Research Magazine 2006

After the storm

Schools of Architecture, Urban and Public Affairs tackle post-Katrina challenges

Students analyze building

Students Jeff Harris, left, and Hank Dow analyze a hardware building in New Orleans.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the task of preserving the city’s historic neighborhoods continues.

Reconstruction efforts are getting a boost from UT Arlington’s School of Architecture and CITYbuild, a consortium of 14 architecture schools across the nation, including Tulane University. The project is aimed not only at rebuilding the city’s infrastructure, but also its culture.

Last spring the School of Architecture offered a graduate studio class on reconstruction efforts for the Freret Street District in New Orleans. Contracted through CITYbuild, the class of about a dozen students created an urban preservation and revitalization plan for the neighborhood.

“The class traveled to New Orleans and documented a number of structures and developed recommendations for reconstruction or repairs that were consistent with the preservationist approach of trying to make sure the historical values of the buildings were kept intact,” architecture Dean Don Gatzke said. “And, in a way, of bringing back some of their historical character that had worn away over the years.”

Gatzke said this was a new experience on many levels for the students.

“The curriculum of the architecture program has previously not included serious study of preservation at either the urban or building level, and the exotic nature of New Orleans and the extent of the destruction made it an enormous challenge for the students to understand, analyze and develop preservation and design proposals. And because of the destruction, it’s just not feasible to rebuild every structure, every neighborhood and every bridge. For one thing, the people aren’t there anymore, and the cost of putting up infrastructure is too great to rebuild an entire city.”

It is an observation that brings to mind the New Orleans public housing residents forced to evacuate after the storm.

Freret Street building

Architecture graduate students studied this Freret Street commercial building and five others.

The deconcentration of families living in public housing interests School of Urban and Public Affairs Dean Richard Cole. Specifically, he researches the impact of moving people from areas highly segregated by race and poverty to places that are more racially and economically integrated.

“Dispersal is a very important issue in urban affairs,” he said.  “It’s been the policy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for over the past two decades to try to get people out of traditional public housing and into more integrated areas.”

But enforcing the policy has been difficult.

“What makes Katrina so critical is that it forced everybody to move. There was no choice but for everyone to leave, and that gave us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to measure the impact of that on their lives.”

Dr. Cole’s research shows that almost three-quarters of African-American women surveyed say they are better off now than when they lived in New Orleans. They have better educational and job opportunities, and they feel safer.

This, Cole says, validates HUD’s dispersal policy.

Paradoxically, his research also shows that in spite of the improvements, a significant majority of displaced residents want to return to New Orleans one day.

“We don’t know whether that’s the particular attraction of New Orleans or if it’s just a common tendency for anyone to want to return to their roots,” he said.

Nevertheless, people are coming back.

According to estimates released in May by the New Orleans research firm GCR & Associates, the city’s population is up 14 percent since July 2006.

— Susan M. Slupecki