What Detirmines New Orleans Future?

Culture Clips - Sept. 6, 2005

What determines if a city recovers from disaster?

To the water-soaked citizenry of New Orleans, short term-issues -- water, power, even surviving -- are no doubt paramount today. But over the coming weeks, months and years, this city must come to grips with issues that have determined whether urban areas thrive despite tragedy, or simply decline in its wake.

Like the Mississippi itself, cities have risen and fallen through history. Herodotus noted in his own time, the fifth century B.C., that "human prosperity never abides long in the same place." Many of the cities that were "great" in his time were small in the recent past, he noted, while many leading cities of his youth had shrunk into relative insignificance. Herodotus considered understanding the causes of this rise and fall to be among the major callings of historians. Identifying why a city prospers or not over time remains highly relevant, not only for tragedy-struck New Orleans, but for virtually all Western cities in the age of terror.

Current intellectual fashion tells us that the crisis in New Orleans stems primarily from human mismanagement of the environment. Yet blaming global warming or poor river management practices will not bring the city back to its condition last month, much less return it to the greatness that defined it in its 19th-century heyday. The key to understanding the fate of cities lies in knowing that the greatest long-term damage comes not from nature or foreign attacks, but often from self-infliction. Cities are more than physical or natural constructs; they are essentially the products of human will, faith and determination.

A city whose residents have given up on their future or who lose interest in it are unlikely to respond to great challenges. Decaying cities throughout history--Rome in the fifth century, Venice in the

18th--both suffered from a decayed sense of civic purpose and prime. In this circumstance, even civic leaders tend to seek out their own comfortable perches within the city or choose to leave it entirely to its poorer, less mobile residents. This has been occurring for decades in the American rust belt -- think of Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis -- or to the depopulated cores in old industrial regions in the British Midlands, Germany and Russia.

Happily, urban history also contains examples of cities that have rebounded from natural and other devastation, sometimes far worse than that wrought on New Orleans. Carthage, purposely destroyed and planted with salt by its Roman conquerors, later re-emerged as a prominent urban center, becoming the home of St. Augustine, author of "City of God." Modern times, too, offer examples which can inspire New Orleans residents. Tokyo and London rose from near total devastation in

1945. Perhaps even more remarkable, albeit on a smaller scale, has been the successful rebuilding of Hiroshima into an industrial powerhouse and one of Japan's most pleasant seaside cities.

Joel Kotkin Opinion Journal

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Imagining the Unimaginable

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour called the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina "unimaginable." We no longer have to imagine the death and destruction; We are seeing the unimaginable become tragic reality 24/7 on our TV screens. The challenge now facing Congress and Gulf-State legislatures is to imagine the unimaginable future -- while doing everything possible to assist people recover from the current emergency -- to prepare for future emergencies, reform and restructure government, which clearly failed catastrophically at all levels during the last week, and incentivize and empower private ownership and private enterprise.

The huge calamity of Katrina and the need to rebuild the Gulf Coast provides Congress and state legislatures with the opportunity to implement big ideas that could begin to transform America in the first decade of the 21st century. We have a golden opportunity to "green line" the Delta and Gulf Coast with government policies that facilitate and empower the private sector and private citizens.

Out of the tragedies of the U.S. Civil War and World War II, Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt imagined an unimaginable future. They created transformative programs that helped define the American dream of ownership and economic empowerment. Lincoln's Homesteading Act empowered people with title to 160 acres of land, free, and Roosevelt's Federal Housing Authority and GI Bill of Rights offered ways for capital-less people to own a house and to receive higher education.

As we think about the government's role in assisting people get back on their feet after Katrina, we should be thinking about how to expand private property rights, business ownership and create rational incentives to build a new Gulf Coast and Delta Region unencumbered by bureaucratic rules and strictures. We have an enormous opportunity to replace outmoded government programs and bureaucracies with public-private partnerships and new private institutions that are built upon the foundation of individual ownership, private property rights, personal responsibility and social justice that an ownership society brings.

Jack Kemp Townhall

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