Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Katrina envy

Ray of Hope

Nobody could have predicted there would be Katrina envy
A member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board is wishing for a "Hurricane Katrina" to strike and help clean up what she sees as her own corrupt city.

Kristen McQueary, who is an actual member of the Chicago Tribune's actual editorial board, met with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and somehow came away with the notion — well, I'm not sure what's more wrongheaded, that Katrina "fixed" things in New Orleans or that a Chicagoan would want the people of Chicago to go through something similar:
Envy isn't a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops.
So that's kind of jarring.  But is it really all that different from what we've heard from conservative pundits like Ms. McQueary right from the beginning of the post-K ordeal?  The right wing campaign to use the deaths of some 1800 people as an opportunity to "fix things" in New Orleans is not a difficult thread to trace.

For instance, here is an article by New York Times columnist David Brooks published on September 8, 2005.  Its headline is, "Katrina's Silver Lining" 
As a colleague of mine says, every crisis is an opportunity. And sure enough, Hurricane Katrina has given us an amazing chance to do something serious about urban poverty.

That's because Katrina was a natural disaster that interrupted a social disaster. It separated tens of thousands of poor people from the run-down, isolated neighborhoods in which they were trapped. It disrupted the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty.

It has created as close to a blank slate as we get in human affairs, and given us a chance to rebuild a city that wasn't working. We need to be realistic about how much we can actually change human behavior, but it would be a double tragedy if we didn't take advantage of these unique circumstances to do something that could serve as a spur to antipoverty programs nationwide.
Brooks goes on to recommend that a recovering New Orleans take as a model this social engineering experiment developed in (irony) Chicago. 
The most famous example of cultural integration is the Gautreaux program, in which poor families from Chicago were given the chance to move into suburban middle-class areas. The adults in these families did only slightly better than the adults left behind, but the children in the relocated families did much better.
So mere days after the storm, while flood waters are still actually draining out of the city, Brooks tells us that Katrina is an opportunity. It has provided us a "blank slate" to do "something serious about urban poverty."  And that serious thing we should do is move poor people out to the suburbs.  Scowl if you want but this was remarkably prescient. Especially for David Brooks.

At the same time that Brooks was writing that column, advice was also pouring in from libertarian think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute where tank thinker James Glassman could barely contain his enthusiasm for building "the ultimate libertarian city" upon our blank slate.
The inevitable commission that will oversee the rebuilding must realize that the world’s best designers, developers and innovators will be drawn to the city only if they are relatively unrestricted. New Orleans could become a laboratory for ideas like tax-free commercial zones and school reform. This is the ultimate libertarian city and the last thing it needs is top-down planning. Many of the city’s great attractions–the Jazz Festival, D-Day Museum and blackened redfish, for example–are of recent vintage.

I’m optimistic. New Orleans has a unique chance to make a fresh start and, in fact, become more like cities that do work (Chicago and Phoenix come to mind) while retaining its spirit of mystery, absurdity, beauty and decadence.
Brooks and Glassman were really proud of Chicago back then.  But now McQueary wants to "blank slate" it and start all over for some reason.  What the hell happened there?

In any case, such calls of opportunity did not go unheard locally.  They began to echo among our social and political leadership almost immediately.  Here is a quote from former Bring Back New Orleans Commissioner James Reiss I first read in September of 2005.
A few blocks from Mr. O'Dwyer, in an exclusive gated community known as Audubon Place, is the home of James Reiss, descendent of an old-line Uptown family. He fled Hurricane Katrina just before the storm and returned soon afterward by private helicopter. Mr. Reiss became wealthy as a supplier of electronic systems to shipbuilders, and he serves in Mayor Nagin's administration as chairman of the city's Regional Transit Authority. When New Orleans descended into a spiral of looting and anarchy, Mr. Reiss helicoptered in an Israeli security company to guard his Audubon Place house and those of his neighbors.

