After a devastating hurricane, residents battle red tape, confusion, and greed.
Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on August 28, 2005, left the city in shambles. Drawing on news reports, environmental and urban studies, and conversations with scores of residents, journalist Gratz (The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, etc.) mounts an angry indictment of political machinations, shortsightedness, and prejudice, all of which threatened to obliterate the city’s famed character. To Gratz, now a part-time resident, New Orleans shines as an example of “urbanism at its best,” with “a texture and exuberance seen in no other American metropolis.” It’s a mixed-use city, combining residential, retail, and commercial spaces, enlivened by social, ethnic, and racial diversity with a comfortable scale and “corner-store tradition.” She recognizes the city’s serious problems, as well, especially its violent prisons and inadequate schools, which still loom as challenges. After wind and floods destroyed many neighborhoods, residents were eager to begin restoring and rebuilding with funds from government agencies such as FEMA and Road Home. But FEMA was hopelessly mismanaged, Gratz found, and Road Home often treated claimants with “outright contempt.” Gratz condemns the city’s mayor for endorsing a plan to shrink poor African-American neighborhoods; demolish houses whose residents had evacuated; and force buyouts in areas that would be turned over to wealthy interests. Grassroots organizations sprang up, with energetic, often frustrated, leaders who pressed for preservation of the city’s historic architecture and neighborhoods. Outside help bolstered their efforts: Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project has built more than 100 houses in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, and Barnes & Noble owner Leonard Riggio underwrote the Project Home Again foundation that built houses in the working-class community of Gentilly.
In chronicling New Orleans’ battle against bureaucracy, Gratz offers a cautionary tale for other urban areas: when local residents and businesses have a voice, true revitalization can happen.