I've spent 24 hours trying to be calm, reasoned, and objective about The Oregonian's Sunday Opinion cover story about the Crescent City -- particularly its sidebar "Why Should We Bother Rebuilding New Orleans?" -- and, well...I can't be objective. I've read a lot of ignorant writing about New Orleans post-Katrina, but this one takes the doberge cake.
If a major metro daily, two years after the failure of the federal levees, can be mulling over the fate of Americans who have been busting their collective ass to save themselves as if their survival is some abstract problem, if a major metro daily can write a couple thousand words about "fixing" New Orleans without once mentioning the root cause, the failure of the federal levees, then I have to say: there's not even room for dialogue here.
The skinny: Former Oregon state rep Chris Beck, a "former conservation real estate agent by profession and urban planner by instinct" (but not, it seems, by degree or education) spent a few months staying with his sister in the city's Bywater neighborhood, and, as he wrote, "my year in New Orleans triggered many ideas about how the two cities can help each other."
The first, it seems, is to improve his morning jog:
When I run along Portland's downtown riverfront park (once a six-lane state highway), I praise the people who made this possible. When I run along New Orleans' Mississippi River urban waterfront only to confront a chain-link fence (at the city's convention center, no less) where there should be an extended parkway, I shake my head in dismay that New Orleans has not figured out how to make a world-class park along this most American of rivers. New Orleans, with help from the federal government, should make public access to the Mississippi River a top rebuilding priority.
Which do you think should be a "top rebuilding priority," New Orleans -- a "world-class park" on the Mississippi, or a set of world-class federal levees?
Beck's second idea? That the city, somehow, should unilaterally remove a one-mile stretch of Interstate 10:
While I'm referring to removing public highways for parks, New Orleans would do well to remove the now-unnecessary Interstate 10 that destroyed the once-splendid, tree-lined Claiborne Avenue parkway that served as the main artery and outdoor living room through the nation's most historic African American neighborhood.
Portland stopped a similar freeway in the 1970s that would have destroyed our historic neighborhoods. Removing one short mile of I-10 through the historic Treme (pronounced tre-MAY) neighborhood and restoring Claiborne Avenue would do more to heal some of New Orleans' festering racial wounds than just about any other single public project.
Portland leaders should partner with New Orleanians to help make this happen.
Besides the basic question -- what would the Tremé look like if I-10 dumped out thousands of cars on its streets? -- I'd love to know how a city could dismantle a federal highway without getting a wee bit of protest from the Department of Transportation.
Honestly, I wonder if Beck ever left the house in New Orleans; how else to explain things like this?
Sitting in Portland's Jamison Square, one of many wonderful urban plazas, watching young parents and their children playing in the fountains amid a sea of multistoried condominiums, I find myself almost crying with the knowledge that New Orleans does not have a single civic space where such hopeful human energy regularly exhibits itself.
Hello? Jackson Square, anyone?
There's so much more here, so much that's tone-deaf and blinkered and smug and not-even-borderline racist (Beck sums up the city's music scene as "post-adolescent African Americans hooting on trumpets and tubas in late-night clubs"), but it can be summed up in Beck's intro:
Two cities: One in the midst of a decadelong real estate boom; the other, devastated, depopulated and wondering who will come home. What can they learn from each other?
I guess we'll never know, since The Oregonian never bothered to ask a New Orleanian.