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New Orleans and Us

By Frank Gruber

Now back in Santa Monica I intended to use this column just to catch up on the local news I missed during my travels, but as a city lover, I can't help but write something about the destruction of New Orleans.

The closest I ever got to the Crescent City was to pass by one year when I was driving across country, from Los Angeles to law school. I remember passing over the Huey Long Bridge. I never made it back -- now to my regret.

New Orleans isn't the first city a natural disaster has destroyed and it won't be the first to rebuild. An earthquake destroyed Lisbon in 1755. According to philosopher Susan Neiman, author of Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, this event so shocked the western world that it created doubt in the goodness of God, and led to a lot of theorizing about the nature of evil.

Two hundred fifty years of material progress later, the destruction of New Orleans by a storm the force of which was enhanced by human meddling with the natural environment has created doubt about the soundness of technology and the goodness, or at least competence, of those who manage it.

But then New Orleans only existed because of that meddling -- plumbing to the nth degree -- which will now need to be rethought, and not only because of our new awareness of the importance of the Mississippi's sediments, and the importance of making our plumbing consistent with long term imperatives of earth and water.

Perhaps New Orleans 2005 will lead to a lot of theorizing (and action) about the nature of (good) government. If we have got to the point that most of us don't blame either a vengeful or capricious intelligent designer for natural catastrophes, maybe it's time to get over the idea that the poor and vulnerable are "God's children" and do something to make them not-poor and not-vulnerable.

Most of the critique of American cities today is a critique of what got built in the past half century -- suburbs and exurbs. But maybe Katrina's wake will remind us that the failure of American city building in the 20th century -- meaning urban disinvestment -- is not only reflected in the empty places between what was built, but also in how suburbanization trapped the powerless in urban poverty.

* * *

With all the human misery still occurring it might be too soon to talk about material loss, but when thinking about city folk I can't separate them from their physical context. Not only their homes and workplaces, the businesses they frequented, their schools and the other places in which they lived their days, but also their things.

I grieve for the old letters in drawers, the photo albums, the pictures and certificates and diplomas, the favorite chair, the handed-down quilt or cradle. The old books and paintings, not to mention the family bibles and baby books. And the wedding gowns and the old tablecloth for Thanksgiving.

Others have remarked on this, but it is strange and horrible that the first great American city since San Francisco in 1906 to be so thoroughly destroyed is the one most known for the power of its place. The city with the most distinctive traditions of architecture, music and cooking; the one with the highest percentage of native-born residents; and, as such, the city with the highest number of memories per square foot.

* * *

Santa Monicans have been opening their wallets and emptying their pantries and closets to aid victims of Katrina, but in case you need any more reason to have empathy for the residents of New Orleans, it's worth remembering that like the Big Easy, much of Los Angeles is protected by levees. The Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, and the Rio Hondo, don't rank high in the consciousness of most Angelenos, especially those living on higher ground, but the rivers brought Los Angeles into being, and their taming made the great metropolis possible.

Watching the devastation in New Orleans that resulted when levees broke sent me back to my bookshelf to find several articles L.A. writer D.J. Waldie wrote, starting ten years ago, about flood control in our basin. (The articles are collected under the title "The City and the River" in Mr. Waldie's 2004 collection, Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles.)

The levees that channel the rivers that flow from the San Gabriel Mountains shield a vast, well-populated plain from wild floods that would otherwise occur in wet years. The plain, which seems so dry, is in fact a delta through which our rivers, like the Mississippi, meandered until the mid-20th century. Until farmers started pumping groundwater in the 19th century, the Los Angeles plain was not a desert, but a virtually impassable thicket of brush.

Last week federal authorities were saying that they could not have anticipated that water overflowing a levee could cause its destruction, but here is what Mr. Waldie wrote in 1995, imagining what might happen if it began to rain in the San Gabriels and didn't stop:

"On the fifth day, a surge of runoff from the Valley will top a section of concrete levee just north of Long Beach. The earthen back of the concrete levee will be eaten away in less than thirty minutes and the concrete wall will collapse in a brown wave."

That is just what happened to the levee on the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans.

Mr. Waldie then describes the extent of the flooding, and continues, "According to the Corps, a breakout along the southern reach of the river or the Rio Hondo tributary would flood at least seventy-five square miles of tract houses. About five hundred thousand people in eleven cities live under the threat of this disaster, many of them in blue-collar Latino and African-American neighborhoods."

In this past, very wet year, L.A.'s flood control system did its job, but we don't merely need to empathize with New Orleans. We are New Orleans.

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Meeting notices:

This Wednesday evening, Sept. 7, in City Council chambers, the Planning Commission will review the Opportunities and Challenges Report city staff and consultants prepared for the updates to the land use and circulation elements to the general plan. [Staff report: http://santa-monica.org/planning/commission/agendas/pc2005/ps2005090711-A.htm]

On Tuesday, Sept. 13, the City Council will consider whether to adopt revised downtown design standards.
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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