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Rebuilding New Orleans

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Launch Slideshow
Photo: Julian Broad

The 42-year-old developer has found a kindred community of young New Orleanians—restaurateurs, musicians, artists, designers—intent on "nudging the city into the 21st century." People like chef Scott Boswell (owner of Cummings’s favorite restaurant, Stella!), "who isn’t afraid to look beyond New Orleans for influences." Or 21-year-old jazz virtuoso Troy Andrews, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty. "He stands on Wynton’s shoulders," raves Cummings. "For a lot of New Orleanians under 25, jazz has become irrelevant—but Troy has the opportunity to reinvent it." (He’s certainly the only horn player I’ve ever seen crowd-surf across a mosh pit.)

"The good news is, post-catastrophe, New Orleans is not as isolated or provincial as it was," Cummings says. "There’s an enormous amount of energy and ideas and new faces coming here now—architects, urban planners, entrepreneurs, academics, this incredible influx of talent. That never happened before."

While reaction to the RTC proposal has been largely positive, Cummings is exasperated by critics who call the plan overpriced, oversize, or, worse yet, unnecessary. "Architecture is a particularly fraught subject here, because we’re surrounded by tradition. People would rather have you build something that looks old than something expressive of this time," he says. "I’m trying to tell them, It’s okay to look forward again. Of course it’s always uncomfortable for a city to evolve, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy. You instinctively cling to what you knew before. But the old ways weren’t working. We’re at a pivotal moment where this city not only can reinvent itself, it needs to. Extinction is not out of the question."

According to some experts, extinction isn’t just out of the question, it’s guaranteed—unless New Orleans’ flood defenses are radically rethought. It’s clear now that the levee system was badly designed, shoddily built, and poorly maintained. Although the Army Corps of Engineers has worked 24/7 to repair it, they’re essentially shoring up a relic, says Robert Bea, professor of civil and environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley. "I compare the current system to a 150-year-old patchwork family quilt," he says. "We’ve replaced sections, but if you challenge the quilt once more, the weak sections will tear all over again." The Corps says New Orleans’ current flood defenses exceed pre-K levels—hardly a ringing endorsement—but are not yet enough to withstand a 100-year storm, one likely to happen once a century. (Though Katrina was only a Category 3 when it skirted New Orleans, the Corps says it was a 400-year storm.) Engineers expect a 100 year storm–proof system to be in place by 2011. Still, even then, another Katrina could overwhelm the city.

Money is obviously the stumbling block here. But given the funding, is it even possible to protect New Orleans from hurricanes?"Absolutely," says Bea, noting that Amsterdam’s flood defenses were designed to withstand a 10,000-year storm. "The Dutch look at us as you would at a primitive country. They can’t believe we’re stopping short," he says. "The fact is, New Orleans can be made safe—but we have to restore the coastal wetlands, which form a natural barrier against hurricanes." That crucial work hasn’t even begun yet. Given the city’s weakened defenses, the next decade will be critical for its survival. No wonder some are comparing New Orleans to Venice—another waterborne museum piece living on borrowed time.

Then there’s the terrible quotient of violence. New Orleans now has the highest murder rate in the country, and although nearly all killings have occurred outside the tourist enclaves, visitors are understandably wary. Fox’s new cop show "K-Ville" probably doesn’t help. Set in present-day New Orleans—guess what the "K" stands for—it depicts the city as a sort of Mogadishu-with-gumbo, where "criminals roam the streets with AK-47’s."

The mayor doesn’t sound overly concerned. In a bizarre remark that speaks to the pervasive desperation here, Nagin recently called the soaring murder rate "a two-edged sword…. It’s not good for us, but it also keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs."

All of which raises a question: Should you come?The answer is: Yes. Yes, by all means, come. Come to rebuild houses with the St. Bernard Project; come to eat grilled watermelon–and–heirloom tomato salad at August or to slurp down gumbo at Liuzza’s; come to take a carriage tour and laugh over how cheesy and delightful it can be; come to show your children what jazz is; come to ogle some of the most breathtaking mansions in America, and to bear witness to the most heartbreaking devastation. "Just being here, putting money back into the city, going to a Saints game, seeing live music, shopping at a local record store—that’s helping the relief effort," says Aimee Bussells, of Renew Our Music.

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