Sunday, May 21, 2006

Biloxi, FEMA, New Urbanism, and the Sunday Times

Brenda told me about this article in the Sunday NY Times Magazine, in which we revisit the old hometown some nine months after Hurricane Katrina came tear-assing through and leveled everything. So what's new?

Well, a lot. And a little. It's a long article, and well worth a read. Here's the gist of it, plus a little commentary.

A group of architects that ascribe to a particular view of development called New Urbanism. This idea envisions "walkable" cities and towns, mixed-use development, and a notable absence of urban sprawl. Sounds cool, right?

Yes and no. The problem with the architects' visions (well, one problem with them) is that they don't take into account people who don't make over $70,000 per year. And a lot of people in east Biloxi (the area on the peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and the Back Bay--it was washed away by the storm) don't make anything like that kind of money. I really liked this bit in the article:
New Urbanism is like Whole Foods: it's meant to be good for you, but it's expensive, at least on the front end, and it comes with a set of cultural connotations that generally play best among the prosperous and the self-consciously progressive.
Pretty catchy, no?

All of the reconstruction planning was done just six weeks after the hurricane. At that time, many people were still out of town; those who were around were still clearing out their houses (or what was left of them), looking for food & water, trying to get electricity and phones reconnected, and generally just start their lives over again. The point is, non one in the communities affected really had a say in the vision for the rebuilding of their homes.

Instead, they got the (probably) well-intentioned plans of some well-to-do architects and urban planners.

But it doesn't look like those plans are going to matter, anyway. Even if people living there could afford the houses, the elevation maps from FEMA say they can't be built, anyway. FEMA says that all new houses need to be 21 feet above sea level. Since nowhere on Point Cadet is more than a foot or two above the water, that is highly problematic.

Very little has been rebuilt in Biloxi that's not a casino. And, once the FEMA elevation maps go into effect, nothing will be rebuilt that's not some shitty looking dump on stilts. Those things, which are also expensive, don't even have the virtue of aesthetic pleasure to which large expenditures often lead. They're just expensive because they involve more labor and materials.

So what's to become of Biloxi?

My guess is that most of the affected area (especially Point Cadet) will basically become a company town for the casinos. The lower income people will be pushed out, and the real estate will be turned over to tourist attractions, crappy shops & restaurants, and the inevitable condos for rich folks and compulsive gamblers (not that those two categories are disjoint).

Where will the former residents go? Trailer homes in outlying communities, I guess. Which means they'll have to drive into town to clean the hotels, cook the meals, and deal the cards for the rich jerks and tourists. Same story for the shrimpers/oystermen/fishermen. Point Cadet, meet gentrification.

And yet another thing will just become a pleasant memory.

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