Can We Rebuild It? Yes, We Can!
September 13, 2005 9:38 AM   Subscribe

David Brooks makes an interesting point. Rebuild New Orleans to ensure that the cycle of generational poverty is broken. Does this seem like social engineering? There is a precedent for this, though. Can it--should it?--be done on a citywide scale? Should the government meddle this much in the day-to-day lives of people?
posted by John of Michigan (30 comments total)
Rebuild New Orleans to ensure that the cycle of generational poverty is broken.

What it would really be is "Rebuild New Orleans to prevent the impoverished from being allowed to stay."

It won't break the cycle, it'll just shove the poor people out.
posted by eriko at 9:41 AM on September 13, 2005

Should the government meddle this much in the day-to-day lives of people?

If they had done a little more meddling, a lot fewer people would be mad right now....
posted by JHarris at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2005

The author seems to identify a lot of problems, but not many solutions ("nothing like before" is not a solution, as far as I know). It sounds to me like he's advocating widescale social engineering, economic central planning and redistribution of wealth. That's fine, and nothing particularly new, but how specifically would New Orleans fit in such an agenda? Also, what eriko said.
posted by loquax at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2005

He does make a point worth considering, but the idea of social engineering has never resonanted very well with me. Busing in the 1970s was a colossal failure here in Northeast Ohio...
posted by tgrundke at 10:08 AM on September 13, 2005

He's suggesting economically integrated instead of economically segregated neighbourhoods. Economically integrated by definition includes poor people. He's advocating diverse neighbourhoods. I have no problem with that, and the research on neighbourhood effects is very clear that these things matter. This is hardly a secret or a subject of controversy.

I don't see any mention of anything that sounds like redistribution of wealth.

I have no problem with trying to rebuild in a manner that creates more economically diverse neighbourhoods, and I think it would be great if developers everywhere were required to build more varied neighbourhoods so there would be housing for lower-income people integrated into every new development.

Of course, he offers no suggestions about what specific steps should be taken to do this in New Orleans, so who knows if his ideas are good ones.

I'm not sure "social engineering" is necessarily implied here. I mean no matter what they're going to build more expensive places and less expensive places. (unless of course they only build more expensive places and much more expensive places). Deciding they should mix these places up rather than separate them is no more social engineering than deciding to separate them. Both decisions will have huge social consequences, so why label only one of those "social engineering"?
posted by duck at 10:24 AM on September 13, 2005

Busing in the 1970s was a colossal failure here in Northeast Ohio...

Worked well in Boston, or at least it is now.
posted by SweetJesus at 10:32 AM on September 13, 2005

Integrate the South? Crazy, but it just might work.
posted by fleacircus at 10:34 AM on September 13, 2005

Economic integration sounds like a good idea to me. I have to admit it sounded like "keep the po people out" from the FPP.

It will be intresting to see what happens, but, I don't exactly have much faith in our government.
posted by delmoi at 10:38 AM on September 13, 2005

As long as they don't build any public housing, I'll be fine with it.
posted by mischief at 10:42 AM on September 13, 2005

Trusting David Brooks to mean well is usually a mistake, but to be fair, he doesn't actually say anything about shoving anyone anywhere. "Social engineering" is going to happen regardless, better it be the kind that's has a stated goal of mixing low-income housing into middle income areas with more successful businesses and a higher tax base, than the undeclared but deliberate red-lining that can doom an entire district economically. City planning has come a long way since the 1950s-70s, thanks to Jane Jacobs and others.
posted by tula at 10:50 AM on September 13, 2005

The multigenerational hard-core poor have already largely been socially engineered out of NO -- their homes are flooded and will be bulldozed eventually, and they've been forcibly relocated elsewhere. The cycle of poverty hasn't been broken, but it's been reapportioned geographically.
posted by alumshubby at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2005

Thanks Mr. Brooks, but I doubt it. I'm sure that many people see the soaked wreck of New Orleans as an opportunity, but not to build economically integrated areas.
posted by palinode at 11:08 AM on September 13, 2005

There are no jobs in New Orleans, just lots of hotels.

There is no way out.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 11:36 AM on September 13, 2005

I wonder if they'll use the Kelo decision to take all of that land.
posted by destro at 11:42 AM on September 13, 2005

The power elite of New Orleans - whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. - insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.

The new city must be something very different, Reiss said, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way," he said. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."
posted by caddis at 11:53 AM on September 13, 2005

On rereading Brooks' piece, it's nonsense. He correctly notes that people in poor neighbourhoods lack "middle-class skills" but attributes this lack to... um... people in poor neighbourhoods. At no point does he wonder why the neighbourhoods are poor in the first place, although he hints at an answer when he says that the "ambitious and organized" ones left long ago. By implication, then, the people still in these neighbourhoods are unambitious and disorganized, which is a polite way of saying lazy and aimless. Why does David Brooks believe that people he regards as lazy will be successful in a middle-class neighbourhood? Either he hasn't examined his attitudes or he doesn't take his own ideas seriously.

