Frank Lloyd Wright, the legendary architect, was blunt in his hatred of cities. Wright described city-dwellers as “human beings, all crawling on hard pavements like ants to hole somewhere or find their way to this or that cubicle.” They were, he believed, “herd-struck morons our present sky-scraperism has cultivated.”
Wright’s opinion is not in the majority. Towns typically don’t want to remain small. Although the word “megalopololis” today refers to a massive city, the original Greek city bearing the moniker was essentially a small town that aspired to become bigger than Athens. Like so many such cities, it failed.
Regardless of whether city-living is a great thing or a pestilence, as Wright believed, it is a legitimate choice made by a sizable percentage of Americans, driven by both preference and economic factors. The city isn’t going away, but then again, neither is the small town or the outer suburb.
What cities do very poorly, however, is shrink. A city can become massive or stay small, but it can’t contract. There is nothing more off-putting from a real estate perspective than a once thriving metropolis reduced to slums, replete with abandoned homes and factories, with limited prosperity and incompetent governance (Under Plato’s Theory of Forms, I think Detriot would be the “form” of a shrinking city).
This is where New Orleans comes in. New Orleans is in an unusual place. It has shrunk considerably since reaching its peak in population in the 1960’s. New Orleans has come down from a population of over 625,000 to around 365,000 today.
Now, a sizable chunk of this was due to Katrina, and we are still getting back much of that lost population. Presently, New Orleans is still the fastest-growing city in the country.
However, even if Katrina hadn’t struck, we’d still be lucky to have our pre-Katrina population of 485,000 today. Thus, even under a “Katrina didn’t happen” alternate history, we’re still looking at a deficit of of over 210,000 people from our peak. That’s greater than the population of Lafayette (120,000) and Lake Charles (70,000) combined, and just a tad lower than the population of Baton Rouge (230,000). It’s a lot of people.
Yet while New Orleans has problems, it doesn’t fit the model of the American shrinking city. For starters, it isn’t in the midwestern “rust belt.” Although New Orleans had manufacturing, we don’t have abandoned auto plants and steel mills left and right. And while the jobs from the Port of New Orleans have largely moved further up river, it isn’t as though New Orleans was ever thriving off of all those jobs for longshoremen (or is now bereft as so many of them have migrated to LaPlace). Ports do create jobs, but they hardly sustain a large city economically.
No, the curse of New Orleans is far worse. It’s that New Orleans peaked early and when the so-called “Sun Belt” started booming, it lacked the dynamism that southern cities like Atlanta, Houston and Dallas did. New Orleans was an Old South city stuck in a New South world, and it adjusted terribly.
The solution, however, is not to side with Wright, declare the city a failure, try in vain to become smaller with dignity, and engage in a never-ending cycle of self-condemnation. Societies that constantly look back to their golden years never move forward. Many sociologists believe that Europe began to move out of the Dark Ages when people started realizing that they could not only equal the days of the Roman Empire, they could exceed them. Expectations matter.
What New Orleans needs to do is shed its “old city” habits and remain optimistic for the future. We need to stop being so stubbornly insurlar and bureaucratic, acting as if because New York and San Francisco can afford to do something, surely we can. We aren’t those cities and we don’t have the money. We should take no policy cues from them, period. We need to be lean and hungry, not bloated and complacent.
At the same time, we need to know that we aren’t too far gone. We’re still growing, and much of that growth is new blood. Likewise, the restoration of major parts of the city in the past several years has been nothing short of amazing. Although our murder rate is an unmitigated embarrassment, our violent crime rate is on par for the region and a city our size, despite what people may say.
Most importantly, though, is that New Orleans is a really unique city. Wright may have shrieked about ant-like urban denizens, but that hardly describes New Orleanians. We can achieve prosperity without depressive, soul-crushing conformity. We can do this with flair. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that.
That’s the question though. Can we believe?
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.