Leslie Turk

The incredible shrinking city

by Leslie Turk

We've fought it long enough, but it's time to admit that our culturally-rich Crescent City may never return to its pre-Katrina status. In a two-part series published over the weekend, The Times-Picayune makes a compelling case for why admitting the problem, confronting the reality and looking to other cities for help are all critical to New Orleans' healing process. From Saturday's story:

It's not easy. Lost population usually translates into widespread blight, crumbling infrastructure, stretched budgets and the loss of civic confidence and clout. But more than three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans must confront the reality of a reduced population, as resettlement has slowed to a trickle. Embracing or even accepting a downsized city can be painful for leaders and residents accustomed to seeing their town as the center of the universe -- with reason. Not only is New Orleans the birthplace of jazz, it also was the nation's third-largest city a century and a half ago, trailing only New York and Baltimore. Today, New Orleans ranks somewhere between No. 55 and No. 60 in population, depending on the estimate used. And that ranking seems unlikely to change much: ESRI, a leading market research firm, projects New Orleans will gain only 15,000 residents in the next five years.

From Part 11, published Sunday:

Sitting on Minnie Harding's sagging porch, it's hard to conjure the glory days of this former Ohio steel hub, when homes stood cheek-by-jowl on every block and city fathers built new subdivisions on the outskirts of town. Today, nature is reclaiming her Oak Hill neighborhood. The once-dense section of Youngstown is again a refuge for hawks and rabbits. Trees are taking over lots where houses once stood. Sidewalks lead from one abandoned lot to the next, and fire hydrants sprout incongruously, like phone booths in a cornfield. "I've been in this neighborhood 28 years," Harding recalled. "It used to be full of people." These days, Youngstown leaders hope to close down Oak Hill and other dying neighborhoods. It's a slow and fuzzy process that will likely involve carrots, in the form of subsidies or buyouts, and sticks, in the form of government disinvestment in streets and services. For New Orleans, with its long-declining population base and quest to rise from ruin, Youngstown could serve as both cautionary tale and inspiration. Having opted to preserve New Orleans' full footprint after Hurricane Katrina -- and now facing a resident count that has plateaued at half its peak level -- local city leaders might soon have to figure out a way to shrink the city's developed area without redrawing its boundaries. Other Rust Belt cities hollowed out by industrial decline -- among them Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Flint, Mich. -- have not been as willing to accept their contraction as Youngstown. But all have found ways to adapt to their smaller selves.

Read the two-part series here.