The Road Back Series
Part 1 of 3
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a domestic form of battle fatigue settled over New Orleans like the muck that remains after floodwaters recede. People in all corners of town were simply overwhelmed by what they saw, felt, experienced -- and feared. Optimism was in short supply. Devastation was everywhere.
Now, as the long recovery period begins, many still are daunted by a threshold question: Where do we start?
We think the answer lies in another threshold question: What are our priorities?
To answer that question, Gambit Weekly set out to ask as dozens of New Orleanians -- from a wide array of backgrounds and disciplines -- three fundamental questions about the rebuilding process:
• What should our priorities be?
• What elements of New Orleans must we preserve at all costs?
• What mistakes must we avoid at all costs?
The first step was tracking down local opinion-makers, business owners, artists, musicians, civic leaders and just plain folks in the aftermath of the New Orleans Diaspora. We ourselves had been homeless for almost two months. Finding respondents was difficult, but engaging those we found was easy. Everyone we located couldn't wait to help weave this tapestry of thought about New Orleans' future.
Maybe that's the real first step each of us can take: getting engaged in the process.
"We need, each of us, to take a serious inventory of our personal and collective pride in our city and each do our part to make that better," says Jonathan Ferrara, an artist who also owns Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. "We have a unique opportunity to make it better, but we can also screw it up."
That mix of hope and warning was a common thread.
"It's a new day in New Orleans, and we have the opportunity to paint a new picture of our city," says civil engineer and businessman Roy Glapion Jr. "This picture will represent the new New Orleans. Our old picture had many errors that seemed impossible to solve, such as crime and education issues. My concern is who's holding the paintbrushes that will define our city for the next century?"
The sense of opportunity was another recurring theme.
"Out of the tremendous pain and suffering that came at the hands of this catastrophic event, New Orleans now has the distinct, unprecedented opportunity of a second chance to right its wrongs, to replace its disparities with equalities, to integrate its segregated communities, to rank our children and their educational needs at the top of our priority lists," says Lynette Colin, branch manager of the HOPE Community Credit Union in Central City. "I pray that we seize this opportunity to make New Orleans what it should be -- one of the top ranking cities in the nation."
Others showed their grit.
"Adversity reveals character, it does not build it. I still believe in this city," says Rod West, chief counsel for Entergy.
Chef John Besh echoed that sentiment: "We don't need to sell our city -- just clean it up and it will return, better than ever. I've got everything riding on it."
"When we get discouraged, we need to remember that if our ancestors had quit when life got tough, none of us would be here," says Charlie Smith, a poet and lobbyist for the arts.
More than anything else, New Orleanians from all walks believe that the city must rebuild itself socially as well as physically and economically.
"New Orleans has the opportunity to become a model of urban renewal and revitalization," says Ron Forman, CEO of the Audubon Institute. "We must hold true to what makes us unique -- our culture, our history, our diversity, our lust for life. At the same time, we must fix what was and is broken -- our schools and the threat (and reality) of violent crime in our city. We will have resources we could not have imagined. But, we must reach across race, geography, history and politics to work together."
"As a community, we have to take ownership, but first we must avoid the racial divide that we've known," says Irvin Mayfield, jazz maestro, composer and artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. "Rebuilding New Orleans isn't a white or black issue, it's an American issue. We're all Americans and we should be proud of our city as Americans."
In that spirit, our first post-Katrina cover story also kicks off a three-part series, "The Road Back," with a discussion of our priorities, our heritage, and our aspirations as a community. We hope it's just the beginning of a productive American dialogue.
All priorities should be wrapped in a refusal to accept mediocrity, the status quo, and reflect a commitment to national excellence.
Patrick C. Breaux, M.D.
President, Orleans Parish Medical Society
"Our three top priorities should be jobs, public elementary and secondary education, and health care. New Orleans should pursue economic development in biotechnology and information technology. To attract these jobs, however, we must solve our public education crisis in the city. Prior to Katrina, health care was the largest employer (if you include hospitals, physician practices, the medical schools, pharmaceutical companies, etc.) We had three academic medical centers, two medical schools, a vibrant private practice medical community and a safety net system for all citizens. We must preserve much of this infrastructure if we expect people to move back to New Orleans. Access to quality health care is a huge 'quality of life' measure that we should seek to ensure in the rebuilding process."
