Where's America's can-do spirit?


It will soon be a year since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. After that storm laid waste to that storied city, there was much talk of the greatest reconstruction effort in American history. President Bush famously addressed the nation from a floodlit downtown square.

But New Orleans still sits in ruins, littered with abandoned houses and cars and debris. And despite the lofty rhetoric, there are few, if any, visionary plans for reconstruction even on the drawing board, much less at the construction phase.

If the saga of Ground Zero in New York is telling, New Orleans could be in for a long wait. It has been almost five years since the World Trade Center towers collapsed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite all sorts of meetings and plans and competitions and revisions and pronouncements, the site in lower Manhattan is still a massive vacant lot.

"I am struck by the fact that after both 9/11 and Katrina, the almost universal reaction was, `We're going to show them' - either the hurricane or the terrorists - `that we're not going to take it, that we're going to build things back bigger and better,' " says Donald Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "But we have not been able to build anything back."

How could this be? The country that has produced some of the world's great urban projects - from New York's Central Park to Baltimore's Harborplace - now seems unable to find a way forward for two of the most publicized civic undertakings in history.

For sure, both Ground Zero and New Orleans are mired in their respective specificities. The former World Trade Center site is controlled by a complex maze of overlapping jurisdictions in an area of changing commercial realities, overlaid by a national need for symbolism.

In New Orleans, the sheer scale of destruction makes taking even the first step toward reconstruction a daunting undertaking. What comes first - new levees, new electric lines, gas lines, roads, sewers? And which neighborhoods get them first?

But in both places, reconstruction efforts seem to be caught between two conflicting political agendas that plague so many projects in the public space.

"Are liberals to blame? In part," says James Morone, a political scientist at Brown University. "They believe in historic preservation - one fragment - in empowering neighborhoods and groups - more fragmentation - in courts - so you get lots of legal action - and in due process - the old bosses didn't worry about due process. These are all admirable ideals but they make it harder to get things done.

"Are conservatives to blame? You bet," he continues. "They don't like government and want to bid things out to the private sector. Works for some things, not for others."

So, the lack of progress in New Orleans and at Ground Zero can be seen, at least in part, as the result of good intentions gone awry. Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, says that the whole idea of broader community involvement in these projects arose in the 1960s.

"They were responding to the brutalization evident in the preceding decades when zoning czars like Bob Moses were able to bulldoze away, building high-rise public housing, destroying the vibrancy of neighborhoods," Oliver says, referring to Robert Moses, who reshaped much of New York City and its suburbs with a variety of large-scale public projects from the 1930s until the 1960s.

Such widespread community involvement, while definitely slowing the pace of redevelopment - particularly when many insist that everyone agree before the first shovelful of dirt is turned - might not be such a bad thing, even today.

"My suspicion is that if this were the 1950s or 1960s, the federal government would have stepped into New Orleans, bulldozed much of the city and built all the kinds of high-rise public housing that most cities are tearing down today," Oliver says. "So decisiveness might not always yield the best outcome."

Baltimore provides cautionary tales in both directions. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski first came to public prominence in the 1960s leading a grass-roots struggle against a Moses-like project to put a highway right through Fells Point. Stopping that is considered a seminal milestone on the road to Baltimore's downtown renaissance.

But the other big milestone, the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, was much more of an old-style political boss type of project, led by Mayor William Donald Schaefer and his do-it-now style which steamrolled all opposition, including activist types who managed to get a Harborplace referendum onto a ballot.

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