NOLA: The City that Planning Forgot

May 31, 2012
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It was finally time to take a break. Sweat was beading on my forehead and the sound of the air compressor was beginning to take its toll; that deafening roa-oa-oa-oa-oa-r followed by a medusa-like hisssssss. The heat in the room was stifling, and I was mad at Stevie. While I gave the entirety of my being to hammering the floorboards into place, one by one, he stood there like a four year old girl in silly earmuffs coupled quite distastefully with a wifebeater shirt and an extremely unflattering Jersey accent he could have stolen from Snooki. Yes, after a day of endurance, it was time for a break.
I stepped out of the crowded, stuffy house, and entered into the glaring Louisiana sunshine. It was then that I first saw Ms. Shirley Davis and her grandson Brandon for the first time, not knowing at this point who they were or that they would change my life. I don’t normally approach people I don’t know, but Ms. Davis appeared to be struggling. Besides, it was New Orleans, a place where I had seen my grandmother have deep philosophical conversations with complete strangers. So I did it. I gathered up my courage and asked if she needed help. She was surprised, but more than willing to accept the offer. All she needed was someone to spread her mulch on her garden. Her father had been a master gardener, she recounted to me as I spread the mulch, of a type that is most impossible to find—the kind I imagine my great grandmother being when she lived in Louisiana. Gardens are something else in the Mississippi Delta. Give it some time, and you have paradise. Paradise is what I imagined as she described her father’s garden. Rosebushes were his specialty. He and Shirley’s mother had been married for over forty years when the first of them passed. And each year of their marriage, her father had purchased and planted a live rosebush to mark their anniversary. A front yard, crammed to capacity with over forty mature rosebushes—that was her memory of the house her family owned before the storm. After the storm, as was the case with so many New Orleanian homes, the house was uninhabitable and the ground was poisoned. All of the roses had perished, after weeks of submersion in a toxic blend of saltwater, sewage, and chemical waste. Now she had invested her hope in a young knockout rose, an ordinary plant with the love of nostalgia given to it with every watering—all that was left after Katrina, was a hope for the future. The people of New Orleans had been robbed of much of their past. She had contacted every charity she knew of, but because of her public-school teacher salary, was denied any assistance. I was the first person since the storm to offer her help. Somehow, despite living next to a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance worksite, no one had ever noticed her before. So we talked Louisiana history and Brandon and I threw around a purple and gold “Geaux Tigers!” football as she sat outside and watched. Shirley had rebuilt her life. And she had done it without any much-deserved federal assistance. She, like New Orleans, had come back, not because of the USA’s greatness, but from her own hard work and mind-boggling resilience.
What continues to haunt me is the fact that the nation treated Hurricane Katrina as a natural disaster. It’s not as if anything could have been done to stop it: it’s a hurricane for God sakes. George Bush stood in Jackson Square and voice his “sadness” at the event, without failing to mention how he and his friends had some good times getting drunk in the French Quarter. Yeah, that’s all New Orleans is there for, to get super-entitled cowboys totally wasted. Forget about the culture and history and cuisine. As far as Bush is concerned, the city might as well be a giant bar. His concern for Crescent City alcohol did not extend to his voting record. He stood and cheered as congress denied funding for wetland-restoration and diverted funding from planning to “recovery”. The idea was to let the disaster actually happen before having to spend any money on it. At that point it wouldn’t be difficult to shortchange New Orleans entirely.

This is why I feel called to be a planner, for Shirley and for the other million or so people displaced by our nation’s inability and ineptness where planning is concerned. This is where I feel I have something to offer. I love to plan cities. I have always observed problems around me and devised my own solutions to them. At the age of seven, I didn’t think it was fair that only wealthy people had adequate housing. So I designed my own policy of subsidized housing. I also devised my own method to combat urban sprawl, essentially by enacting strict building codes under a campaign that promoted high-rise growth and more compact lots. I drew extensive public transit maps for each of my dozen or so cities. I had essentially designed efficient and idealistic democratic socialism—one paid for one’s quality service in up to 90% taxes. All money left over, after healthcare education and a portion of housing costs were covered by taxes could be dedicated to personal spending. I wasn’t taught these ideas; it was just what maid sense to me. I was born an urban planner, and I cannot wait to share my passion and inspiration with the world. America needs better planning. In the case of New Orleans, the most unique culture in the country is being ignored as it sinks into the gulf. In the case of Atlanta, culture is sacrificed daily for shortsightedness and profit. Trite as it may sound, I want to help solve the world’s problems.

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