Building Blocks

Neighbor by neighbor, house by house, New Orleans struggles on

Another widespread theme is suspicion of the official recovery process, and of wealthy developers widely believed to have the inside track. The convoluted path connecting neighborhoods like Mid-City with federal funds granted to rebuild them opened in October. Mayor Nagin assembled the business-heavy Bring New Orleans Back commission, chaired by Joe Canizaro, a local developer who is a Pioneer-level Bush donor. The BNOB's plan, drafted by a Philadelphia consultant in January 2006, included stronger levees, regional light rail, more parks and a two-tiered neighborhood restoration process, based on flood zones. A report from the Urban Land Institute—of which Canizaro is also a board member—went still further in proposing shrinking the footprint of the city to higher ground.

But flooded neighborhoods like Gentilly and New Orleans East angrily rejected "greenspacing," the term for essentially removing people and houses permanently. The mayor backed off from both proposals; the BNOB plan failed to get FEMA money, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state's major funnel for federal money, withdrew its support.

At that point, the City Council announced that it and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a previously existing booster group, would hire Miami consultant Paul Lambert and New Orleanian Sheila Danzey to work with 49 flooded neighborhoods to draft their own recovery plans—due out nearly month. These plans, says Lambert, are substantially complete and surprisingly modest. "The first order of business is streets and basic infrastructure. For the poorest communities in particular they're looking for the basic quality of life services: streetlamps, sidewalks, decent schools, public housing properties."

Bart Everson's neighbor Craig has been back once or twice to muck out his house, but he's moving to Texas.
photo by Bart Everson/
Bart Everson's neighbor Craig has been back once or twice to muck out his house, but he's moving to Texas.

And yet another process is just getting off the ground. The Rockefeller Foundation awarded a $3.5 million grant to the Greater New Orleans Foundation to create a single plan for flooded and dry neighborhoods alike. The latest acronym, the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), hired New Orleans-based consultancy Concordia LLC, which started this month matching neighborhoods with several different planning teams. UNOP has strong support from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the largest single source of money for recovery, although the LRA has not yet committed to fund any particular proposal.

Officials with UNOP say they'll issue their plans, which they call "dreamscape for the future" projects, in early 2007. Lambert voiced his protest in a full-page ad in the Times-Picayune. "The money and the plans have been so slow in coming, the last thing people needed was another delay. My most important concern is that we shouldn't wait for the less damaged neighborhoods to catch up.”

People in New Orleans these days have little patience with dreamscapes. Everson calls UNOP a "boondoggle." Elizabeth Cook, a public housing activist, says that "it's window dressing for the real game: Make as much land available for wealthy developers as possible." Nikki Najiola, founder of a neighborhood organization in the flooded area of Gentilly, says, "Whatever is going to happen here, it's not going to be a bureaucracy, it's not going to be a government agency, it's going to be on the backs of the people that are living there."

Meanwhile, the floodwaters are long gone, and yet the seepage continues. From Uptown to the Treme, corroded pipes are leaking drinking water that drowns the grass and spills a bloom of algae across the sidewalk. It's been estimated the pipes are losing 70 percent of all the water they carry. It's as good a metaphor as any for both the breakdown and the recovery process—not a flow, but a trickle.

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