One of my many readers pointed me toward a really good article at Planetizen by Roberta Brandes Gratz of the Project for Public Spaces. The article, called “Citizen Recovery Efforts Hit Government Barriers in New Orleans” is about the trials of re-building and repairing (apparently against the wishes of governmental forces) in New Orleans, but I was struck by the similarities with preservationists’ own experience on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina. For those unfamiliar with those experiences, I’ve created a semi-short (ok, it’s not short really, but it could have been lots longer) summary here. In general, I would say that New Orleans is going through the same tribulations that our own Gulf Coast went through, but Mississippi’s demolition/debris-removal phase began almost immediately after the storm surge washed out and was mostly completed within the first year after the storm. Some scattered demolition is still occurring today, but nowhere near the level we saw in that first year.
The biggest frustration for those of us who care about our historic properties and historic districts has been the push by all levels of government (it’s not a dysfunction confined to New Orleans) to demolish rather than repair. According to FEMA, Katrina was the first disaster in which that agency paid for demolition on private property–previously, property owners would have had to demolish their own buildings. While at first glance, this seems like a helpful thing to do, when you stop to think about the fact that on the Gulf Coast it meant giving an incentive to overwhelmed property owners to clear 70 miles of waterfront property (granted that a large portion of that property had already been “cleared” by Katrina itself) that would then be ripe for large-scale development, it seems less innocent. FEMA insists to this day that they are not allowed to spend money that would “improve” private property, refusing to see that removing hundreds of privately owned houses on small lots overlooking the water is itself a way of “improving” the property, mainly for predatory developers.
And it’s even more infuriating to think that I as a taxpayer paid for the demolition of even huge buildings like the Tivoli Hotel, when in fact, that building was heavily damaged (but repairable) by a casino barge that had loosed its moorings in as clear a case of owner negligence as I can see. If the hotel owner wanted it demolished, he should have sued the casino to demolish it, imho.
Here’s an excerpt from the Ms. Gratz’ article, and I hope you’ll read the rest by clicking here:
The momentum of bureaucracies, not an unfamiliar condition in every city, is often unstoppable. But, could it be that the city gets only demolition money from FEMA, not for repairs, and also uses CDBG money to tear down but not rebuild houses? The state, too, pays for demolition only. HUD provides Road Home money for the city to pay contractors and non-profit organizations to repair affordable housing units. Recently it was revealed that the city has failed to even spend the millions — somewhere between $11 and $35 million — given it by HUD, although non-profit organizations have done work and not yet been reimbursed. There has been no money for repairs except for small select programs of private and philanthropic groups. On all levels of government demolition is easier to come by than renovation. The only repair money is the federal Road Home Program and a very small state historic preservation grant program with onerous strings attached. One eligible grantee elevated his house and was disqualified [my note: I have some quibbles with these assertions–“onerous” is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes owners have elevated much higher than their house even flooded, making their house tower over their neighbors and be structurally precarious to boot). Worse, some of the grant money went to homes that are now scheduled to be demolished for the tragically-sited new Charity hospital. The term Catch 22 was invented for post-Katrina New Orleans.
I’m also glad Ms. Gratz introduced me to the blog Squandered Heritage which, like Slabbed, takes a complex and frustrating subject that seems overwhelming to even try to understand and attempts to make some sense of it.
I understand that there are many public servants at all levels of government trying to make sense of contradictory laws and regulations and do the best they can for the Coast. But I also understand that preservation laws have only entered the picture as a series of boxes on a form to be checked so that plans that have already been made can move forward. We will have a few success stories like Beauvoir and Waveland School, but when I think about all the beautiful pieces of history that could have been saved and repaired, if only FEMA and the other government agencies had had an ounce of wanting to, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.