Re: Or Was It Detroit?

1

In 1970, New Orleans was still largely protected by buffer wetlands, and thus the cost of protecting it from future storms would have been much less. Also, in 1970 hardly anyone really expected the ocean level to rise a meter or more within the next human lifetime. And John McPhee had not yet written Atchafalaya.

Don't get me wrong; I think that BushCo's response to Katrina was and is morally indefensible, if not actually criminal.

Nevertheless, it's a lot less obvious now than it might have seemed in 1970 that we can ultimately prevent New Orleans from being completely destroyed by the sea, will we or nil we.

Climate change is going to be an absolute bitch.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 8:58 PM
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The abandonment of a great city to time and tide is indeed both symptom and mark of empire on its downhill slide; it bears noting as well that pathetic, delusional and desperate regimes are equally an indicator of this decline.

That's pretty much how I've been viewing the situation for some time now. About to go to bed, so rather than advance an argument I'll just mutter about Antioch as I go to brush my teeth.

(On preview: don't disagree with the points in 1 as well.)


Posted by: JL | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:01 PM
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This is better than that ridiculous Harper's article about how the end of the empire is super-great and Detroit is going to be a utopia as a result.


Posted by: destroyer | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:01 PM
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1: Joel, I love you. Where have you been the past two years? Come comment on TPMI, why don't you?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:05 PM
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Buffalo commons. Which is to say, people put money into cities because of an economic rationale for maintaining those cities; when the rationale disappears, in the absence of confounding factors like influential politicians or a sense of human decency, the cities disappear. I've read that parts of the Dakotas are once again frontier in the Frederic Jackson Turner sense.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:06 PM
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1 makes good points about the facts of NO/Katrina, but doesn't address the thrust of the the passage, which is the highlighted text: it's the decision not to try that marks the structural change. I believe this is true, even though small steady improvements to our lives can continue for a long time. Just because empires decline doesn't mean the underlying culture needs to perish. It can evolve and be much truer to its original ideals after empire. I guess that's my version of "Let America be America Again."


Posted by: I don't pay | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:06 PM
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I suspect that if people weren't already thinking fatalistically that things like "oh well, eventually it'll all be under water due to rising seas" would be a less obvious conclusion. Plus Bush doesn't *believe* in global warming. Plus even if you're convinced that NO shouldn't be rebuilt on site because of global warming, you could *easily*, if you were feeling all strong and superpowerish, simply move the fucking city and rebuild it fifty or a hundred miles further inland.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:10 PM
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ST@4:
::blush::
This is better than having my shoe rubbed in a MSP restroom.

I once wrote much the same thing over at First Draft, where it was not a well-received opinion. I expected to get bitchslapped for it here, too, and am momentarily at a loss.

TPMI: thanks for the invite. We'll see. I'm interviewing with a startup, so I may not have much time for blogs, starting almost immediately.

As for where I've been, skillfull Googling will find a long digital trail, some of which I'm proud of.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:14 PM
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you could *easily*, if you were feeling all strong and superpowerish, simply move the fucking city and rebuild it fifty or a hundred miles further inland.

*Easily*, B? Really? I have no idea how this could be done.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:15 PM
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The claim isn't that an empire in decline would consciously say "we are an empire in decline, and thus cannot rebuild a major city." The point is that if you are in decline, you will not have the wherewithal to rebuild a major city, and your conscious thinking will simply rationalize whatever circumstances force you to do.

So it doesn't matter whether Bush believes or doesn't belief in global climate change. A leader of a strong empire who believed in GCC would rebuild inland, and one who didn't would rebuild in the same place. Only someone with no resources--financial, organizational, material--would wind up not rebuilding.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:16 PM
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B @ 7:
In fact, I think that the truly rational response might be to demolish the Old River control structure, let the Mississippi go down the Atchafalaya drainage where it already really wants to go, and move/rebuild N'Orleans on high ground along the new rivercourse.
But rational planning has very little to do with the kind of decision we're discussing -- emotion, history, and politics, not to mention money, all trump rationality almost every time.

