Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and author of Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, and most recently, We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City.
Those who choose to stay in derelict, empty neighborhoods can often pinpoint a place's particular value.
Unproven theories abound as to how cities with a diminished population might “shrink” their footprint to ease the financial burden of maintaining an infrastructure created to serve a larger city. By moving the few remaining residents out of the most diminished neighborhoods and into under-utilized spaces in healthy areas, the theory goes, the now-smaller city saves money, strengthens neighborhoods worth saving and prepares for a better future.
‘Unproven’ is the operative word here. History makes plain that if you plan for shrinkage, a city will continue to shrink, not grow stronger.
American cities started losing population after World War II with the creation of suburbs. "Planned Shrinkage," no different than today’s shrinkage strategies, was New York’s solution to a South Bronx that looked like Dresden after the war and other failing neighborhoods. Fire houses, police stations, schools closed, garbage ignored, streets unrepaired. But residents citywide fought back fiercely, refused to leave, took over vacant buildings, fixed them up on their own, stuck it out with minimum city services and with mottos like “improve don’t move” set about on a sweat equity path that was the catalyst for a slow, incremental citywide rebound. Developers followed the residents’ lead. That is why New York grew again, instead of shrank.
The same pattern of regeneration took hold in small doses slowly in Savannah, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Antonio and more. Now, similar pockets of re-growth can be found in Buffalo, Detroit, Syracuse, Muncie, South Bend and elsewhere.
Today, one community exemplifies both the consequences and costs of shrinkage and the regeneration path of incremental but veritable re-growth.
That singular place is the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, skeptics assumed the worst. Officially, the city did not turn its back on the working-class neighborhood of the Lower Ninth, but few dollars and little energy have been expended there. Residents will tell you that there was not much in the way of city services to shrink.
A recent New York Times Magazine article, “Jungleland,” offered an exaggerated look at what’s happened since to the acres of vacant land in the once heavily populated working class neighborhood. The impression is one of an almost primeval forest taking over. The author ignored blocks of rebuilt houses and clusters of homes scattered among the overgrown lots. But he did highlight the inevitable consequences of the removal of city services: piles of broken up concrete and construction debris, discarded sofas, bags of garbage, toilets, a burnt car and lots of tires are randomly dumped, costs that are inevitable in even a semi-shrunk area. Considerable acreage is reverting to unkempt nature.
But the Lower Ninth Ward is also growing again slowly. Residents have defied expectations and expert predictions and are re-staking their claim. Emptiness still dominates the landscape once filled with homes but clusters of rebuilt houses and new construction are not hard to find. The sound of the hammer or buzzsaw is ubiquitous.
Officials too often assume shrinkage is inevitable. But do they ever inquire of the diehard hold-outs why they stay? The answers are clues to regeneration instead of assumptions of continued loss.
Last year, I asked Josephine Short Butler, 89, if she wasn’t a little nervous returning to such an empty neighborhood when her Lower Ninth home was rebuilt soon after Katrina in one of the bleakest corners of the area. She was one of the first back and the landscape then defined desolate. "Honey," she said to me leaning forward in her chair, "when we moved here in 1948, this was farmland, the streets were paths of oyster shells and it was a 45-minute walk to church."
Mrs. Butler came back. Her best friend and neighbor followed next door. And so did her two granddaughters who live around the block. Others followed. That corner of the neighborhood now has dozens of rebuilt homes in a few square blocks. Residents will tell you that they never received more than a minimum of city services. Yet, this 65 percent homeowner neighborhood paid plenty in taxes.
Let’s call people like Mrs. Butler "magnet residents." Magnet residents exist in every city’s derelict neighborhoods. Often they are owners of mortgage-free homes that can’t be replicated elsewhere, or else something equally compelling is keeping them in place. Magnet residents are easier to find now in the Lower Ninth Ward than the reported wildlife, although residents will tell you they always had snakes and abandoned houses.
The Lower Ninth is growing back, much more than expected. When New York was shrinking in the 1970s, planners predicted it would shrink further; thus the need to "plan" for shrinkage.
All shrinking cities exhibited similar patterns: departure of resident population for the suburbs starting in the ‘50s and ‘60s and departure of factories and corporations either for overseas or, in the case of New Orleans, for Houston. They all lost much of their local economy. Neither New York nor New Orleans is a special case; only the particulars are different.
Top image: Josephine Short Butler's house in the Lower Ninth Ward.