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Remaking the Gulf Coast

Looking to answer some of these questions, I visited the town of Bay St. Louis, tagging along with one of the 11 teams of architects and planners the charette dispatched to localities all along the coast. The team was headed by Bill Dennis, a Rhode Island-based planner best known for his work on Mashpee Commons, a Cape Cod strip mall that was transformed into a faux–Main Street business district. I picked Bay St. Louis because I'd heard two things about it: that, with a vibrant arts scene and a lively waterfront downtown, it had been one of the most appealing towns in the state, and, because it was so close to Katrina's second landfall, it was battered beyond recognition.

The central business district looked at best as if it had been visited by Gordon Matta-Clark, the artist famous for splitting houses in two. And at worst, well, many buildings and even entire neighborhoods were reduced to concrete foundations and rubble that covered the ground like hellish garden mulch. An old railroad depot that still stood had been turned into a city hall and relief center. Outside, I chatted with a crew from the Army Corps of Engineers. They were working on the "blue roof" project, covering the gaping holes in roofs with blue plastic tarps. The tarps were everywhere, blue Band-Aids on the landscape.

A motley group of citizens had gathered in the depot's upstairs meeting room, where poster-sized satellite photos of the town lined the walls. "We're here to help provide tools to help you get back together," Dennis said. His quiet and self-effacing style seemed to go over well. Clearly, he was not Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead.

Dennis asked a set of questions that Duany had suggested the day before: "What do you love about your town?What have you lost?What have you lost that you didn't like in the first place?"

Listening to the answers, I found myself wishing that I'd come to Bay St. Louis before Katrina. Actually, I'd driven through it 20 years earlier and had been struck at the time by its somnolent beauty, which seemed very exotic to me, like something out of The Andy Griffith Show. As I drove along the Gulf Coast in the mid 1980's people actually waved to me from their porches. I'd always meant to come back.

The biggest collective loss in Bay St. Louis, most people agreed, was a restaurant called Trapani's, where locals and tourists alike went for fried green tomatoes topped with crabmeat or crawfish étouffée. "We can't have a Bay St. Louis without a Trapani's on the beach," declared city councilman Jim Thriffiley, who also mentioned that he'd personally lost more than half of his 810,000-piece baseball-card collection. Another major loss was the galleries and studios. Gwen Impson, president of the local arts association, went on at length about the monthly art parties and about Alice Moseley, a local Grandma Moses who'd died in 2004 but whose home had remained a draw for tourists. That house survived the storm; Mayor Eddie Favre's house was one of hundreds that were simply swept away. "I'm still sleeping at the fire department," he said. "I'm sleeping in the chief's office."

After the meeting, we all piled into a van for a tour of what were once Bay St. Louis's proudest neighborhoods. Along Beach Boulevard, where picture-book mansions had been nestled among live oaks, mile after mile of houses were gone. The concrete foundations that remained were spray-painted with address numbers and the occasional message: Looters, if you come again, you will be shot. Or, All is well. Thank God and State Farm.

Many people, however, had no reason to thank their insurers. Mayor Favre, talking about his own lost home, said, "The insurance companies claim the water got it before the wind." In other words, Favre, like many of his neighbors, didn't have flood insurance, so his losses may not be covered. "What some folks are talking about is just walking away," he acknowledged. So what exactly were all these architects and planners designing?Was the renewal intended for the townspeople with whom they'd spent the day or for the commercial developers who sooner or later would snap up waterfront properties as the locals ran low on resilience?

Back in Biloxi, the Bimini Bay Ballroom had been converted into a giant architecture studio, with rows of long tables and eight-foot-high bulletin boards dividing the room into work areas. After an exhausting day of disaster tourism, Dennis and many of the others went straight to work. By Friday morning, the vast atelier looked like something out of M.A.S.H. It was exciting—inspiring, even—to watch the architects and planners sketching at breakneck speed, smoothing tracing paper over zoning maps and drawing what looked like crop circles but actually indicated five-minute walking radii from proposed new town centers.


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