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Where's America's can-do spirit?


It will soon be a year since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. After that storm laid waste to that storied city, there was much talk of the greatest reconstruction effort in American history. President Bush famously addressed the nation from a floodlit downtown square.

But New Orleans still sits in ruins, littered with abandoned houses and cars and debris. And despite the lofty rhetoric, there are few, if any, visionary plans for reconstruction even on the drawing board, much less at the construction phase.

If the saga of Ground Zero in New York is telling, New Orleans could be in for a long wait. It has been almost five years since the World Trade Center towers collapsed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite all sorts of meetings and plans and competitions and revisions and pronouncements, the site in lower Manhattan is still a massive vacant lot.

"I am struck by the fact that after both 9/11 and Katrina, the almost universal reaction was, 'We're going to show them' - either the hurricane or the terrorists - 'that we're not going to take it, that we're going to build things back bigger and better,' " says Donald Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "But we have not been able to build anything back."

How could this be? The country that has produced some of the world's great urban projects - from New York's Central Park to Baltimore's Harborplace - now seems unable to find a way forward for two of the most publicized civic undertakings in history.

For sure, both Ground Zero and New Orleans are mired in their respective specificities. The former World Trade Center site is controlled by a complex maze of overlapping jurisdictions in an area of changing commercial realities, overlaid by a national need for symbolism.

In New Orleans, the sheer scale of destruction makes taking even the first step toward reconstruction a daunting undertaking. What comes first - new levees, new electric lines, gas lines, roads, sewers? And which neighborhoods get them first?

But in both places, reconstruction efforts seem to be caught between two conflicting political agendas that plague so many projects in the public space.

"Are liberals to blame? In part," says James Morone, a political scientist at Brown University. "They believe in historic preservation - one fragment - in empowering neighborhoods and groups - more fragmentation - in courts - so you get lots of legal action - and in due process - the old bosses didn't worry about due process. These are all admirable ideals but they make it harder to get things done.

"Are conservatives to blame? You bet," he continues. "They don't like government and want to bid things out to the private sector. Works for some things, not for others."

So, the lack of progress in New Orleans and at Ground Zero can be seen, at least in part, as the result of good intentions gone awry. Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, says that the whole idea of broader community involvement in these projects arose in the 1960s.

"They were responding to the brutalization evident in the preceding decades when zoning czars like Bob Moses were able to bulldoze away, building high-rise public housing, destroying the vibrancy of neighborhoods," Oliver says, referring to Robert Moses, who reshaped much of New York City and its suburbs with a variety of large-scale public projects from the 1930s until the 1960s.

Such widespread community involvement, while definitely slowing the pace of redevelopment - particularly when many insist that everyone agree before the first shovelful of dirt is turned - might not be such a bad thing, even today.

"My suspicion is that if this were the 1950s or 1960s, the federal government would have stepped into New Orleans, bulldozed much of the city and built all the kinds of high-rise public housing that most cities are tearing down today," Oliver says. "So decisiveness might not always yield the best outcome."

Baltimore provides cautionary tales in both directions. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski first came to public prominence in the 1960s leading a grass-roots struggle against a Moses-like project to put a highway right through Fells Point. Stopping that is considered a seminal milestone on the road to Baltimore's downtown renaissance.

But the other big milestone, the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, was much more of an old-style political boss type of project, led by Mayor William Donald Schaefer and his do-it-now style which steamrolled all opposition, including activist types who managed to get a Harborplace referendum onto a ballot.

That said, the do-it-now approach also resulted in a black mark on Schaefer's legacy, though one far enough from downtown to attract little notice - the incongruous short stretch of interstate highway in west Baltimore. Extending Interstate 70 into the center of the city and linking it to I-83 was the last remnant of the project Mikulski had blocked, still alive when Schaefer came into office in 1971. Though most said not to build any of the road before the whole thing was approved, Schaefer went with do-it-now and the short stretch was constructed. Community opposition eventually led to the scrapping of the project.

Morone says that the reason you don't see big-city mayors taking the lead in projects like Ground Zero and New Orleans the way they once did is that they don't have the power they once had.

"The dirty rotten secret of American urban politics: The mayors start out with a very weak political hand," he says. "And the bigger the job, the harder it is for them to cut through the chaos. Because power is scattered in dozens of places - and no one wants to give up his or her own slice of the pie."

Johns Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson thinks the problem shows the basic bankruptcy of America's contemporary political system that leads to its failure to deal with many big contentious issues.

"The fact is the way politics works now, it is not about popular support, it is about stakeholders," he says. "Sometimes those stakeholders are interest groups, sometimes they are market forces. But the unifying force of politics no longer provides the institutional framework to get anything done."

In the past, Crenson says, disputes like what to do at Ground Zero or in New Orleans were settled by elections. The voters saw the issues, chose their mayor or governor, and those elected officials led the way. Now, he says, the elected politicians are seen as just another interest group sitting around the table.

"The idea of having an electoral mandate doesn't mean anything," he says.

The successful urban leaders - whether mayors, governors or some unelected civic-minded type - thus become good negotiators, wrangling the various interests and market forces to get enough of them headed in the same direction.

Oliver points out that Chicago's current mayor, Richard M. Daley, was able to do just that to get the downtown Millennium Park built above a former railroad yard.

"He was able to convince people that having this large rail yard right in the middle of downtown was spoiling the aesthetic and property values," Oliver says. "It requires the kind of leadership that builds relationships and trust over a long period of time with various elements of the community."

"And the way to overcome the more right-wing aversion to government action is to use these relationships to show that these types of investments have payoffs, spillover effects, particularly for the commercial sections of cities," he says.

Kettl says that at his best, this is what Moses did in New York. "The genius of Moses was seizing the economic opportunity that was already there, finding other ways of exploiting them," he says. "The problem with both New Orleans and Ground Zero is that we are not sure what the economic opportunities are."

One thing working, somewhat ironically, against New Orleans and Ground Zero is their very visibility and importance. When Schaefer started fussing with the Inner Harbor, no one cared about that collection of rotting buildings and wharves. Only when he turned it into a nice park did opposition to Harborplace arise.

But all sorts of people feel they have a stake in New Orleans and at Ground Zero. So everyone wants to have a say. Which is what they have had for the last five years at Ground Zero. In New Orleans, Kettl says, "There has been a series of trial balloons and almost every one of them has been destroyed before it's gotten very far off the ground."

For some reason, Kettl says, Ground Zero and New Orleans present the kind of problems that the nation as a whole has ceased trying to solve.

"We haven't had the kind of wide-open challenge that both 9/11 and Katrina give us in a long time," he says. "I'm not sure whether we've lost our edge, but we seemed to have encountered a new generation of problems that defies our ability to put our arms around them the way we used to.

"We seem to be lacking the leadership required to make it happen," Kettl says. "Somebody has got to be willing to step forward and do it."

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