If Brooks took a look at why poverty happens, he might come up with better answers. Systemic poverty occurs because the means to a decent income are not available, not because it's culturally acceptable to be unemployed. If Brooks wrote a piece claiming that the victims of the New Orleans flood drowned because they saw others drowning and thought it "seemed normal" to drown as well, you'd see in an instant how blinkered and ass-backwards his argument was.

The poor of New Orleans need jobs along with decent places to live. If no jobs await them when they graduate from their middle-class high schools, then those middle-class neighbourhoods are going to turn into slums once more.

Integrated areas, with people of different class and income levels sharing the same spaces, are a great idea, and one of the things that distinguishes a good city from a decaying urban fortress. But we need clearer thinkers than David Brooks to make it happen.
posted by palinode at 12:36 PM on September 13, 2005

Interestingly enough, the neighborhoods in New Orleans were already pretty diverse, which is to say that the very few rich people in the city lived right next to the poor people. Public housing was everywhere. Sometimes just a block away from million-dollar homes.

It's true that there were huge all-black and all-poor neighborhoods, like the 9th Ward, but that's what happens when 80% of the population is black and poor.

What I'm realizing now that all the post-Katrina discussion has turned to reconstruction is just how clueless most people are about the socio-economic situation in New Orleans. It's a lot more complicated down there than most people imagine.

On Preview, I think palinode is right, what is needed down there are more, better jobs... Something more than the hospitality and fishing industries can offer.
posted by hartsell at 1:13 PM on September 13, 2005

Why does David Brooks believe that people he regards as lazy will be successful in a middle-class neighbourhood?

First, I don't think he's arguing that they won't be poor in middle class neighbourhoods. He's arguing that they will have better outcomes (less teen pregnancy, lower dropout rates, higher college attendance, less violence) if they live in middle class neighbourhoods. These things are not the same as being poor, they are things that accompany poverty, under certain conditions (one of those conidtions being that you are surrounded by a high proportion of poor people.

As to why he thinks this, I don't know why he specifically thinks it, but there's certainly plenty of research that bears this out. Poor people have better outcomes in middle class neighbourhoods. And it's not just because the poor people likely to have good outcomes are the same ones likely to move to middle class neighbourhoods.

Part of the reason is that what you see as "normal" is affected by the people around you. I think it's safe to say that most middle class teens in suburban middle class neighbourhoods, it just never ocurrs to them to drop out of school. The thought never even seriously crosses their minds because it's just something of a non-option. It stops being a non-option when 3 guys in your building did it last year. That doesn't mean you will drop out of school, but it opens the option. And if you do drop out, that's 4 guys in your building who have done it and there's another kid who sees that. It snowballs. You've heard of "tipping points", right? Just because there's a bubblegum pop-y book about it, doesn't mean the concept has no basis in fact. There are tipping points with the concentration of poverty. Once you get a certain proportion of poor people in a neighbourhood you start to see problems that you don't see before that point.

So yes, let's pay attention to why people are poor and why there are not jobs for the unskilled. But let's not forget that all the baggage that comes with poverty is not inevetitable. We can pay attention to that and do something about that, too.
posted by duck at 1:14 PM on September 13, 2005

It's true that there were huge all-black and all-poor neighborhoods, like the 9th Ward, but that's what happens when 80% of the population is black and poor.

Even the poorest of poor neighbourhoods (nevermind cities) wouldn't have 80% poverty. In fact only, 27% of Orleans parish residents are poor. That's very high and in fact likely to be higher than the tipping point for most things (i.e. even if those 27% were fully integrated with the rest of the city and there were no pockets of concentration you might still see problems. So bring on the jobs, as others have said.

And yes, I'm fully aware that official poverty rates exclude many people who would be considered poor in the layman's sense but since neighbourhood effects and tipping points are studied using official poverty rates, they're the best point of comparison.

