Along the stretch of U.S. Highway 90 that follows the contours of the Biloxi waterfront, the casino-hotels that sprang up after gambling was legalized in 1990 had been stripped of their windows. Their concrete façades looked as if big dogs had gnawed on them. Several of the dockside casinos—gargantuan floating gambling barges—unmoored by Hurricane Katrina sat alongside the road like beached whales. Inside the Bimini Bay Ballroom of the hotel Isle of Capri (lately nicknamed the Isle of Debris), Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour had just delivered a speech about the resilience of the people of Mississippi. "Those kind of people are depending on us," he said, choking with emotion, to a room full of architects and planners—many of whom were also moved to tears.
Disasters, I decided, make strange bedfellows. Under what other circumstances would Governor Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, have invited a swarm of New Urbanist architects, planners, and building-code wonks to Biloxi?Regardless of their political leanings, these professionals have dedicated their lives to designing developments that favor mass transit and bicycles over automobiles and to an aesthetic that requires the implementation of endless nitpicky regulations. Not customary Republican turf. But six weeks after Katrina tore the Gulf Coast to shreds, here was planner Andrés Duany, guru of the movement that has planted white picket fences, pastel-colored Victorian cottages, and manicured footpaths from coast to coast, holding a massive New Urbanist charette—an architectural brainstorming session—in a garish casino-hotel ballroom. Here was Duany playing Patton, issuing urgent design commands. "We need to act quickly," he told his assembled troops as he urged them to disperse across the region and ask people questions: "What would you want to see brought back? What would you rather not see brought back?"
The Mississippi Renewal Forum, as the charette was called, was ostensibly about rebuilding what had been lost, but it was also about conjuring up a Mississippi Gulf Coast that never was, transforming a necklace of mostly quiet, historic Southern towns into the sort of charming, quasi-historic tourism magnets—think Seaside, Florida—for which the New Urbanists are known. Here in Biloxi, Mississippi was staking its claim as the new Florida, only better—as a destination for retirement-age baby boomers who hunger for the "authenticity" that the overdeveloped Sunshine State lacks. "I see us offering a combination of Biloxi, Charleston, South Beach, Key West, and Las Vegas…all rolled into one," I was told by Leland Speed, the Jackson-based real estate mogul who heads the state's development authority and who brought Barbour and Duany together. "I think you'll find a mood down here of 'Hey, this is an opportunity now. We've suffered the pain. We have a real opportunity to do something good.'"
The phrase Mississippi Renewal (redolent of "urban renewal") was a signal that the charette would have to tackle a remarkably thorny set of problems. Given the unfathomable amount of damage caused by Katrina—estimates range from $25 billion to $125 billion—it will be a superhuman undertaking to simply make the Mississippi Gulf Coast habitable again, but the desire to make it anew, with an ambitious set of goals and priorities, adds another layer of complexity. In Mississippi, as in New Orleans, many low-income people were displaced by Katrina and may not be able to return. And much of the region's history has been literally erased. So how do you re-create the architectural tradition of a place without going the Disney route?Does redevelopment have to mean high-rise condos and big-box stores?Could the New Urbanists, who have mostly developed pricey suburban enclaves, deal with a set of problems that are genuinely urban in scope?