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Reinventing New Orleans as the "Happy Plantation?"

The plan to create green space along the riverfront in New Orleans needs a new name. Its supporters have called it Reinventing the Crescent and describe the project as being “first and foremost about connection — reconnecting our city and our communities to our riverfront.” [their emphasis]

According to the project’s website, “New Orleans is emerging from the shadows of Katrina as a burgeoning entrepreneurial community… Reinventing the Crescent harnesses the creative power of design to express what this ‘new New Orleans’ is all about.”

So, maybe it should be called Reinvesting the Crescent?

The recovery of New Orleans is of national importance. That’s why I helped Jonathan Demme make his documentary film, “I’m Carolyn Parker,” (one of what we hope are five features on the subject of New Orleans recovery), and why I wrote the book “The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back.

The people we talked to and have become friends with over the past eight years don’t tend to talk about burgeoning entrepreneurial communities. They’re more interested in what to do about junkies moving into abandoned buildings — and why calling the police only seems to make things worse. They’re less concerned about “creative power” than decent health care and schools. And while they might like to connect with the river, their first priority is to make sure it doesn’t end up back in their living rooms.

Reinventing the Crescent isn’t about the people we met in Gentilly, St. Bernard Parish, the Upper and Lower Ninth wards. Quoting again from the official website, the aim is to create a “new economy” based on a new “creative class … of dynamic workers such as engineers, architects, musicians, educators, scientists and artist ….” That’s what the six miles of parks and riverfront amenities are designed to attract — though over 90 percent of the almost $300 million cost will fall on the average, apparently non-creative, tax-payer. This is, we’re assured, “a prudent, acceptable and essential public investment.”

Maybe it should be called Reinventing the Creative Class?

Why use limited public money to build “architectural icons” along the river? Because it will make the city a “more desirable place [where] profit-seeking individuals will naturally seek new opportunities….” And because it’s projected to create some 24,000 new jobs. The catch is that fewer than 900 of these will be for engineers, architects, etc. The remaining 23,000 will be in the field of tourism. That sounds suspiciously like the old New Orleans: a city of service jobs paying just enough to cover the rent but not enough to ever get ahead. One Gentilly resident described that economic model to us as the Happy Plantation.

What’s being called Reinventing the Crescent in New Orleans is known as the Inner Harbor project in the-fight-for-homeBaltimore, Riverfront Park in Passaic, N.J., the Renaissance Center and International Riverfront in Detroit, Waterfront Greening in Manhattan. In each case, an industrial waterfront, abandoned as American manufacturing has faded, gets reinvented as a way of drawing the creative class back into the central city.

Maybe it should be called Remagnetizing the Crescent?

Baltimore’s one of the earliest examples, providing a chance to see how the model plays out. From the late Sixties through the Seventies, public money paid for a rebuilt Inner Harbor that was soon attracting millions of visitors. Tax breaks encouraged private developers to build in the area, including condominiums for the creative class. (Reinventing the Crescent features two new neighborhoods, “like two bookends” — one at the old power plant just upriver from the Convention Center, the other the former Department of Defense facility along the Industrial Canal in Bywater.)

Like New Orleans and many other cities, Baltimore had begun losing population in the Sixties; the Inner Harbor was advertised as a way to stop that. It didn’t. In the two decades after the Inner Harbor was completed, in 1965, Baltimore’s population dropped by nearly one fifth, with continuing losses right through the 2010 census — even as crime and unemployment rose. The city ended up with nearly 40 percent of its families living in poverty and 40,000 abandoned homes (compared to about 48,000 in New Orleans today). The tourist-based economy helped increase the gap between rich and poor, between entrepreneur and dishwasher. As one study of the Inner Harbor puts it, “Baltimore is today two cities, separate and unequal, not in spite of its extravagant and interventionist redevelopment program, but because of it.” [their emphasis]

I called my book “The Fight for Home” because New Orleanians kept saying that was the central issue: not just returning but making a home in the broadest sense. The fight was over what the new New Orleans would look like and who it would be for. That’s why so many people rejected the proposal by urban planners working with Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission  to green dot certain parts of the city as unsuitable for immediate resettlement: because when you looked at a map, it was the low-lying neighborhoods that were slated to be mothballed, most — but not all of them — poor and black. The city’s higher ground would be targeted for government investment and accelerated recovery.

Reinventing the Crescent (which enjoyed Nagin’s endorsement) aligns with that approach: taking Community Development Block grants from their intended application in low-income neighborhoods and instead pouring them into what Tulane geographer and author Richard Campanella calls ” ‘the white teapot’ … a relatively wealthy and well-educated majority area” along the river.

Maybe the project should be called Regilding the Teapot?

New Orleans has made a remarkable recovery from a major disaster. The huge influx of federal dollars worked like stimulus money to shield it from the hard times that came with the 2007 market crash and global recession. The recovery also attracted an influx of generally young and well-educated transplants, eager to help the city rebuild. So while the nation lost over 4 percent of its jobs between the end of 2007 and the end of 2011, New Orleans held about even.

Eight years after the floods, the effects of that stimulus have just about ended, and the city again faces the national problem: how to re-vitalize the economy. Over the past half century, urban center after urban center has looked to the tourist potential of its waterfront for salvation. By now it’s clear that reconnecting “our” communities to “our” riverfront can only succeed if it benefits the majority of the citizens.

People haven’t rebuilt their homes, their blocks, their neighborhoods to reinvent the Happy Plantation. The tough questions remain. How does the city (and the country) create jobs that offer a creative future for all? How can we look beyond the crescent to the whole?

Daniel Wolff’sThe Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back” is out in paperback this month.

This column originally appeared in The Lens.

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