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The Case Against Rebuilding New Orleans

09.14.2005 12:53 | DISPATCHES

Jack Shafer makes the case here, at Slate. New Orleans, he points out, was not exactly a shangri-la of beignets and jazz clubs. For most people it was pathos masquerading as a city. A sample:

The police inspire so little trust that witnesses often refuse to testify in court. University researchers enlisted the police in an experiment last year, having them fire 700 blank gun rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood one afternoon. Nobody picked up the phone to report the shootings. Little wonder the city's homicide rate stands at 10 times the national average.

This city counts 188,000 occupied dwellings, with about half occupied by renters and half by owners. The housing stock is much older than the national average, with 43 percent built in 1949 or earlier (compared with 22 percent for the United States) and only 11 percent of them built since 1980 (compared with 35 for the United States). As we've observed, many of the flooded homes are modest to Spartan to ramshackle and will have to be demolished if toxic mold or fire don't take them first.

New Orleans puts the "D" into dysfunctional. Only a sadist would insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime, and deplorable schools.

Consevative jurist Richard Posner offers a critique of recnstruction as well, here. And the always-sage Tyler Cowen adds his own thoughts here.

Cowen quotes urban economist Edward Glaeser, who makes a point I find hard to disagree with:

We have an obligation to people, not to places. Given just how much, on a per capita basis, it would take to rebuild New Orleans to its former glory, lots of residents would be much [better off] with $10,000 and a bus ticket to Houston.

The problem, of course--and one that economists are sometimes slow to pick up on--is that peope are often very tied to places, regardless of what their "objective" best interests might be. The accumulation of attachments to a given geography has been called a "citizen's surplus", "a sense of place", and most prominently "social capital." Industrial historians have seen this attachment to place time and again in towns where plants closed but people remained, despite there being no jobs and no future for them. And obviously anyone who has followed the news has seen it already in New Orleans, in the form of residents refusing to leave. (As an aside, I'm not sure how thrilled Houston's officials would be to have thousands of poor people suddenly become permanent residents.)

The fact that New Orleans is poor and dysfunctional is not a reason to leave it empty. The World Trade Center always struggled to fill vacancies, and many architects thought it was ugly. Nevertheless we rebuild on its ground. A better reason not to rebuild the city is environmental: New Orleans is more at risk than ever to another hurricane--the barrer islands and wetlands are all but gone, and the next storm surge could as a result be even more powerful. But many American cities are built in ill-advised places. We have rebuilt Malibu when it has burned; should we not make an effort with New Orleans?

The terrible problems of New Orleans shouldn't prevent its reconstruction. They should, however, inform that reconstruction. The city that was lost offered a good life for only a small minority of its residents. For most others it offered an uncertain and dangerous life, and--last week--a terrible death. Reconstructing New Orleans will require not just physical rebuilding but also a reconsideration by Louisiana of its neglectful social policies. New Orleans is often described as romantic, but there is nothing romantic about persistent poverty. In that respect Glaeser is right. We owe little to the city, and much to the residents. We should keep those priorities in mind when we approach reconstruction.


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