A New Orleans obituary has lessons for Galveston

They have their hands full right now, but someday before the plans for rebuilding are set the city leaders in Galveston need to read the critique of the rebuilding effort in New Orleans in Sunday’s paper by Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for The New York Times.

The critique is brilliant and rings true. It reads like an obituary of both New Orleans and America’s dedication to address the urban failures Hurricane Katrina exposed.

But for those with a sense of urban history, the tragedy of New Orleans is not just about governmental disregard for the welfare of the city’s inhabitants. It is about a lost opportunity. All of the great challenges that confront the 21st-century city — from class, race and environmental issues to the continuing duel between history and modernity — are crystallized in New Orleans.

The critique is an indictment of a lack of civic and political vision and leadership. New Orleans has demonstrated an inability to come together to agree upon development plans, and a subsequent failure to invest in and produce an urban community that is livable and uplifting.  Ouroussoff observes that all of the money that has been spent on rebuilding New Orleans has produced a disjointed and scattered rebuilding effort. In this chaotic and haphazard rebuilding the city abandoned the short lived resolution to help lift the poor out of poverty.

Galveston is not New Orleans, although it fancies itself a smaller and gentler version of the Crescent City and has expropriated New Orleans traditions.  In addition to these traditions Galveston shares problems of income inequality, class and race with New Orleans.  Galveston is city with significant poverty. While much has been made of the New Orleans 23 percent poverty rate, Galveston has a poverty rate of 22 percent, including 32 percent of those under age eighteen.  Overrepresented in that poverty population are the more than one quarter of the city’s population that is African-American and the additional one quarter who are Hispanic. In Galveston about one-third of the adult African-American population and slightly less than one half of the Hispanic population do not have a high school diploma or the equivalent.  In New Orleans poorest neighborhood, the lower Ninth Ward the overall figure is 40 percent.

Galveston clearly has some challenges it shares with New Orleans.  It needs to learn from the failures that plague the rebuilding of New Orleans.  The New Orleans model of unplanned rebuilding with no goal to create a better and fairer community is something Galveston should not seek to emulate.

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