Government & Politics

Comparing Detroit to NOLA after Katrina not so far off

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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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Great article. Yes, I do believe Mitch.

    And thank you for resisting fast and easy Katrina “shorthand”! Thank you for describing the flooding as it truly is. Thank you for not confusing our public.

  • I agree, wit’you and the Mayor.
    If we can get a full 8 years of Mitch’mo, and if he stays smart as I suspect he will, then I can see the NOLA city/region growing exquisitely well into the future decades, despite the coming Age of Heavy Weather. Say what you want about him, but Mitch Landrieu is as sharp as they come. Tell me Mitch’mo ain’t sharp… I’ll say getouttaheah.

    And let’s say he sparks hot enough to then become Governor? He will have had such experience rebuilding over the Ruins of Nagin that righting the Ruins of Jindal will be ripe for the fixins.
    What an oyster, eh erster?
    Nice piece.

  • jeffrey

    Unfortunately we do not live in the era of “heroic, large-scale” infrastructure work. Rather we live in the era of bi-partisan fiscal austerity propelled by “realistic” political compromise. Also any criticism of this program is tantamount to spreading “inflammatory rhetoric” and damaging the “civilized discourse” we’re hoping to achieve so I’d watch it if I were you.

  • C Ross

    Check out the Detroit Free Press’s website and you literally can replace the names listed with local ones and it’s like reading NOLA. The mayor is tied up in a huge scandal. Fights for control of education. Blight. They are even considering ways to reduce the city’s footprint.

  • Any number of times I’ve seen photos of blight that remind me of New Orleans, both pre and post flood…as to your other question, I’ve assumed economic conditions and cultural preferences of people younger than myself would spur urban revitalization…but that assumes a functional economy. In a depression, all bets are off, I guess.

  • Check out my recent article on Detroit neighborhood-based regeneration on (go to Roberta Brandes Gratz) and you’ll see another parallel between Detroit and NOLA, i.e. small but important neighborhood-based efforts that make a positive difference.
    Roberta Brandes Gratz, author The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.

  • True – the headlines we experience here in Detroit are often interchangable with those of New Orleans.

    I lived in New Orleans for 9 years and now reside in Detroit, and can say with all confidence that while comparisons are apt, New Orleans as a city is better off than Detroit – even without a hurricane. While Detroit’s suburban cities are more affluent as a whole than metro New Orleans, within the city limits of Detroit there are no counterparts to the thriving French Quarter or Uptown areas of New Orleans. However, this makes Detroit’s struggling bright spots of community among vast swathes of neglect all the more heroic and miraculous.

    The good news is, Detroit has nowhere to go but up…