Comparing Detroit to NOLA after Katrina not so far off

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A year ago, I mocked conservative pundit Debbie Schlussel for comparing the recession in Detroit to “post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans conditions.”

I’d been to Detroit in 1999, and it was bad, but I still thought her comparison was way off. But I must admit that these recent photos of Detroit remind me of desolate scenes you’d see in New Orleans in the months after the flood.

I can remember many times walking along the dusty wreckage in various parts of town, taking a peek inside an empty building to see the eerie mess inside, often sprinkled with poignant mementos of daily life interrupted.

Of course, New Orleans is no stranger to blight. It had been “deferring maintenance” on its architectural, cultural and historical gems for decades. I’ll never forget darkly laughing at the TV on Aug. 29, 2005, when CNN showed an old building on Broad Street full of tattered, busted windows. “It was like that before the hurricane!” I yelled (in a Motel 6 room in Jackson, Miss.).

Still, it’s sobering to think that large portions of another American city can look so dystopic without having gone through a disaster like the Federal Flood. I guess my question is: Do you think these scenes of urban decay in Detroit are an outlier or a preview?

To be sure, pundits have bemoaned the decline of Northern Rust Belt cities since at least the 1970’s. But how many more hard recessions followed by “jobless” recoveries have to occur before numerous other cities do more than just decline, and functionally implode?

Mayor Mitch Landrieu does the dance every elected leader is supposed to do in tough times: He says that no matter how bad things are, he still believes “our city’s best days lie ahead.” Do you agree with him?  Landrieu expects a Crescent City renaissance as the city reforms and rebuilds after a disaster, but he also talks candidly about how New Orleans is on the “tip of the spear” in terms of its exposure to catastrophe and failing infrastructure.

And he’s right.

New Orleans is in a delicate position in all sorts of ways. Heroic, large-scale work will have to occur to secure New Orleans’ future through the end of the century. But it would be almost tragicomic if New Orleans somehow eludes another catastrophic flood with improved (but insufficient) flood protection infrastructure, yet, like Detroit, gradually collapses into a post-flood-like state anyway, due to economic weakness and neglect.

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