Owen Courreges: Dare to be the best New Orleans yet

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Owen Courreges

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.

11 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Dare to be the best New Orleans yet

  1. We cannot thrive and prosper without economic freedom. Look how hard it is to start a business in Old New Orleans. Auction off ALL of the blighted abandoned property, not 10 a month but 1000 a month. Let the real estate prices drop to entice young homeowners to the region. With them come jobs and an educated workforce. Stop taxing and regulating the small businesses to death.

    • Agreed on all counts. The city has stepped up blight enforcement, but there’s just so many properties and certain procedures have to be followed before seizing real estate. And yes, the city definitely needs to start accommodating businesses, because right now starting a business here feels not altogether unlike being trapped under a wet mattress.

  2. I believe, its just discouraging when city officials and police act as though they are above the law, constantly.

    • Uptown Spyboy,

      That’s going to be limited on the police end by the new consent decree. As for our elected officials, though, it’s up to us to hold their feet to the fire.

  3. Interesting subject (the times pic or gambit would never start a discussion like this) –
    but what do you mean we are no NYC,SF ? Like them we are an Old Port City and OPCs are hot these days (add Boston, Charleston et al.)
    It is our best asset (architecture, scale, texture) and why many (incl me) live here.
    what specifically are NYC and SF doing that we shouldnt? If you are talking about public union contracts, I agree, but not sure thats what you mean.

    • Owen,

      Well, New York and San Francisco have become major financial centers, and I just don’t see that being in the cards for New Orleans.

      In any event, what I’m really saying is that we shouldn’t act as though we can have bloated government and crushing regulations because ultra-rich cities get away with it. New York and San Francisco have very, very expensive governments and regulate everything down to the size of your soda and your choice of shopping bags. We just don’t have that option.

  4. We didn’t peak too early; we never learned to adapt. Insular is right. At one point in the 20th century Houston and New Orleans were the same size. Houston does business with outsiders; we historically do not. Our poverty however has preserved much of our history rather than bulldozing it for the next phase of growth. Glass half full.

    • Jean-Paul,

      Well, we might not have been so insular if we weren’t the largest city in the south oh-so-long-ago. That’s what I mean by peaking early; by the time the economic inertia started rolling southward, we were stuck in our ways – more like a northern city business-wise. I think the resulting poverty has been a double-edged sword vis-a-vis preservation as well. Sure, there’s been less drive to raze neighborhoods for new development, but there’s also been more blight. I don’t see any good way to look at it.

  5. The best take on this I’ve ever heard. I think the situation is getting better though. Katrina seems to have taken NOLA on at least a detour from its traditional insular ways. I truly think her better days are ahead. You are combining the economic dynamism of TX and the deep South (modest oil sized oil and gas community too) with good architecture, weather (mostly), culture, saddled only with crime, poor management, expensive real estate and sinking soil. NOLA has good bones and tremendous upside.

    • Agreed. That’s the attitude we need. New Orleans has enormous potential, and is already beginning to realize much of it,.

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