That said, I truly believe that if New Orleans had been a city of wealthy white people who were in the habit of voting Republican, it would be largely rebuilt already.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:19 PM
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I'm not sure how this fits in to my last point, but:

You can rebuild the city inland, but you can't rebuild the *port* which is what actually matters to the economy. There was a defender of the reconstruction on NPR today who touted the fact that the port is fully operational. More than anything else, this shows the priorities of the people involved, much like the incredible security the Iraqi Oil Ministry got after the fall of Saddam.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:19 PM
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7 is crazy talk. Robert Moses was the most powerful man in New York State for thirty years and totally untrammeled by the constraints of laws or ethics, and he couldn't have managed it.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:19 PM
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9: Okay, not easily, but it could be done. Probably not any more difficult than the space race.

A leader of a strong empire who believed in GCC would rebuild inland, and one who didn't would rebuild in the same place. That's what I was saying!


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:20 PM
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That said, I truly believe that if New Orleans had been a city of wealthy white people who were in the habit of voting Republican, it would be largely rebuilt already.

Isn't that what New Orleans is now?


Posted by: Gabriel | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:21 PM
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14: As long as we agree with Jane Dark that the failure to rebuild NO shows the empire is in decline, I can go to bed happy.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:24 PM
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G @ 15 :
> Isn't [wealthy, white, Republican] what New Orleans is now?

Bingo. I think that reconstruction is proceeding exactly as Karl Rove would have it. Remember that W put him in charge of the reconstruction project at the federal level.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:26 PM
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The abandonment of a great city

NO was already dying, long before Katrina. I don't want to defend Bush, or Blanco, or Nagin, or anyone else. But NO is a stupid place, in several different ways. That was true before that storm, and it's not irrelevant to the consideration for why it hasn't rebuilt itself.

Also I don't want to take a position against the thesis that America's in decline. I just don't think that New Orleans is the synechdoche that the author thinks it is.


Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:26 PM
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How relevant to this discussion, if at all, is the gaping hole that is Ground Zero, now nearly six years on?


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:32 PM
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You find some really excellent, interesting stuff, ogged. I don't know how you do it. I think s/he's wrong, though: Newark riots were in 1967 and my understanding is that the city has been a shell of itself since. I don't know that the Empire is falling, so much as we're at the far side of a transition and it's not clear to what we've transitioned.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:35 PM
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As for small-scale truck farming in Detroit, I'm not sure that I'd want to eat that produce on a regular basis. I'd be afraid of heavy-metal contamination in the soil, maybe orgainic solvents too. OK maybe for an older guy like me, but a poor choice for a young woman who wants kids.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:36 PM
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Or maybe a better way to say it is that we're still deciding to what we've transitioned.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:36 PM
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I don't know how you do it

In this case, I was googling Joshua Clover, whose first book of poetry is a favorite of mine, and found his blog, where he writes as "Jane Dark."


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:42 PM
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1: well, the Netherlands has huge stretches below sea level, and they've maintained that for centuries. Granted that they don't have hurricanes to deal with, but we're a lot wealthier.

19: I think it's very relevant. The fact that Iraq's electrical generation is still not up to pre-war levels might be as well.

One counterargument you could make is that the U.S. has always been an abandon-it-and-move-on type of country. The continent is littered with ghost towns. Something to do with the combination of size and rootlessness.

But we've also had huge constructive achievements to go along with that. Look at the 1935-1955 period -- the WPA, the TVA, assistance in the rebuilding of Europe, the interstate highway system, etc. We just don't seem like a can-do sort of nation any more.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:46 PM
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If there is any debate about whether Detroit or NO was the first city to go, it should be a short debate. I grew up across the river from Detroit, and for many years lived right on the water looking at Detroit. With my binoculars I could see Michigan Central Station from my apartment. It looked (well, and still does) like one of those buildings from Beirut in the 1980s.

Among the sadder things about Detroit is that the housing stock (this is something that really stuck out from the Harper's article) is amazing. Thousands and thousands of beautiful old homes - the same ones, which if located in Toronto, where I now live would be $1M+ - are abandoned, and can be bought for almost next to nothing.

I've seen a number of "urban revitalizations" throughout the US (although not NO), and I can categorically state that Detroit is light years behind them. So yes, Detroit is long gone.


Posted by: McKingford | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:46 PM
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Granted that they don't have hurricanes to deal with

Boy is that a big "granted."


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:47 PM
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19:Very.

It was Detroit. Thomas Disch in 1970-72 wrote 334 which included the story "Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire". Very nice, a modern woman roleplays (I think) a Roman country matron and eventually celebrates the barbarian invasions. I have quoted a passage on this blog.