And a poor neighbourhood right next to ar rich neighbourhood or "public housing just a block a away" isn't particularly good integration.
posted by duck at 1:23 PM on September 13, 2005

Oh, I should add that neighbourhood effects don't affect only the poor. Outcomes are better for anyone living in a middle class neighbourhood than they would be living in a poor neighbourhood.
posted by duck at 1:31 PM on September 13, 2005

It will be interesting to see the effect of dispersing thousands of working class people across the country into other communities. Most of them will not return to New Orleans. They will make lives for themselves elsewhere, for better or worse. When or if New Orleans is rebuilt, I'll be curious to see what the demographic make-up of those returning to the city will be. What kind of person will fill the vacuum left by Katrina? Who will the new New Orleanians be? If you lived at or below the poverty line before Katrina and lost all that you had, why would you return? If you've re-located to a community that is providing for your minimal needs, why take a risk and return to a city that is only your home because it happens to be your previous mailing address?
posted by marcusb at 1:42 PM on September 13, 2005

How many people lived there and how much money is it supposed to cost to repair the city? How much per person? What if, instead of social engineering, they just gave all the state and federal reconstruction money to the former residents and let them do what they like with it, no strings attached?

Some would move away, some would move back in, some would pool their money and buy big things, some would blow it all on dope, some would put it in the bank and start renting a place, but everyone would get a chance to decide what to do, and all that money would be in circulation.
posted by pracowity at 2:00 PM on September 13, 2005

Good point(s), duck.

One thing I found interesting about New Orleans (after growing up in California) is that all the white kids go to private schools, and all the black kids go to public schools. And of course the public schools are terribly underfunded, and therefore totally suck. (of course this problem isn't unique in N.O.)
posted by hartsell at 2:38 PM on September 13, 2005

It's a lot more complicated down there than most people imagine.

Truer words never spoken. We are so far from having a public will for massive urban renewal, so mired in graft at every level in this country, and so strapped for serious resources for domestic projects (thanks George, for blowing a generation's future on Iraq) that it would be a challenge to rebuild Billings, Montana at this point. The best hope is that the people who come back to New Orleans do so out of love for the place and with changed hearts, on all sides of the class/race divide. Because they're gonna be largely in it for themselves, with governmental help both inadequate and corruptly distributed.
posted by realcountrymusic at 3:54 PM on September 13, 2005

The Cold Hard Truth About Not Rebuilding NOLA

"Insanity is doing the same old thing in the same old way & expecting a different outcome." It's hard to listen politely to all those idiots on TV talking about how they want to rebuild the exact same city in the exact same place. Wouldn't it be simpler just to drown them all now and be done with it? I know the Dutch do something similar, but they have no place else to go. Louisiana has lots of room available, there's got to be some part of it available that's above the high tide line.

Finally, someone in the media has the stones to stand up and address the question of what do do with what's left of NOLA.

A Sad Truth: Cities Aren't Forever
By Joel Garreau:

posted by Ken McE at 6:38 PM on September 13, 2005

duck is right about the power of culture on expectations. If you don't expect to go to university, why should you work hard in highschool? I didn't - had 60s and 70s for several years. I could have had 80s (like a 90 in the States), but I didn't try - not until I decided (against the norm of my family and neighbourhood) that I did want to go to university. I've known bright kids who went to community college, because that was just what you did, to get a job.

Now I teach many undergraduates who just think going to graduate school (law, medicine or academic) is just normal - only a few have ever experienced a world in which going to undergrad is in itself a big deal.
posted by jb at 7:17 PM on September 13, 2005

Too bad we're discussing Brooks, and not Garreau. That article makes some very good points without trying to score any.

I know that the touristy NOLA will come back, but the culture of the city is probably blasted away for good. There's no way that the insurance will be there for people wanting to rebuild. It's entirely possible that the city will drop from largest to third-largest city in the state. On some level, this is good -- the jobs just weren't there for all the people who were staying on. The convention and hospitality industry will bounce back, but New Orleans itself is going to lose tens of thousands of people, all but certainly most of them black. This is going to inevitably change the culture of the city.
posted by dhartung at 8:25 PM on September 13, 2005

Wouldn't it be crazy if New Orleans got totally re-built from the ground up.
Totally socially integrated sections of housing and commerce. No one would be too far from work to where they couldn't take the super speed public transportation installed.

The city of the future, 2006-7-8-9!

Even the high speed subway lines would have housing for the mole people that would choose to live there.
posted by Balisong at 11:03 PM on September 13, 2005

A Sad Truth: Cities Aren't Forever
By Joel Garreau

There's no evidence for the Superfund Site/toxicity bit yet. There are assumptions galore in the piece. And Washington D.C. is of course little known for crime and race problems. What an ass.
posted by raysmj at 5:57 AM on September 14, 2005

I wonder if they'll use the Kelo decision to take all of that land.

Exactly. They'll definitely use it for some of the land--in more commercially desirable districts.

If we had an administration that could do anything right, mandating economically mixed buildings and zoning areas is a great idea--we can't trust any of those in power now to do that. (even something as simple as an 80-20 rule for new construction, like we have here in NYC)
posted by amberglow at 6:13 AM on September 14, 2005

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