Four years after Katrina, the rebuilding of New Orleans is not proceeding the way anyone envisioned, nor with the expected cast of characters. (If I may emphasize: Brad Pitt is the city’s most innovative and ambitious housing developer.) But it’s hard to say what people were expecting, given the magnitude of the disaster and the hopes raised in the weeks immediately following. Seventeen days after the storm, President George W. Bush stood in Jackson Square and promised: “We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.”
The terms we, as long as it takes, and help turned out to be fairly elastic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency shuttered its long-term recovery office about six months later, after a squabble with the city over who would pay for the planning process. Since then, depending on whom you talk to, government at all levels has been passive and slow-moving at best, or belligerent and actively harmful at worst. Mayor Ray Nagin occasionally surfaces to advertise a big new scheme (a jazz park, a theater district), about which no one ever hears again. A new 20-year master plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance was being ironed out early this summer, but it remains subject to city-council approval. A post-Katrina master plan has been under discussion since before the floodwaters were pumped out.
In the absence of strong central leadership, the rebuilding has atomized into a series of independent neighborhood projects. And this has turned New Orleans—moist, hot, with a fecund substrate that seems to allow almost anything to propagate—into something of a petri dish for ideas about housing and urban life. An assortment of foundations, church groups, academics, corporate titans, Hollywood celebrities, young people with big ideas, and architects on a mission have been working independently to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods, all wholly unconcerned about the missing master plan. It’s at once exhilarating and frightening to behold.
“If you look at the way ants behave when they’re gathering food, it looks like the stupidest, most irrational thing you’ve ever seen—they’re zigzagging all over the place, they’re bumping into other ants. You think, ‘What a mess! This is never going to amount to anything,’” says Michael Mehaffy, the head of the Sustasis Foundation, which studies urban life and sustainability and has worked with neighborhood organizations here. “So it’s easy to look at New Orleans at the grassroots level and wonder, What’s going on here?’ But if you step back and look at the big picture, in fact it’s the most efficient pattern possible, because all those random activities actually create a very efficient sort of discovery process.”
–full article at TheAtlantic.com