The pullback on the Apollo program is another marker. Laugh at us boomers, but Vietnam either destroyed this country, or made its decline apparent.

I could say a lot about this stuff. 1965-75 was a incredible time to be young, but it has been pretty horrible since.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:49 PM
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Look, I love musing about "the Empire in decline" as much as the next chap, but the notion that the US simply lacks the material wherewithal to rebuild New Orleans, or that some vaster decline explains why it "hasn't rebuilt itself," looks cracked to me. The same US, after all, managed a more impressive response to the Asian tsunami than it did to New Orleans. If the government in power had chosen to focus on rebuilding New Orleans it could have done so.

Perhaps the "decline" thesis might insofar as maybe the US lacks the wherewithal to rebuild NO while simultaneously throwing billions of dollars a day into a murderous failed war halfway around the planet. But the real tragedy of the Bush years is that most of its tragedies were a hell of a long way from being inevitable. The murderous response of a pathetic, delusional regime is the story of Katrina; it's not a sidebar to it.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:49 PM
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The greatness of "granted..." is that it lets you dismiss anything.

Re the wealth of the Netherlands: we're incredibly richer than they were when they built their system of dikes, etc. Do you think that if we truly wanted to preserve a single city against the sea we couldn't do it?

Of course, I'm not an engineer and I'm kind of talking out of my ass. Right there you have the reason America's no longer a can-do nation...we've moved from a nation of manufacturers and engineers to a nation of talkers. Speculators, "financial engineers", marketing gurus, and consultants. Great at the Powerpoint presentation, not so great at the execution.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:50 PM
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29 started to 26, then quickly moved into a new set of content-free musings.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:52 PM
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27 expressed in song.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:54 PM
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Right there you have the reason America's no longer a can-do nation...we've moved from a nation of manufacturers and engineers to a nation of talkers.

People say this every time we feel low in the US. I remember it in the 80s, and I sort of remember it from the 90s. It never seems quite true.

mcmanus, have you read Chain Reaction? (I've only just started it.) Very depressing book focused largely on the move from the Democrats to the Republicans over that period.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:57 PM
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11,15, and 17 have mentioned this, but a Blue state turned Red overnight. The administration's reluctance to reverse that doesn't signify shit about the state of our empire.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 9:59 PM
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I blame cost-benefit analysis. Just about any worthwhile endeavor looks like crap once the economists have had their turn whacking at it.


Posted by: ed bowlinger | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:02 PM
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The flip side of the "Detroit is dead" idea is that, as I understand it, actually Detroit and environs are home to a huge influx of middle eastern immigrants.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:02 PM
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Hey, Ogged reads sociologists after all.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:03 PM
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29:I don't know about the difference between having the resources to rebuild NO and having the political will to rebuild NO. There may be no difference.

Newberry really has insights. The cities in a healthy empire are the repositories of surplus labour, which must be minimally supported and maintained. "Bread & Circuses" the difference between the Roman Army of 100 BC and the Roman Army of 300 AD.

The decline of the cities is directly connected to the end of the draft and the beginning of outsourcing and the loss of the manufacturing base.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:04 PM
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marcus @ 24
Another important difference between the Netherlands and the Mississippi delta, (besides hurricanes) is that the Netherlands are gradually and continually _rising_ from the sea, as the underlying bedrock continues to rebound from the last glaciation, while southern Louisiana and Mississippi are gradually and continually _sinking_ because they are just big mile-deep piles of sediment that are still compacting after deposition. Admittedly, the rates of both are small, except in the "birdfoot" part of the Mississippi delta (which, of course, is the part that formerly protected New Orleans). Tornqvist puts inland Gulf coast subsidence at 0.1 mm/year; I can't find a number for Dutch rebound, but it looks like it's supposed to be about the same as in Great Britain, maybe about 1 cm / year.

Speaking of the Netherlands, anyone read The Wheel On The School as a kid? I recommend it as read-aloud for kindergarten through third grades.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:11 PM
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we've moved from a nation of manufacturers and engineers to a nation of talkers.

That's the trend, but it's far from being irreversible. Cisco designs products that the whole world buys, for an example of a recent innovator. I have a trouble thinking about cultural decline; on the one hand, Britney Spears ringtones. On the other, Google books allows huge chunks of ogged's nice discovery to be available as free full text. One can hope that the extremes of the Bushies will make people here vote a bit more attentively.