Managing Partner, Dickie Brennan's Restaurants
"We need real protection. Solve coastal erosion and put in a levee system that will eliminate any doubt about the future safety of our citizens. Then, realign parish governments into 'metropolitan area services.' Other cities have had success coordinating basic services. Police, schools, and public transportation are all basic services. We don't need eight different police forces. We need one agency to take care of all the levees. We also must create a new business environment. Business needs a single entry point to government that is state-of-the-art and supports their efforts to locate and expand here. We have a tendency to prevent businesses from wanting to make investments in New Orleans because of old ways."
President/CEO, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau
"All priorities should be wrapped in a refusal to accept mediocrity, the status quo, and reflect a commitment to national excellence. Priority one should be the re-establishment of the basic economics of the city -- the hospitality industry, the port and maritime industry, and the creation of unprecedented tax stimuli to make this the most attractive business zone in America. Priority two should be restoration of all essential city services (including a thorough cleaning of the city) utilizing a creative, incentive-driven privatization approach that makes New Orleans the leanest, most efficient city in the nation. Third should be the total re-engineering of the public school system, utilizing an innovative, downsized, charter school approach with new governance, school buildings, and freedom from old rules, barriers, and politics."
Branch Manager, HOPE Community Credit Union
"Develop affordable housing stock in diverse, integrated neighborhoods throughout the city -- neighborhoods that bear the distinction of a residential mix of socio-economic backgrounds that will encompass both rental and owner-occupied properties, complete with sustainable infrastructure. The timely attraction of adequate private reinvestment capital will greatly enhance public investment contributions for the rebuilding and revitalization of the New Orleans small business community. Priority must be given to small and disadvantaged businesses, non-profit organizations and micro-enterprises."
"We need to fundamentally reduce the cost of doing business in New Orleans, and we need to focus economic development on what we can be the best in the world at doing. This state needs to take the courageous step to eliminate all income taxes. Like nothing else, it will induce companies and people to stay, grow and even relocate here. To push us to new heights, we should bring a world-class culinary institute to New Orleans. With New Orleans to spice up the branding, this Institute could be the best in the nation, a culinary university which draws people from all over the region and the world."
Artist, Gallery Owner
"Transparency must be a top priority in the rebuilding process. We, the people of New Orleans, must be able to see where the reconstruction money is going. Given our history of corruption, we must know that the dollars intended for rebuilding our great city are not going to line the pockets of 'connected' individuals."
CEO, Audubon Institute
"First, build a safe New Orleans. Repair and rebuild our levee system. This is critical, and I'm certain it is on the mind of any individual or business considering staying or investing in New Orleans. Focus also on public safety and rebuilding our Police Department. Immediate attention must also be paid to the businesses New Orleans has and those we are on the brink of losing due to circumstances created by Katrina. Adopt a plan that will stimulate the economy and bring jobs back to New Orleans in the short term and focus on long-term growth."
Roy Glapion Jr.
Civil Engineer & Businessman
"Our top priority should be helping the people of New Orleans return to their quality of life as quickly as possible. In doing that, we must make certain that ALL local or Louisiana-based firms are being utilized in the rebuilding process. This is currently not being done. We also must make certain that the people of New Orleans are informed about the progress of our city."
"New Orleans' top three priorities should be competitive education, meaningful housing assistance, and compassionate capitalism."
"Analyze, design and construct an improved levee system before June 2006. Prepare a comprehensive plan to rebuild New Orleans based on science, natural capitalism, equity and speed. Create a plan of evacuation for hurricane season 2006 that works for everyone."
Executive Director, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation
"Economic and cultural integration should permeate the three major components of rebirth -- education, economic development and neighborhood restoration. Public, private and parochial schools must develop collaborative relationships and put an end to our extreme segregation. ... Music and the Arts must be an integral part of learning. Partner with cultural institutions that expand learning opportunities: NOMA, Backstreet, LPO, Ashe, CAC, Mardi Gras, Ogden, D-Day, Jazz Fest. Build on our cultural economy: music, literature, culinary arts, film, theatre, architecture, folk life, crafts, dance, visual arts, celebrations, fashion and design. Stabilize endangered neighborhoods that contribute to the greatness of the community from Treme and Mid-City to the Ninth Ward and the Lakefront. Provide assistance to homeowners who do not have the resources to gut their home."