Everything that is positive and negative these days in New Orleans was anticipated by author Jane Jacobs a half-century ago.
Her 1961 book, “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” changed the way the world views cities and is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century. At the high point of what Washington liked to call “urban renewal” — the tabula rasa, demolition-derby approach — it introduced a new way of thinking about city planning.
The importance of walkable neighborhoods, local plans, “eyes on the street,” mixed use, preservation of older buildings, transit, communities, diversity and appropriate density are all mainstream ideas today. They were revolutionary when Jacobs introduced them.
In seven books, she warned about the disruptive nature of “cataclysmic money” and observed the healthier momentum of “organic change.” She observed the inherent strength of “local wisdom” emerging from the bottom up and foresaw the long-term damage inflicted by out-of-scale, out-of-context projects. She described the fundamental strength of small, local businesses, as opposed to the strangling effect of a single dominant industry or the prevalence of national chains. She made clear the parallels between the ecology of nature and the ecology of cities and how the balance of each depends on the balance within.
May 4, 2016, marks the centennial of Jane Jacobs’ birth. It is an appropriate moment to look at New Orleans through a Jane Jacobs lens, to better evaluate the direction the city is headed. Citizens all over town will be leading Jane Jacobs Walks to observe the conditions and issues in their neighborhoods, as well as downtown. Collectively, their energy and observations should help amplify the public voice that gained strength during the decade after Katrina but now seems to be losing impact.
Jacobs did not try to dictate how things ought to be; she wasn’t prescriptive. Instead, she relied on direct observation to determine what worked and what didn’t. Local wisdom, she found, is where the best ideas for change take root. They don’t come from political leaders, planning professionals, developers or credentialed experts. The nurturing of local wisdom is the idea behind Jane Jacobs Walks.
Looking at New Orleans through the Jacobs lens, there is much to celebrate, especially hard won battles fought by local residents. The 2.6-mile Lafitte Greenway, a multi-use trail and linear park, is a great bonus pushed for by nearby residents since Katrina and opened last year. Bike trails have emerged all over town.
Neighborhood shopping streets have been transformed into classic Jacobsian mixed-use thoroughfares, filled with pedestrians, street life and festivals: Think Freret, Oretha Castle Haley, Maple and Oak. Magazine Street is another triumph of Jacobsian organic eclecticism, although there is concern about rent hikes that are likely to follow the advent of pricey chain stores like West Elm — an unfortunate byproduct of the street’s success and one that could rob it of its magic. St. Claude is emerging as a new arts district with a variety of offerings and the city’s great corner-store tradition continues, in contrast to the many American cities that lost theirs to “urban renewal.”
New infill housing is evident everywhere, built both by small developers and non-profit organizations, fulfilling Jacobs’ observation that this is the surest way to strengthen and stabilize neighborhoods, in contrast to big, demolition-based projects that simply replace neighborhoods. Not enough of these units fill the need for low-income and affordable housing, a need that’s become desperate since demolition and replacement of the public housing projects forced more low-income residents out than the new projects rehoused.
This is made worse by a City Council that doesn’t seem to have the guts to rein in the overwhelming short-term rental market. It’s pushing housing prices out of reach for many New Orleanians and removing units that otherwise would be available to the residents who could afford them.
Decades ago, Jacobs’ appreciation for old buildings — whether architecturally significant or just plain well built and still useful — fueled a national historic-preservation movement of which New Orleans was an early leader. Current leadership shows little evidence that it fully appreciates how much of the celebrated “new” New Orleans since Katrina is really the result of those preservation fights.
At smaller scale, nonprofits and private developers have restored historic houses. The warehouse district is booming. Canal Street is being transformed through restoration of historic theaters and the conversion of former department stores into hotels. Yet, it can be like pulling teeth to get the City Council or Planning Commission to resist the out-of-scale, wrongheaded projects Jacobs warned about, the ones that break zoning codes and historic district laws and undermine the very character that makes a district so appealing.
Code-busting projects are a recurrent threat downtown and in neighborhoods. Just look at the 190-foot hotel/condominium tower the City Council approved for Royal Street over Planning Commission recommendations, a structure almost three times the 70-foot zoning limit for the historic district and only a year since the voter-approved revision of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. A law suit now challenges that decision.
And also look at the code-busting, high-density apartment complex approved last year for construction in Holy Cross, despite the well-organized and thoughtful objections of the community.
Jacobs observed long before it was generally recognized that the very oldest neighborhoods, the ones that evolved over time, have proved to be the most resilient and magnetic — i.e. Bywater, Marigny, Irish Channel, MidCity. She also saw that “cataclysmic” money in the form of over-scaled and out-of-character development could undermine the gains, as it is now doing in some neighborhoods. The city administration shows no inclination to embrace any solutions that might minimize displacement of low-income tenants and homeowners due to gentrification.
Another Jacobs insight was that good transit systems are the life blood of real cities; car dependency undermines urbanism. Surely New Orleans falls short here, despite its good fortune to still have some of the country’s last remaining streetcars. The new Loyola line requires that buses be re-routed to it, forcing longtime riders to transfer. And the new Rampart Street line only pretends to be a real local service to the neighborhoods of Bywater and Lower Nine, further evidence — if evidence were needed — that “tourism first and foremost” is the engine driving too much city policy.
The idea of a Master Plan with “force of law” passed in the early, optimistic days of post-Katrina reform, and yet seems to hold no sway for political and planning leaders. They treat it like an ignorable “guide” rather than the law.
The City Council is considering an audacious proposal put forth by a well-connected developer for a crash pad and mega entertainment patio space on Chartres in the Bywater, a noisy development guaranteed to penetrate living rooms for blocks around. Calling a huge outdoor bar, swim club, and $30-a-night “rent a bed” hotel an “upscale boutique hostel” does a disservice to the English language. This is a form of what Jacobs defined as “cataclysmic money,” and it is certain to have a disruptive impact on a peaceful, domestic historic district.
As neighborhood resident Fred Starr, the historian and author, appropriately notes: It’s really an updated version of Storyville, the old brothel district — “voluntary for all, to be sure, but with pretty much the same business plan.” Call it a B and B, if you will, Starr adds, but the letters won’t stand for bed and breakfast. How about “bar and bunkhouse.”
Can you imagine a development like that getting approved in the Garden District?
The Uptown voice can still prevail, as shown by the withdrawal of plans to privatize some of the space in The Fly. In contrast, the city announced the sale of 229 properties in the Lower Ninth Ward to five developers after an internal planning process that sought no input from the neighborhood. Rubbing salt in the wound, at least two of those developers are in deep disfavor in the community and no assistance was offered to local property owners still struggling to rebuild. In a neighborhood that has pushed for more than 10 years to get what the Lower Nine deserves — a new school, a community center, a fire station, a small grocery and a drug store — turning over the future to outside developers is a cruel joke. Jacobs would be appalled.
Looking at New Orleans through Jacobs’ eyes is a way to identify changes worth cheering, but they are severely undercut — especially recently — by a political culture so destructive it puts this vibrant city’s very future in doubt.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and author of “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City.”