It was standing-room-only in the big hall at the Sheraton Hotel, and the mood was tense.
Four months had passed since Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that followed, and a committee of civic leaders put together by Mayor Ray Nagin was set to make recommendations about how the city ought to go about rebuilding. A map that was front and center on that day’s newspaper showed green dots covering a handful of neighborhoods that might be converted to parkland.
Harvey Bender, a laid-off city worker from New Orleans East, seemed to speak for the crowd.
“I don’t know you, Joe Canizaro, but I hate you,” Bender growled, addressing the banker and developer whom Nagin had charged with crafting the land-use recommendations. “I’m going to suit up like I’m going to Iraq and fight this.”
Ten years later, Bender’s comments resonate as the opening salvo in an argument that has continued in various forums ever since.
It was a debate that went beyond the notion of shrinking the city’s footprint. An unprecedented disaster posed unprecedented opportunities to build the city anew. Popular ideas for how to revitalize the country’s declining, post-industrial cities could be put to the test in a place where many of the usual stubborn obstacles had been wiped from the landscape.
And right away it made people angry. Most New Orleanians could concede that low-lying neighborhoods were still at risk. Few would argue that local services like health care for the poor, public housing or education had been anything like adequate before the storm. But they were clearly unwilling to be anyone else’s “blank slate.”
Bottom line: They resented the idea of being experimented upon.
Nagin would ultimately reject any official delay in rebuilding and announce that “market forces” would decide which parts of town came back. The city’s “footprint” would look much as it did on Aug. 28, 2005.
But in other ways, New Orleans really was — in fact — remade after the storm. The green dots would never become a reality, but the city’s public schools, its vast system of low-rise public housing complexes and its Charity Hospital system would be transformed in ways that have attracted both glowing accolades and fiery resentment.
If ambitious reforms always inspire disagreement, the fact that so much of what has changed in New Orleans in the past 10 years had its origins in the city’s darkest hour has left profound scars. Every discussion about whether the changes have been for the best, whether the reforms are working or not, is colored by the fact that a catastrophe made them possible. In a way, this is the storm’s most enduring impact.
‘A completely different way’
Perhaps the first inkling that a full-scale do-over might be in store for New Orleans came in the form of a story that appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal less than two weeks after the storm, with much of the city still underwater.
Businessman Jimmy Reiss — whom Nagin had appointed to oversee the Regional Transit Authority before the storm — said he had been talking with the city’s business leaders and there was a consensus about what should happen next.
“Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically,” Reiss told The Journal. “I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out.”
Those comments cast a long shadow over the debate that unfolded over the next few months, as planners from the Urban Land Institute and elsewhere arrived in New Orleans, eager to start talking about how best to rebuild a city that suffered from a host of well-diagnosed problems.
Katrina presented an opportunity to take on some big, vexing issues. Why would you rebuild an exact replica of a city so dysfunctional?
There was talk of clustering development along light rail or streetcar lines, of fast trains to Louis Armstrong International Airport and Baton Rouge. In October, citing the city’s precarious financial position, Nagin proposed a Vegaslike casino district downtown, to collective groans.
For a while, the footprint debate commanded center stage. Proponents of shrinking the city had two persuasive arguments. First, not everyone was likely to return, meaning that if every neighborhood was rebuilt, the result would be a “jack-o’-lantern effect” — that is, many blocks would be pocked with the empty homes of those who didn’t return. And if not everyone was going to come back, why not avoid resettling the most flood-prone areas altogether?
In other words, why not gather everyone who did want to come back into healthier, safer neighborhoods, less prone to blight and on higher ground?
This idea had well-meaning backers. It also stirred racial and class animosities. Reiss, in his comments to The Journal, left the impression that the city’s well-heeled, white elite wanted a whiter, wealthier city. Canizaro, the man who had first traced those green dots, had conservative leanings and close ties to the George W. Bush White House, neither of which endeared him much to the city’s black majority, which had started to wonder if the whole planning process was aimed at keeping them permanently scattered.
The green dots, after all, fell on neighborhoods where mostly poor, black people lived. There did not seem to be a plan to relocate them.
Not that the idea was beloved in the largely white, middle-class neighborhood of Lakeview, where a building moratorium was proposed. After Bender declared war on the plan, Jeb Bruneau, the head of Lakeview’s civic association, got up to the microphone and told Nagin, “We want to be able to go down to City Hall and get permits. We have the means to help ourselves, so don’t get in our way.”
Jeff Thomas, a lawyer who wound up working in the city’s recovery office, said the “big reimagining” of New Orleans was never realistic in the first place and not just because of the opposition.
“The idea of shrinking the footprint was just a nonstarter under constitutional law,” he said. “It would have required using eminent domain on thousands of properties.”
With the forces of Big Planning in retreat after the Sheraton meeting, New Orleanians set about putting their city back together, mostly the way it had been.
