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How Should New Orleans Be Rebuilt?
by Peter Flaherty

The Crescent City. The Big Easy. The Town that Care Forgot. Anyone who has visited New Orleans is familiar with these nicknames and has a special place in their heart for that magical place. And as news reports of the terrible destruction Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans spread across the United States and the world, those who love it began to mourn what might be the permanent loss of a city that quite likely cannot be replaced.

In the aftermath of Katrina it was very difficult to listen to Louis Armstrong’s classic jazz standard, “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” without feeling your eyes mist over. For this city is truly unique in America, a place rich in culture, tradition, history, and music. It’s the birthplace of jazz, the home of Mardi Gras, the centre of Creole and Cajun cuisine, the location of the annual Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival, an inspiration for numerous writers and filmmakers, the proud owner of beautiful, historic neighbourhoods like the Garden District, Congo Square, City Park, the French Quarter, and Marigny – the list can go on and on.

But of course there is another, less appealing side to New Orleans that the tourists rarely visit, and one that post-hurricane commentators have not failed to bring to the nation’s and the world’s attention.

Even before Katrina hit, New Orleans was a city with big problems. It has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Its African-American majority is far more likely to live in poor, run-down neighbourhoods than the white minority. Its schools are a national disgrace. Violent crime is widespread. The police force has been criticized for corruption and racial insensitivity. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the city’s problems have if anything become even more acute. While the French Quarter sustained minimal damage, low-income, low-lying areas like the 9th Ward were almost completely inundated, and most of the homes there will probably have to be demolished. Meanwhile, most of New Orleans’ poor residents, who were unable or unwilling to leave after the initial evacuation orders were issued, now find themselves homeless refugees in other parts of their own country, facing an uncertain future.

Local, state, and federal governments and the corporate sector have committed themselves to assisting the rebuilding of New Orleans. But as the full extent of Katrina’s destruction is now becoming painfully apparent, many are wondering whether the city should be rebuilt as it was before. Some question the wisdom of spending billions of dollars to reconstruct a city that lies mostly below sea level, and will quite likely be the target for yet another destructive hurricane in the not-too-distant future. Still others have asked if there is any sense in rebuilding the very neighbourhoods of New Orleans where poverty, crime, drugs, gang violence, and other associated urban problems once festered.

There is no question that New Orleans must be rebuilt. It is not only the hub of a major port system that handles the shipping of billions of dollars worth of products in and out of the country via the Mississippi River, America’s most important inland trade route since the early 19th century. But it is also one of the most popular tourist and convention destinations in the United States, receiving millions of visitors from all over the world every year, creating thousands of jobs, and boosting the city’s economy. The question, of course, is how?

There have already been some proposals that most of the reconstruction effort should be devoted most to restoring only those parts of the city that the tourists like to visit. But this would turn New Orleans into a kind of artificial “theme park”, not the real, functioning city it once was and can be again., problems and all.

Whatever happens to the “Big Easy”, let’s hope that it’s rebuilt intact, as a place that all its residents can proudly call home once again.. A place where the lessons of Katrina, if learned properly, may help make it a fairer and better city for all, regardless of race or income level.