April 19, 2010
By Thomas J. Walsh
NEW ORLEANS – As river cruises go, one walks a fine line between the authentic and the touristy in terms of unique, Big Easy flavor when embarking on the Steamboat Natchez.
True, the Natchez is a real steam-powered, paddle-wheeled riverboat, but it is made of steel, not wood, and built in the 1970s. The Dixieland band was good and energetic, but played mostly crowd favorites, including one or two that no self-respecting Second Line street parade would be caught dead sounding out.
But the catfish was great and the crowd lively for the two-hour tour as a group from the American Planning Association, which held its annual conference here last week, looked out upon the New Orleans skyline up and down the Mississippi River. Besides, you can’t help but root for a commercial enterprise that made 21 trips a week pre-Katrina, dropped down to six when it resumed operations (all 12 of the crew lived on the boat for weeks after the storm), and is slowly creeping back up to its old capacity.
“I’ve just loved experiencing the city,” said Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission. “It’s similar to Philly in that it’s on a waterfront, and it’s historic, but culturally it’s so different. And architecturally, it’s incredibly interesting.”
Gladstein and Alan Urek, director of the Strategic Planning and Policy Division of the Planning Commission, two of a group of five planners from Philadelphia to make it to the convention, spoke to PlanPhilly about the conference and the city while onboard.
Urek called the Crescent City “an incredible laboratory” for planning in the context of recovery efforts, some ideas of which are being replicated in more subtle ways in other cities.
Gladstein was grateful for the chance to tour parts of the city not necessarily part of the official APA tours, which seemed to be the case with many convention-goers we encountered.
To a person, those who ventured into the Lower 9th Ward described it as worse than they thought it would be, going on five years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Streets and streets of boarded-up houses still dominate the area, and many, if not most, are destroyed beyond repair. Piles of debris still litter the area. There are areas of discernable hope, especially near the levee walls, where whole neighborhoods were washed completely away.
There, where the stone footings stand like gravestones on the spots of former houses, experimental nonprofits like Global Green and the Make It Right group are building scattered homes high up on steel pilings (see previous PlanPhilly coverage here). They are reminiscent of the New Orleans shotgun houses, but architecturally and environmentally cutting-edge.
In the meantime, the rest of the city, still on a high from the Saints winning the Super Bowl, took a black eye during the conference with some high-profile gunfire incidents. On a recent Saturday night, in the midst of the annual French Quarter Festival, eight people were shot amid the crowds on Canal Street. Seven people were shot in the city on the Monday of the conference (the night of the steamboat ride), two of them fatally. In April alone, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that 30 people have been shot, with seven dead.
Then there was the positive news. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who delivered the opening keynote address to the APA, cut the ribbon on 101 new apartments at a former St. Bernard housing development in the nearby parish. He also announced several other new initiatives.
The town also got its very own primetime HBO program, “Treme,” which kicked off Sunday evening to excellent local reviews.
Wrapping up the conference was Adolfo Carrion, director of the White House Office on Urban Affairs, who spoke Tuesday afternoon. Carrion detailed targeted funds of $100 million in the 2010 budget (and some $710 million in the proposed 2011 budget), to finance the Sustainable Communities Planning Grant Program through HUD. The program would assist with tying together planning efforts across cities, metropolitan areas and regions.
Such is the up-down nature of New Orleans, where revelry can turn into terror in an instant. The next morning, the streets are hosed down, the bars and restaurants all open, and the jazz in the Quarter never stops.