In my opinion, the long term trend for world stability gains from more people having something to lose. The US may lose relative position, but by the time that happens, the neighborhood may be considerably more benign; this wasn't true in Rome. Imo, comparing NO and Amsterdam ignores strife between local and national gov't here and harmony there, as well as LA's history of extravagant corruption. Venice is sinking too, and is perhaps a more politically relevant example.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:15 PM
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Thomas Disch in 1970-72 wrote 334 which included the story "Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire"

This is a fantastic book, by the by. Disch has a LiveJournal, I think; I should see what he's written about urban decay lately.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:16 PM
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joel, post 1 is somewhat misleading because the worst of the problems NO faces from weather aren't from climate change, are man-made, and are preventable or at least modifiable (for about the budget that has been pissed away already in not reconstructing it).

The primary issue is erosion, not sinking --- because the mississippi is locked in place (the sediment is mostly lost now, since the 40s or 50s) , and secondarily due to all the channels cut for oil & natural gas. There is a reasonable technolgical solution, costs about 4b.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:17 PM
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I read The Wheel on the School! But have you read Journey from Peppermint Street? That was the book of hers that I really loved.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:18 PM
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If the Mississippi weren't locked in place, it would leave New Orleans entirely.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:19 PM
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Or rather, of his, it turns out. I had no idea.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:19 PM
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43: sure, but that doesn't mean you can't transfer sediment rather than dumping it far out in the gulf where it doesn't do any good.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:21 PM
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5: Buffalo Commons
Reading some of the Buffalo Commons material some time back, I learned of a similar proposal for Detroit from photographer Camilo Jose Vergara:

In 1995 New York City author and photographer Camilo Jose Vergara suggested that 12 crumbling square blocks of downtown Detroit be preserved as a monument to the high period of early modern American capital
...
As the New York Times noted, in practice Vergara's Motor City Acropolis already exists, though neither the city government nor tourists have yet discovered it. Vergara argues, 'People need to say, "Damn it, this used to be a symbol of failure, but damn it, this is now something sublime'


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:25 PM
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rfts @ 42 :
No, I have not read Journey From Peppermint Street. Yet. Sounds like I missed something.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:26 PM
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In my opinion, the long term trend for world stability gains from more people having something to lose. The US may lose relative position, but by the time that happens, the neighborhood may be considerably more benign;

Absolutely. It would be very bad for us to become obsessed with maintaining relative position, and destabilize the world because of it.

Even if we do decline dramatically, the likely scenario is more like Britain than Rome -- regressing to being one rich nation among other rich nations.


Posted by: marcus | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:35 PM
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I find it quite tempting to think about America as an empire in decline because many signs point to it (not tempting in that I want it to happen, but tempting in that it seems to fit). However, I don't think this is a good example. The US is littered with towns and cities that have outlived their usefulness and have therefore shrunk and sometimes disappeared (recently, Rust Belt towns, but the ghost towns of the old West are an older example). Baltimore was the second largest city in the US in 1850, but by the 1960s it had a similar reputation to Detroit today. St. Louis was the fourth largest city in 1910, but its population and reputation peaked in 1950. Cleveland was fifth largest in 1920, and is now a national joke.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:40 PM
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[ dons Cassandra robes; inhales sacred gasses emanating from cracks in rock ]

We are also exactly one Western drought away from disaster in Las Vegas and Phoenix. Climate records in tree rings and lake bottoms make it clear that even without global warming, climate variation over the last 5000 years included at least two stretches where the Colorado River was all but dry for decades, maybe centuries. Try apportioning _that_ among the desert cities.

[ eyes re-focus ]


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:47 PM
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Ah, now that is definitely true and a virtual inevitability. Vegas and Phoenix should not exist.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:52 PM
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What should really not exist.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 10:58 PM
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Here(pdf) is a pretty good depiction of the major historic and active lobes of the Mississippi delta and the Atchafalaya "cutoff".

I have mixed feelings. It was clear years before Katrina that there were geographical "issues" with New Orleans - both in maintaining its port capabilities and in protecting its low-lying areas from storm surges. But that said, the latter is well within the financial resources of the US with hardly a blip.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 11:04 PM
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The flip side of the "Detroit is dead" idea is that, as I understand it, actually Detroit and environs are home to a huge influx of middle eastern immigrants.