He says he has been in contact with about 40 other New Orleans business leaders since the storm. Tomorrow, he says, he and some of those leaders plan to be in Dallas, meeting with Mr. Nagin to begin mapping out a future for the city.

The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.

The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."
If you've followed this blog over the years you'll know I've never let it drop.  There I was hundreds of miles away still wondering what in New Orleans was left for me to come back to and already I could read about plans for a "new New Orleans" and who might be welcome back there.

And this became a regular theme among the city's well placed decision makers throughout the rebuilding process. Sometimes it would merely sit in the background as every NOLA Entrepreneur Week implicitly celebrated the replacement of the black middle class with younger whiter transplants and/or "volunteer entrepreneur" grifters. Or as the Cowen Intsitute or Leslie Jacobs regularly feted the firings of 7500 public school teachers.

Often, though, it was right out in the open. Shortly after the storm, Baton Rouge based Congressman Richard Baker expressed gratitude that "God" had finally "cleaned up public housing in New Orleans."

Pres Kabacoff might prefer Baker and God send some of the credit his way. Kabacoff hasn't minced words about the favors the flood did us either. For instance, there was the time he told us that poor people were a "drag on the city's economy" who needed to be moved out of the way of an "urban renaissance" led by his development company.   Or the time Kabacoff told us we didn't really want "the kind of people who if their refrigerator stops working their life falls apart" My fridge went out on me earlier this month.  If I hadn't managed to reset the motor myself, it would have been a pretty serious hardship. Maybe Katrina should have blown me out of here too.

It's not exactly clear what Ray Nagin meant in 2008 when he told a columnists' convention, "There is big money to be made in a storm."  Nagin eventually went to jail over relatively small beans. But Nagin did also spend a lot of time encouraging people to "buy some dirt" in post-Katrina New Orleans in anticipation of "this economic pie that is getting ready to explode."

These are things you might expect any cheerleading mayor to say.  Heck, they even turned out to be correct observations and sound investment advice.  But the boosterism in the wake of the disaster did jibe well enough with David Brooks's "silver lining" narrative to make the premise seem true to a lot of people.  Owen Courreges made a similar observation this week about Mayor Landrieu's own triumphalist rhetoric which has been burning at billion watt intensity all summer long.  
In his “State of the City” address given this past May, Mayor Mitch Landrieu boasted that New Orleans is “no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding.” Citing a laundry list of improved statistics, Landrieu continued: “It didn’t happen by accident. It is all part of our larger approach to government — cut, reorganize and then invest the savings in what matters most so we can grow.”
It's worth noting again that McQueary's "Chicago needs a Katrina" column was based on impressions formed during her audience with Landrieu.

Mitch isn't the only New Orleans ambassador sending these signals out into the world, though.  Here is a criminally lengthy and pretentious ESPN Magazine feature by Wright Thompson where we find the reanimated corpse of Chris Rose brought back down from the attic to share with us the following wisdom.
Since Katrina, life on the wealthy side of that fence has improved. The New New Orleans really is a safer, wealthier place with more responsible institutions. "Almost everything's better," Chris Rose says. "You know, it's the one thing that no one can speak. Nobody dares write it ... but how many people said, 'It's the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans.' Now, here's the problem: It was rich white people who were saying that when we weren't even finished burying our dead. We still hadn't even found our dead and people were saying that. Now, you look back and you gotta think about what it was like in 2005, our crime, our corruption, our police, our education. They're all better now. Would they have improved had we not had this intense, overwhelming catastrophe, which forced us to not only rebuild and recover and repopulate but also reimagine ourselves? Would that have happened? I think it's safe to say no."
The reason the lady in Chicago thinks Katrina is the best thing that ever happened to us is because our mayor basically told her that. The reason he thinks that is because a lot of his political allies as well as some subtly smug and selfish people like Chris Rose have told him that is what they believe also.

It's fine to call out McQueary's Katrina envy column as the obviously crass, insensitive, right wing propaganda that it is.  But don't overlook the fact that local Katrina pride is very much the same thing. 

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