Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Nicole Gelinas of City Journal, who has been tracking the recovery of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, has written another fascinating piece on how the recovery has been influenced by the local government.
For a change, the corruption and incompetence that go hand-in-hand with government involvement in the economy have actually helped aspects of the recovery! This is, of course, by the accident that a lack of government control can sometimes mimic freedom -- when the government would otherwise act like a criminal gang and the citizens would otherwise be productive.
New Orleanians have achieved much of this success by doing what New Yorkers couldn't do after 9/11: ignoring the potentates and eggheads hankering to turn devastation into conceptual art. They've been building and rebuilding on their own or with small-scale help, rather than under top-down decree -- and, in the process, showing that thousands of individual planners are better than one master.This nose-thumbing has been possible in large part due to the fact that much-publicized government initiatives to return New Orleans' low-lying areas to swampland were mired in the ineffectiveness of local officialdom.
For example, "green dots" on city planing maps marked low-lying areas slated for a return to nature -- and also often happened to mark the locations of houses whose owners were rebuilding.
... Mayor Ray Nagin -- looking toward reelection, cowed by public outrage, and stifled by his own administration's lack of follow-through -- abandoned any huge effort to plan neighborhoods. "Rebuild at your own risk," he told citizens. As late as April 2007, Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace was still lamenting the "curse of the green dot" as the cause of politicians' paralysis and pinning her hopes on a more modest second round of planning. But by then, it was too late: self-reliant New Orleanians had already taken Nagin at his word.I have stated before that I disagree with Gelinas about the proper role of government. (See the first link above for an elaboration.) And here, she seems to view different levels of government interference as a kind of static continuum between the laissez-faire capitalism I advocate and statism, rather than as an ever-hastening trend towards the latter as I do. (Furthermore, what she calls "free market" isn't always consistent with capitalism.) Having said that, Gelinas is on the money when she notes that the recovery remains hampered when the local government continues to fail to bring down crime.
In New Orleans ... though the city and feds can still screw up the sites that they control, including now-vacant housing projects, they can't define the whole reconstruction process. Enterprising homeowners can experiment with what works, rather than being stuck with some starchitect's vision for the next century. And it will be fascinating, in a decade or so, to see if one or another approach has fared better than the others: Mouton's enticing new homeowners to bad neighborhoods on higher ground and hoping that others follow; Habitat's adding entire blocks to a working-class neighborhood; or Pitt's luring evacuated low-income homeowners back to one of the hardest-hit and least-rebuilt parts of the Lower Ninth Ward.
Read the whole thing. One of the free-market solutions for damaged housing stock ripped a page straight from the Sears catalogues of old -- Lowe's offers five models of pre-fab houses with "shotgun" floor plans that work well with the Crescent City's long, narrow lots.