The environs, yes. Dearborn is home to a huge Arab population; I remember reading somewhere that it is the largest population of Arabs outside the ME.

Detroit proper? Not so much. I can't imagine that there has been much, if any, immigration into Detroit (let alone net immigration) in a decade.

Back in grade 13 geography (yes, we Ontarians were stupid for awhile - although our extra year of HS cut a year off our university) we took a field trip to Detroit, to observe the urban decay. It was absolutely amazing to see how East Detroit, which is an absolute war zone, transitions so abruptly into Grosse Pointe (the wealthiest community in the US) - they were literally divided by a street, yet it was like two different countries.

Re: 49

I've been to St. Louis, Baltimore and Cleveland. Their downtowns are miles ahead of Detroit. This isn't to complement them necessarily, (although I liked the Baltimore waterfront), but a comment on just how little has been done in downtown Detroit.


Posted by: McKingford | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 11:22 PM
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52: Amen - although not just in Vegas and Arizona...

After being a regular golfer since my teens, I've completely given up the game - in large part because of the environmental consequences of golf.


Posted by: McKingford | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 11:25 PM
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Serious question, how long does it take to rebuild a city after a major disaster? It's hard to think of anything similar to Katrina. The LA and Kyoto earthquakers were much less damaging.

I feel like even if resources had been sunk into rebuilding NO, that 60% of the damage would have been repaired quickly and the other 40% would have taken years or decades to replace and it would have depended on local economic activity rather than reconstruction efforts. But this is just my completely unfounded intuition.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 11:37 PM
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JP S @ 53 :
Many many thanks. I love data.
I'll take a look at that site; I'd be delighted to find a reason for optimism.


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 08-29-07 11:40 PM
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a very good book about Detroit


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 12:06 AM
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Also: Mandate of Heaven


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 12:31 AM
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Couldn't we at least notice that nothing worth the name "city" has been built in the last half century in the US? This dates from exactly the zenith of US might over the rest of the world, although it might have had a greatever GDP fraction post-Great War.

I certainly wouldn't want NOLA rebuilt. It would be like loss vegas or orlando, but with more ghosts.


Posted by: yoyo | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 2:24 AM
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My understading is that there's a fair bit of farming (!) that goes on in the Western states, which is where most of the water usage goes. In the event of drought massive enough to cause serious problems, the farming would be the first to go, with the result that maybe we wouldn't have to pay people East of the Mississippi not to grow the crops that are currently being grown in Arizona, leaving enough water in the aquifers to last until canals and aqueducts could be built from California or the ocean or wherever.

It's the upside to wasteful and irrational use of water - if things go really south there's a lot of slack in the system.

What was the unemployment (or perhaps more accurately labor force participation) in New Orleans before Katrina hit?


Posted by: Jake | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 4:15 AM
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Coming in late: as I understand, the erosion of the wetlands was in part the result of a long-term policy, characteristic of much of the US, of favoring immediate economic concerns over environmental concerns. This in turn was in part the work of the most corrupt local politics in the US. The jolly indifference to rules that makes for fun parties doesn't lead to good government. I object to the inevitability argument -- NOLA could have been saved, 10-20-30 years ago. But repair is a lot more expensive than maintenance.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 4:28 AM
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I started having thoughts along these lines in college, after taking a Byzantine history class. The tone in which decisions not to repair or extend aqueducts in Constantinople were made(We could do it if we wanted to but it's: too expensive; not necessary; we could afford it but it's not an economically sound decision; we'll do it next year) sound bizarrely like the reasons NYC hasn't built the Second Avenue Subway.

Has anyone else brought up the Minneapolis bridge collapse yet? "Sure, we could maintain all the amazing public works our ancestors built -- we're just choosing not to," is another very familar sound.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 5:19 AM
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I think that in Minnesota we still have the possibility of accountability and an effective response.

Our popular, moderate, anti-tax Republican governor twice vetoed the Democratic legislature's infrastructure bill -- the second time, he called them idiots. So far he hasn't been nailed to the wall, and the anti-tax goons are decrying attempts to politicize the tragedy. Keep posted.