Anyone looking at the history of major urban disasters would not have been surprised. Rob Olshansky, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois who wrote a book on post-storm planning in New Orleans, said that while catastrophes “always provide some opportunities for improvement ... most things end up being rebuilt as they were.”
“I think perhaps some people hoped that the city could take the opportunity to not rebuild the lowest areas and to cluster developments to save money on infrastructure,” Olshansky wrote in an email. “But it was never realistic to think of the city as a blank slate, because disaster-struck cities never are: land tenure, social networks and memories prevent that.”
Still, even as the footprint debate raged in the foreground, other changes were unfolding that would fundamentally remake several key aspects of New Orleans’ civic life.
Those storylines had begun well before Katrina formed off the coast of Florida. Cities — especially old cities with large populations of poor people — were increasingly seen as doomed in the 1980s, and poorly performing school districts, dangerous public housing complexes and badly designed health care systems were all cited as symptoms of the onrushing decline.
In the 1990s, the decade that saw President Bill Clinton sign a bipartisan welfare reform bill, Democrats increasingly began to come to a consensus that these failed urban systems needed radical fixes. The HOPE VI program, launched in 1992, aimed to change the face of public housing by tearing down dense old complexes and replacing them with mixed-income communities.
The thinking was that large housing projects had become incubators of urban ills, ranging from poverty to drug-selling, and that poor people would benefit from having a broader range of neighbors.
New Orleans got its first taste of HOPE VI in the years prior to Katrina, when the old St. Thomas complex was redeveloped into what was rechristened River Garden. While the new townhouses were mostly greeted approvingly, the redevelopment raised questions that would recur after Katrina.
The major critique was that most of the poor people who had lived in the St. Thomas complex had simply been moved to some other part of town, though they continued to receive rent assistance at a similar level through the Section 8 program or at other Housing Authority of New Orleans complexes. So while the River Garden neighborhood — where there are now twice as many market-rate apartments as public housing units — might have been spruced up, it was difficult to measure to what extent its ills had simply been shuffled around.
Similar overhauls were soon undertaken at the Guste, Florida, Desire and Fischer housing projects.
The floods presented a bigger opportunity. The remaining “Big Four” developments — Lafitte, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete and B.W. Cooper, which together contained about 60 percent of the remaining public housing in the city — all received some damage, though its extent was hotly debated. Controversially, most residents were not allowed to reoccupy their apartments.
Because of corruption and chronic mismanagement, HANO at the time was under federal control. And nine months after the storm, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced that the 5,100 units in the four complexes were too damaged to be repaired and that the federal government would demolish and redevelop them.
That was far from the end of the story — there were lawsuits, protests and a rancorous City Council meeting in December 2007 at which the council unanimously voted to grant demolition permits after hours of fiery testimony. But the die was cast.
More recently, the Iberville complex, the last of the large traditional public housing developments remaining, has been undergoing its own transformation.
Act 35 opens door
For years, the debate over urban public education had boiled down to this: Liberals, often seen as working hand in glove with teachers unions, would argue that failing urban school districts simply needed more resources.
Conservatives would counter that if liberals really cared about kids, they’d support vouchers that would allow inner-city kids attending lousy schools to go to private schools — usually parochial ones — instead.
Advocates for years had been casting about for a Clintonian “third way” that would produce better results without abandoning the fundamental notion that everyone should be entitled to a decent public education. Autonomous charter schools — free from the central-office meddling and incompetence often blamed for city schools’ woes — were increasingly seen as the best hope.
In 2003, the Legislature had created something called the Recovery School District, a state agency that would be a repository for the city’s worst schools.
But bigger changes portended. In 2005, the local school district’s authority was further usurped when its shoddy financial controls, including contracting and some personnel decisions, were handed over to a contractor. By the time Katrina struck, five of the city’s roughly 130 schools had been transferred to the control of the new recovery district and converted to charters.
After the floods, with the entire city evacuated and most schools damaged, the Legislature passed Act 35, which suddenly put about four-fifths of the district’s schools into the RSD, with the idea that most would be chartered as well. The School Board, meanwhile, fired all of its employees — roughly 7,000 of them — and announced it was shutting down for the 2005-06 school year. The RSD overrode the latter decision, opening a smattering of schools, most of them charters, after the Christmas break.
The upstart RSD suddenly had become the vehicle for a nearly complete reset of public education. Today, all but six of the city’s schools are charters, an educational experiment of astonishing breadth.
Over the last few years, a massive physical transformation of the school landscape, while not as audacious as the administrative changes, has begun to take shape.
The Stafford Act, which governs how the feds pay for disaster recovery, tends to encourage the rebuilding of exactly what was lost. Traditionally, the act has fully covered only one-to-one replacements of government buildings, which tends to discourage creative rethinking.
But with schools, local and federal officials came to a global agreement after years of haggling: The feds would give New Orleans $1.8 billion to build new schools and renovate old ones as it saw fit. The number of campuses and their location would be up to Louisiana officials.
