Abandoning NOLA, revised

My suggestion that New Orleans ought to be relocated wholesale to Detroit isn't particularly serious. But my suggestion that it ought not be rebuilt is. Or, at least, that we should provide relocation aid as at least as available an option as rebuilding aid.

Fine, so many people want to "go home". That's understandable. Going home, though, involves waiting months for the levees to be repaired, the city to be pumped out, the cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis threats to subside, etc, and that's for the people whose homes won't have to be rebuilt entirely. (80% of the city is flooded, and pumping out the city will take up to nine weeks. How many homes do you think would be structurally sound - let alone broader definitions of "habitable" after having standing water in them for nine weeks? I have a hunch there might be some mold problems...) Rebuilding will take months or years longer, and that's if you want to build it back the way it was, and not rethink entirely the way you're building your city, a la Detroit's post-Fire Woodward Plan of 1807 or the raising of Chicago's street level by 14 feet in 1856 (and the following 20 years).

How long, exactly, are we going to shelter people in Houston's Astrodome while they're waiting to go home? Does anybody understand what President Bush's, "This recovery will take years," really means? Are we going to keep hundreds of thousands of people in limbo for months, only to go "home" to ruined homes and devastated neighborhoods? Do we expect these people to fill out temporary job applications with, "Astrodome, Section 227, Row E" as their address? (And how many of them have jobs to go home to? Aside from rebuilding, I mean?) Envisioning New Orleans rising like a shining Phoenix from the ashes is lovely and sentimental and all, but it's also a vision that sentences New Orleans' people to uncertainty followed by hard labor.

Rather than that, why not let people start recovering and start rebuilding their lives (not their city) now? Rather than pouring aid money into building back New Orleans, use it to help a diaspora - start helping people, now, not in a few months, to find places that they can go, permanently, not for a few months, and get their lives back together. Help people find homes and jobs, and help them get to those places. Where do they have family? Where do they have friends? Are there groups that want to relocate together? (This generation's version of "Ypsitucky"*, in cities across the country.)

This isn't necessarily crazy - there was a time when federal housing policy for the urban poor involved razing "slums" and building massive housing projects to provide people with higher quality housing. This didn't work too well. The Gautreax decision against the Chicago Housing Authority in the late '60s led to a program of scattered-site housing - providing residents of poor neighborhoods with housing vouchers so that they could move to mixed-income, desegregated neighborhoods. The decision required the CHA (and HUD) to provide at least as many scattered-site housing units as concentrated housing units, providing a natural experiment with enough evidence suggesting that scattered-site relocation offers increased economic opportunity, higher youth educational achievement, lower youth violent crime rates, and so on that this is now considered to be a much better way of helping high-poverty populations that simply building new housing that continues the concentration of poverty.

Given that a population of thousands of refugees living in stadiums and shelters hundreds of miles from what used to be home is a pretty darned good example of a high-poverty population, it seems pretty reasonable to use the experience of public housing programs to show that offering them opportunities and assistance in going wherever they want will probably be at least as helpful as putting them up for months and then sending them back to their ruined city.

* "Ypsitucky" is a nickname for Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor's neighbor to the east, which has a significant (though not for much longer) population of Kentucky-born residents. In the early 1940s, there was a large migration/relocation of people from Kentucky to Ypsi to work at the bomber plants at Willow Run. Why Kentucky? I don't know that part. I assume they were employed there and relocated.