Minnesota isn't what it was, though. Three liberal districts, three Republican districts, and two Blue Dog districts.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 6:20 AM
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I'd like to offer an alternate explanation, that what we're seeing is not so much the symptoms of an empire in decline but rather the effects of mainstream acceptance of the "lower taxes, no big government projects*" brand of conservatism. Even liberal democrats live in such fear of the "tax and spend" label that no one would dare propose a large scale government-funded public works project today, even when it would clearly be in the country's best interests.

* Other than insanely expensive unnecessary wars, of course.


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 6:58 AM
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Ode to Detroit by Wally Pleasant

Shoot someone and tell everyone you're from Detroit.
Steal a car and then tell them you're from Detroit.
Become addicted to a major narcotic and tell people you're from Detroit.
Join a street gang and act really idiotic, if you're from Detroit.

When the Tigers win the championship,
Pretend like it's really hip,
to get national media attention,
When you set a car on fire causing police intervention.

Rob from your neighbors and kill your friends, if you're from Detroit.
Receive public assistance and drive a Mercedes-Benz, if you're from Detroit.
Own a store that gets robbed four times a week, in Detroit.
And buy some crack cocaine right on the street, in Detroit.

Most people criticize it, and some people even eulogize it,
But the Mayor just gets really pissed,
And then he tells all the reporters "No problems exist".

Now I'd be shot and killed if I played this song in Detroit,
'Cause there's a City ordinance that says you gotta say nice things about Detroit.
But since I can't do that, I'm going to move away and be in route,
To a safer destination, like Beirut.

It's the most dangerous city in the universe.
If you drive into town, you'll probably leave in a hearse.
Or maybe get beat up by an angry mob, on national TV.

Each time I watch the local news,
I learn about kids killing each other for tennis shoes.
This makes me so depressed, that I decided to write this song as if I was on a quest.

I tell people that the place where I come from,
Is headed for oblivion.
And even though it's a nice city to write a song about,
Motown ----- is no town where I wanna live anymore.
No, no, no, no, no, no


Posted by: Becks | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 7:38 AM
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The linked post has it entirely backwards. The forces of empire don't intrinsically lend themselves toward large-scale humanitarian efforts, or even cultural reclamation projects - at least not when they come at the expense of military power. New Orleans is being left to ruin because the resources of the empire have been overwhelmingly devoted to maintaining and expanding the empire - and we shouldn't find this unusual, because this is exactly what empire is and always has been about. How much does the empire benefit from the extra cultural cache of a rebuilt, vibrant New Orleans, as opposed to investing billions in displays of military dominance?

If Katrina had hit during the 90s, when America wasn't involved in multiple large-scale foreign occupations, we might have seen a much better response. As it stands now, America's public policy elite - devoted as it is to maintaining American hegemony abroad - is far more concerned with saving face in Iraq and Afghanistan than with salvaging New Orleans. And I don't think this would have been all that different in 1970, either, when billions spent on rebuilding a drowned city would be seen by hawks as an unnecessary diversion from a host of proxy wars, real and desired, with the Soviet Union.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 7:54 AM
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I've only been through Detroit once, but what struck me was crossing the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor. You drive through this run down area, cross the bridge, and are in perfectly manicured little Windsor.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland are cities that are 'shells of their former selves', but let's not kid ourselves. They're nothing like Detroit. They're shells, but they've turned out pretty okay without the steel industry.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 8:29 AM
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I seem to recall reading in a not quite respectable book that the prosecution of the Boer War marked the spiritual end of the Empire, however much it grew afterwards. That seems a little too romantic to me, too.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 8:30 AM
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"far more concerned with saving face in Iraq and Afghanistan than with salvaging New Orleans."

That's a money quote. But it's much more than saving face. This administration went into Iraq, in no small part, to establish greater security, political and economic control of the Mid East- clearly Empire building. Strictly in terms of Empire, the consequences of failure in New Orleans are minute compared to that of Iraq.


Posted by: terpbball | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 8:41 AM
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Byzantine history class

Hillary for paleologus, or Hillary as Anna Comnena?
My dad has loved exactly this analogy for 20 years, and can improvise a number of entertaining micro-analogies. We've been going back and forth about food this year; his challenge is to find a Byzantine analog for eggs on a stick.

