The Keys to the City
Jan. 22, 2006
Debate has swirled for months now on the role that federal, state, and local governments and leaders should play in the rebuilding of New Orleans. To be successful, it must surely get the basics right - but it has to do more than patch up buildings and infrastructure.
The real key lies in recapturing the very soul of this great city - its unique culture, authentic quality of place, and incredible openness to diversity and self-expression. Rebuilding New Orleans as a sustainable, inclusive, and creative community will not only ensure its own success, but also provide a much-needed model for all 21st-century cities.
Do the people of New Orleans want a solution like that? We certainly know what they don't want. Residents reacted angrily, shouting "over my dead body," on Jan. 10, when the city's commission unveiled its long-awaited proposal. Under the plan, many neighborhoods would have four months to come up with community restructuring plans or face the bulldozer.
Not surprising. The commission's top-down plan failed to take into account the most important facets of New Orleans' life: the incredible urban fabric of its neighborhoods and the energy of its people. Fortunately, a Soul of the City survey, conducted by Gallup in May and June, before Hurricane Katrina hit, sheds important light on what New Orleans residents value most in their lives and their city.
While experts have made much of this city's supposed fraying social fabric, New Orleans respondents to the Gallup survey registered the highest level of satisfaction with their personal life of the more than 20 major American metros surveyed. A remarkable 53 percent of residents - young and old, rich and poor, black and white - said they were "extremely satisfied" with their day-to-day lives - higher than in New York, Boston, San Francisco or Washington.
In the haste to focus on the
"big things" like repairing the Superdome and bringing tourists back, leaders are neglecting the subtler, more important questions of authentic quality of place and self-expression that serves as the underlying fabric and soul of any great city. This underlying soul is precisely what provides such an impressive level of life-satisfaction to New Orleans' residents and is what city leaders need to better understand to rebuild the city successfully.
Churches and religious institutions are among the cornerstones of New Orleans' soul. Sixty-one percent of New Orleans residents said they spend time in worship, prayer or meditation every day, and an astounding 56 percent said they had attended church in the last seven days, higher than in all other cities surveyed. If rebuilding is to be successful, it is critical that every effort be focused on reopening these churches as community centers of faith, spirituality and community connection.
Interestingly, another key lies in this city's famous nightlife, which residents view as an equally crucial asset. This goes far beyond Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. The city's myriad jazz clubs, neighborhood bars and taverns are sites of musical innovation, joyful celebration and community. They allow people to be themselves and - alongside the neighborhood churches - weave into the intricate fabric of "third places" (places outside work and home) where people congregate to have fun, express themselves and connect.
The city's great universities - from Tulane to the University of New Orleans and more - have just begun to welcome back students for the new spring term. They must remain at the core of this community resurrection effort. Residents felt the "quality of colleges and universities" - along with its churches and religious institutions - was the most important factor in choosing a place to live and work.
Indeed, the Gallup survey shows that two key issues make people satisfied with their city, likely to recommend it to others, and likely to stay for the foreseeable future. The first one is its capacity for diversity and self-expression: its openness to people regardless of race, ethnicity, age, family situation, or sexual orientation. The second is its "quality of place," its overall aesthetic and physical beauty, air and water quality, great open space, and authentic neighborhoods.
The rebuilding effort cannot neglect New Orleans' impressive natural environment, public parks, bustling boulevards, and historic neighborhoods. According to the Gallup poll, the "beauty and physical setting of the city" and the "availability of parks and green space" are among the things that matter most to New Orleans residents.
The people of New Orleans were far more satisfied with their personal lives than with the city itself, according to the Gallup survey, a sharp contrast to respondents from cities like New York, Austin and Denver, in which personal life and city satisfaction were more closely aligned. Crime and safety are an issue: New Orleans needs to be made safer and more secure than it was before if it hopes to attract huge numbers of people. Politically, the city must get its house in order and end its long legacy of political corruption, infighting and inefficiency.
The city was moving in the right direction before Katrina struck. While residents felt the hangover from the historical heritage of political corruption (45 percent of residents say city government has low ethical standards), a large majority felt their leadership was moving New Orleans in the "right direction."
On a visit to the city in August, I was struck by the large number of professional ex-pats who had been attracted back to New Orleans because of that change of direction. Tremendous enthusiasm was being generated by the efforts of Greater New Orleans Inc., Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, and others to spur the development of dynamic creative-industry clusters around the region's technology base, universities, tourism, and music and film industries. The city's cultural commission, led by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, continues to stress the importance of music and cultural expression to New Orleans' authentic soul.
The people of New Orleans know what they want. More than just reconstructed levees, a refurbished downtown, or even rebuilt homes, they want the soul of the city back. Their insights - both angry and enthusiastic - remind us of the underlying source of resilience that really rebuilds fallen cities: the people. Let's hope that their leaders will understand this, and provide us all with a compelling model of a creative, prosperous and sustainable city.
To view Richard Florida's Web site, go to http://go.philly.com/florida
For the reconstruction effort in New Orleans, go to http://go.philly.com/bigeasy
For New Orleans photographs by Tom Gralish, go to http://go.philly.com/katrinapix
Richard Florida (firstname.lastname@example.org) is author of "The Flight of the Creative Class."