The result, in the end, should be a system of new and renovated schools, fewer in number but right-sized to the district’s population of students. It’s a huge leap forward for a system that was in shockingly poor shape in 2005.
The storm also gave officials a long-desired window to build a new public hospital to replace Charity, the hulking, outmoded edifice completed in 1938.
As with schools and public housing, the plan was aimed partly at a physical upgrade for a building seen as anachronistic, but it also entailed a philosophical shift. The idea was to rethink Louisiana’s system of charity hospitals for the poor, both privatizing their management and also trying to discourage uninsured patients from using the hospital for basic medical care, rather than emergencies.
At the same time, there was heady talk of creating a world-class biomedical district with the new hospital and a brand-new VA facility next door that would help bring the city’s economy out of the doldrums.
Skeptics argued that Charity was eminently fixable and that the state government’s plan would take too long, cost too much, demolish a historic neighborhood and leave old Charity a blighted mess.
Those concerns were mostly brushed aside, although the plan hardly sailed through. There was endless haggling over the extent of the damage from the flood. As with public housing, it was unclear that the damage was catastrophic. But there was an important distinction. The federal government was driving the plan to redevelop the Big Four and also was in charge of determining how bad the damage was — and thus how much repair money would be available.
Eventually, the state got its way when an arbitration panel awarded the state $475 million, roughly three times what the feds had offered, which allowed officials to close on financing. Almost 10 years after the storm, the new University Medical Center will open in August, under the management of LCMC Health, which owns and manages Children’s Hospital.
While the new hospital has been under construction, emergency care has been provided by the much smaller Interim LSU Hospital.
Routine and primary medical care, such as management of hypertension, which in the past often fell to Charity to provide, has mostly been farmed out to a system of neighborhood-based clinics whose expansion into the void has been supported by federal and state aid.
That system has been mostly lauded but is under constant threat of cuts from the state Legislature.
Jury out; scars remain
Whether the seismic changes wrought in these systems wound up benefiting New Orleanians — especially the city’s poor, who depended upon them — will be debated far into the future. So, too, will the effect that the slow and painful process of knocking down and rebuilding these bedrock institutions had on people’s decisions to return.
It’s still early to render clear verdicts: The new hospital is just preparing to open its doors, though the new model of health care delivery has been in place for years now. HANO is still in the middle of its redevelopments, and while the school system has been thoroughly remade structurally, that structure is ever-changing, while the bricks-and-mortar side is still far from complete.
There is no shortage of opinions about how well things are going, however. Charter school proponents, for instance, say it’s impossible to argue with their results: substantial across-the-board gains in key metrics like graduation rates and LEAP test passage rates.
But skeptics, even those who acknowledge there are positives in the new systems, say the real story is that the government is simply throwing in the towel — admitting it can’t properly educate poor children, house their families or deliver them suitable health care — and jobbing the work out to private or semi-private contractors that may or may not do better but that are surely less accountable to the public.
“Certainly some would say that all three systems are much better than they were before,” said Bill Quigley, director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University and an outspoken opponent of the changes. “But others would say, ‘I lost my house, I lost my school and I lost my clinic.’ ”
Quigley gives the theoretical example of a family who before Katrina lived in the Lafitte project, within walking distance of low-wage work in the tourist economy and also near their children’s school.
“If they’re back in New Orleans, they’re probably living in Section 8 or with relatives in New Orleans East, and who knows where their kids are going to school?” he said. “That’s a much tougher life than living within walking distance of school and work.”
Former City Councilman Arnie Fielkow, who was outspoken in his support of the HANO overhaul — and who has since moved away from New Orleans — said it’s impossible to track the myriad ways thousands of individual lives were changed by the reforms. But in his view, it’s simply impossible to argue that the systems have not been improved.
“I think these were landmark changes from what existed before Katrina. And they were really the byproduct of the community recognizing that this was a great city but being honest that it had deficiencies that had to be cured if New Orleans was ever going to grow into the city it wanted to be,” Fielkow said.
“I recognize all parties don’t agree with the reforms that have taken place. But if you look at it with an objective eye, I think the schools have improved; it’s certainly a much better public housing situation. ... For all concerned, I think New Orleans has made tremendous strides — due in large part to tremendous citizen input and resiliency on the part of a great citizenry.”
While it may take another decade or more for history to render its verdict on the changes, it’s likely that some of the wounds inflicted in the post-Katrina battles may never heal. There is persistent anger among some skeptics that the city’s elites wielded their power to fundamentally make over systems that primarily serve the powerless at a moment when those people were still reeling.
Leslie Jacobs, a former state school board member who helped devise the schools takeover, is an unabashed supporter of the reforms, which has made her a controversial figure. She is fully aware of how much rancor remains.
“In the taking over of the schools, a lot of people had pain,” Jacobs said. “Teachers lost their jobs; the rules of the game had changed. This happened while they were evacuated. … You can’t talk about success because everybody is walking on eggshells out of respect for the pain. And I’m not clear how we move on from that.”
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.