Fourteen years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is reviving – for some

Canal Street after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Image: Getty.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on 29 August 29, 2005, as a Category 3 storm. The city’s levees, pumping stations, sewage systems, and electrical grids quickly failed.

Over the following days, rooftop-trapped survivors watched hundreds of bodies float down flooded streets. Tens of thousands of New Orleanians huddled in the city’s Superdome for up to a week awaiting rescue. Looters exploited, then sustained the chaos across the city before the National Guard could respond. A gang of police officers began shooting bystanders and covering up the killings.

Even after order was reestablished, an exodus from the city continued: its population more than halved in a month. Live coverage from scores of media networks allowed the world to watch this ruin befall a great American city.

The spectacle was different from others that had been televised in past years. The World Trade Center had collapsed in the space of a few hours, while the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were being broadcast from half a world away. Katrina’s devastation – arguably enabled just as much by human error as natural factors – played out slowly over the course of days, weeks, and months, in America. The result was a deep and abiding social memory of the disaster: for maybe a decade, it was often the first thing anyone asked once you told them you were from New Orleans: were you there for Katrina?"

Today marks 14 years since the storm, and over the course of the city’s rebuilding a “renewal” narrative has taken hold in many circles there. It essentially runs as follows: for all of the damage Katrina wreaked, it also uncovered civic mismanagement that had allowed generations of social, economic, and racial disparity to fester in New Orleans. In laying waste to the city and exposing its systemic issues to outside eyes, Katrina offered a thin silver lining for a better rebirth.

The hitch in the renewal is that it hasn’t included everyone. All New Orleanians were affected by Katrina, but a disproportionate share of its destruction was shouldered by poor New Orleanians, and a disproportionate share of poor New Orleanians are African American. Often, these locals couldn’t afford to return home after Katrina. Demographically speaking, contemporary New Orleanians are less black, older, and more educated than their pre-Katrina peers.

Congress allocated $121.7bn to Gulf Coast hurricane relief between 2005 and 2008. For New Orleans, this relief money was complemented by an overhaul of city institutions. New Orleans’ schools – once ranked among the nation’s worst – became substituted by independent “charter schools”, often staffed by non-profit fellowship students in place of unionized teachers. Today, the state has almost no direct instructional role in pre-college education in New Orleans. This arrangement has outperformed what came before it: the city’s high school graduation rate has increased from 54 per cent in 2004 to over 80 per cent for 2018, while university entry rates have shown comparable growth over a similar period.

The city’s culture of corruption was also challenged: in 2013, Katrina-era Mayor Ray Nagin was indicted and imprisoned on fraud charges, while in 2012 the Obama Administration seized the notoriously crooked New Orleans Police Department with a federal decree. This intervention was prompted by Justice Department findings of profound graft and “unconstitutional conduct”, including racial profiling, by the Department’s officers. By early 2019, an auditor found the NOPD at or near “Full & Effective Compliance” with the majority of the decree’s priorities. A corresponding increase in efficacy has occurred: rates of homicide and gun crime have dropped to levels not seen since the Nixon Administration.

Still, the most important, still-incomplete redefinition underway is an economic one: New Orleans only emerged from a 28-month-long recession last year. According to census data, its 2017 poverty rate topped those of America’s largest 50 metropolitan areas. And the city’s population is still lower than it was before Katrina.

The energy industry has long been a crutch for the city’s economy; fossil fuels extracted in the nearby Gulf of Mexico must pass through New Orleans, via the Mississippi, to reach refineries and distribution networks in the American heartland. But the state’s oil production is now approximately 65 per cent of what it was a decade ago, and anemic global prices have increased the painfulness of the slump.

Not all local industries are sharing this fate. The city’s rich culture and easygoing ethos have yielded financial dividends through tourism: 18.5 million visitors came to New Orleans in 2018, injecting $9.1bn into the economy. Attendances for annual festivals like Mardi Gras and JazzFest continue to hit fresh records.

Yet the real hope is that new types of business will be cultivated in the city, as aided by favorable policy and the appeal of the local lifestyle. Much fanfare greeted the move of tech firm DXC Technologies into 300,000 square feet of downtown real estate, along with its intent to add 2,000 hires by 2024. State-issued tax credits designed to attract the film industry to New Orleans have been successful (though some question the net economic returns of this initiative).

And a unique entrepreneurship movement has taken hold: many of the non-profit volunteers who helped New Orleans’ rebuilding have stayed, creating a “social startup” culture using technology to expand access to health, education, and nutrition. In sum, New Orleans is working hard to redefine its commercial identity.

Young, educated Americans are the target of these efforts, as they are for competing ones in other cities around the country. Among them are members of the New Orleans diaspora who left their hometown for more promising shores long ago. Whether they can be convinced to return has yet to be seen.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.