least two thousand businesses from New Orleans. Displaced companies are setting up shop in whatever space they can find, even abandoned grocery stores, and rental rates are skyrocketing. Homes are selling, oftentimes sight unseen, for $500,000 in cash. The city is choked with traffic. Schools are overcrowded. Hotels are all booked. Airlines are adding flights from Chicago, St. Louis and Newark. 

While Baton Rouge residents worry the boom may be temporary until New Orleans is rebuilt, the aftermath of another deadly hurricane may point to a different outcome.

A devastating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, forced a massive exodus of people and businesses to what was then a small community: Houston. Now, Baton Rouge is competing head-to-head with Houston, the fourth-largest city, with a population of 2 million, for businesses that are thinking twice about returning to New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina will be remembered for a lot of things, from its unspeakable devastation to its horrific human toll to its virtual destruction of a major American city to the miserably bungled federal, state and local response in its wake. But it will also be remembered for the profound demographic, economic and social changes it created – not just along the Gulf Coast but nationwide – as it scattered hundreds of thousands of displaced people across the country in a matter of weeks and permanently altered the urban hierarchy of the region, as cities like Baton Rouge, Jackson, Shreveport and Houston absorbed the people and businesses of New Orleans.The true effects of Katrina can only be accurately evaluated in retrospect, but its hard not to believe that this disaster will go down as one of the most monumental and pivotal events in US history. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. Ten years later, how accurate was this? It turns out that the hurricane's effect on Baton Rouge was short-lived; Katrina evacuees eventually returned to New Orleans and Baton Rouge's 2010 population was not significantly larger than its 2000 population. Those flights to places like Chicago, Newark and Denver were canceled a few years after they were started.)

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