I don't think that focussing on massive objects is all that useful; long ago, walls and aqueducts were essential to life, and migration of people was much slower.
Today, we live in temporary structures that we happily abandon. Many of our cities are full of objects that are clearly overbuilt. The decision not to build is driven in part by the question "how long will this be useful?" which essentially did not exist in the past.
I found Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change (though his ideas about land use under Charlemagne are apparently wrong) as well as Braudel's books very useful in trying to compare past and present.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 8:48 AM
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70: Of course it's about saving face; what do you think "success" or "failure" means in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan? America isn't going to set up a stable democratic government in Baghdad, and it's not going to wipe out the Taliban, either. At this point the War on Terror has become an exercise in trying to cover up the weaknesses exposed by American overreach. And this obsession is hardly unique to the Bush administration - the bipartisan foreign policy community is just as concerned with coming up with half-withdrawals and excuses to extend the occupation and cover the hegemon's ass.

Strictly in terms of Empire, the consequences of failure in New Orleans are minute compared to that of Iraq.

Of course, because the needs and desires of an empire rarely coincide with the best interests of those living within that empire. Which is why it's absurd to assume that the failure to rebuild New Orleans stems from the decline of the American empire - the empire may be in decline, but the empire never gave a fuck about New Orleans in the first place.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 9:02 AM
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I'm just not sure that comparing anything to America in 1970 makes that much sense. The period from the end of the post WWII recession to the oil embargo (1948-1973?) was pretty much unique in American history, and it wasn't because of anything to do with America, or the "imperial spirit." It was because the entire rest of the industrialized world was broken by WWII.

In addition, I've been thinking about DeLong's posts on the economic conditions in 1900 and it makes clear that, if the US is an empire in decline it's a different kind of decline than the historical analogs. Part of why it's harder to build massive construction projects (like subways) now than it used to be is because labor is more expensive. This means both that it costs more to hire people to dig subway tunnels (there was a good New Yorker article about this a while back) and because, for all of the ways in which our Democracy is disfunctional, a greater percentage of the population is capable of protesting infringements on their lives.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 9:15 AM
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New Orleans could be rebuilt as it was, but better, at astronomical expense, or it could be rebuilt in a smaller, more efficient size, at exorbitant but not quite astronomical expense but with the difference being paid to displaced residents as condemnation compensation (presumably inflated to include premiums for the delay), but no politician, white or black, Democrat or Republican, is insane enough during the year before a presidential election year to state that choice as baldly as it has to be stated, because the first politician even to suggest that the abandonment of a large part of New Orleans might be a preferable course of action would gain new insight into the experience of the medieval leper.


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 9:20 AM
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The period from the end of the post WWII recession to the oil embargo (1948-1973?) was pretty much unique in American history, and it wasn't because of anything to do with America, or the "imperial spirit." It was because the entire rest of the industrialized world was broken by WWII.

This can't be emphasised enough. It's easy to perform well when all your commercial and industrial rivals have been pounded into literal dust during a near apocalyptic war.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 9:24 AM
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It seems that all the reconstruction money is going to Baton Rouge, which will become the new New Orleans, except for the port, which has to still be in New Orleans. This seems to fit #7's idea to "move the fucking city and rebuild it fifty or a hundred miles further inland", as well as #11's idea that "a city of wealthy white people who were in the habit of voting Republican would be largely rebuilt already."

It may be that Baton Rouge is equally unsuited as a location for a city if the Mississippi starts going down the Atchafalaya route. I don't know.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 9:37 AM
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I think that an effective empire would understand that losing a whole city looks bad and is bad for morale and propaganda.

People are being all thoughtful and proactive, but I think that one thing that in the present situation fingerpointing and recriminations are completely feasible. As always, I'm reluctant to believe that "shit happens" is the whole explanation.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 9:50 AM
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S/B "I think that fingerpointing and recriminations are completely feasible in the present situation."


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 10:23 AM
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29: most of the current flood prevention system in the Netherlands dates back to after big floods of 1953, in a project that ran from late 1950ties until the late nineties, though the last major work was completed in 1986 (I was at its opening).

This despite various economic downturns etc.


Posted by: Martin Wisse | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 10:33 AM
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I love this genre of post.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 11:50 AM
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The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit
A beautiful look at what's left and what's gone.


Posted by: Patrick | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 2:16 PM
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The reason for the downfall of Detroit.


Posted by: My Alter Ego | Link to this comment | 08-30-07 2:36 PM
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