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Returning and Rebuilding

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One of the many highlights from my most recent stay in New Orleans (others include seeing the Mahotella Queens at Snug Harbor, and virtually every opportunity to eat) was a conversation with a friend who works in the field of housing assistance. "My phone is clogged daily with calls from evacuees," she said, referring to the people who were bussed, or choppered, to unknown destinations, where they remain to this day. They may, she continued, have landed better jobs in their new locations, better housing, and their kids may have better schools. So why is her phone clogged with their calls? "They just can't wait to come home."

It's what I suspected two years ago, when outside pundits surmised that the "betters" would lure New Orleanians to Houston, or Atlanta, or wherever. The fierce and deep bond people have to the city is the "X" factor that has to be weighed in the balance against the multiple obstacles -- continued red tape in the "Road Home" program, absent leadership in the Mayor's office, federal fecklessness, a disturbing crime situation (made worse by the performance of the recently-resigned DA, Eddie Jordan, whom the Mayor helped persuade to step down; that's one trick Ray Nagin has in his arsenal, sharing his lack of visibility with other officeholders who need it) -- to speedy recovery.

Robin Pogrebin, in Tuesday's NYT, took a look at one of the tangible faces of that recovery, the design and construction of the new vintage of houses and public buildings. Of course, there actually are new, and restored, houses going up, while the public buildings remain concepts, if not whims and fancies. But the piece, which is heavy on quotes from architects and planners, revisits once more the fantasy that post-K New Orleans was a "clean slate" that planners should have seized to write a new chapter in the history of urbanism, and that those who resist are "historicists" in sentimental thrall to a past that's not coming back.

To most of us who live in the city and love it, the clean slate theory ignores some basic truths: old houses, the ones we're in hock to maintain, were built the way they were (despite some airs and pretensions in design) because it made sense for the area and climate. Big high windows and front porches weren't only sensible for a time before air conditioning; like office-tower windows that can actually open, they make sense in times of emergency when the first thing to go out is the electricity. And houses were built using cypress because that local wood is the best adapted to the high humidity conditions of the area. That's why old houses, gutted to the studs, are still habitable. There are splendid examples -- not all that many, to be sure -- of indisputably new architecture taking its place gracefully among the old. I'd point to the "Fred and Ginger Building" by Frank Gehry, nestling comfortably amid 19th century buildings on a prominent corner in Prague. But that kind of respectful contemporary addition to a historical tapestry doesn't follow from viewing the place as an empty tablet upon which the architect and planner can be freed from all constraints of time and place. Planners already so freed in certain New Orleans areas--like "renewed" old public housing tracts -- have ignored one of the basic parts of that city's life, the street grid that makes possible corner groceries, corner bars, corner everything. Superblocks may look nice on a clean slate, but the New Orleanians who ache to return want to come back to someplace that looks, and feels, like the city they have missed for so long.