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Katrina rewrites relationship between city, suburbs
But city's survival critical, some say
Sunday, March 05, 2006
By Kate Moran East Jefferson bureau

Look past shared traditions such as Carnival and gumbo, and a deep-seated ambivalence has always loitered between New Orleans and its suburbs.

The tourism commission in St. Tammany Parish tripped over it several years ago, when it unveiled a logo designed to feed off the thriving tourism market in the city. While the new brand name, "New Orleans Northshore: St. Tammany Parish," might have tantalized visitors from out of state, it irked locals who associated the central city with rampant crime, poverty and other social ills.

"We do not want to be part of New Orleans," an angry resident wrote to The Times-Picayune in 1999, at the height of the uproar. "Visiting New Orleans, for us, is like visiting a hornet's nest and praying to get out alive -- not a place, or pace, we want to live."

The suburbs, born of New Orleans and midwifed by the interstate highway system, have matured over the past half century into sophisticated places with strong neighborhoods and commercial and retail centers of their own. But if suburbanites sometimes wall off the city as a distant nightmare, a cradle of urban decay, Hurricane Katrina is now testing whether they are truly independent or whether that psychological barrier is simply a mirage.

Still the epicenter

The prevailing wisdom among the political class and a number of academics is that New Orleans is the bellwether for the metropolitan area, not an irrelevant ancestor the suburbs can blithely ignore. Three former New Orleans mayors and five suburban parish presidents said as much in January, when they rallied for regional flood protection before launching into a rare public meditation on the linkages between the city and its neighbors.

"The heart of this region is New Orleans," Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard said at the historic meeting. "As New Orleans goes, so goes the region and so goes Jefferson Parish."

Urban planners and economists generally agree that suburbs need a vibrant city as their lodestar in order to prosper. While suburbs subsist outside Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, planners say these do not have the same vitality as satellites of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other modern, bustling cities.

But when Katrina emptied New Orleans, it tipped the balance of power between city and suburb, transforming Jefferson into perhaps the most populous parish in the state and boosting St. Tammany's population by almost 30 percent. Either the city will regenerate, or it will become a symbolic center, its economic and political influence eclipsed by that of the suburbs.

"The survival and prosperity of New Orleans is critical to the entire region," said Marty Mayer, a real estate developer and chairman of the St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce. "But there also has been a sense in years gone by that the people in New Orleans did not give the outlying areas the credit and the voice that we felt we should have on a regional basis. It works both ways now that New Orleans is not the big city any more in terms of population. They're not the big boy anymore."

Migrating problems

It is still too early to declare 2006 the era of the suburb in southeast Louisiana. While some suburbs have boomed as the city has shrunk, planners and economists warn that the outlying areas could come to resemble more closely the city that many of their residents left in generations past. If housing is unavailable in the city, semiskilled workers will seek it in the suburbs. Jefferson and other outlying areas might have to contend with some of the social problems that used to be sequestered in the city.

In the meantime, the landscape could become more suburban in feel, prone to sprawl and traffic congestion, less fertile in terms of the unique musical and culinary traditions sprung from the urban cranium.

"The suburbs, in our view, can never really be separated from the center cities they are appended to. No one will do well if there is freefall in the center," said Mark Muro, metropolitan policy director at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank that has studied post-Katrina demographic patterns in New Orleans. "But there have been tremendous shocks that may have reshuffled the deck. It could be that these shocks will exacerbate the tendency toward decentralization that has been under way for a long time. The suburbs are already changing, already becoming more diverse, and this may speed that trend and force them to become more like the city in certain ways."

Muro said academic studies generally suggest a strong symbiosis between cities and their suburbs. Real estate values and income growth in the suburbs rarely outpace the same factors in the central cities, for example, even if the raw numbers are higher in one than the other.

But New Orleans' suburbs have waxed in relative importance to the city in the past three decades. Jefferson in particular can no longer be considered a bedroom community but a dense, almost urban environment with its own commercial and light industrial base that feeds the city as much as New Orleans does the suburbs.

Thirty-six years ago, New Orleans supplied two-thirds of the jobs in the metropolitan area. That figure had dropped to 42 percent by 2000, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution. While the city lost 11,000 jobs during that period, Jefferson gained 166,000, an increase of 157 percent, and St. Tammany added 69,000, an increase of 431 percent.

"A long time ago, Orleans Parish stopped being the employment center for the metropolitan region. It is now Jefferson Parish," said Timothy Joder, associate dean at the College of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of New Orleans. "The failure of the city to rebound in spectacular fashion will not have a tremendous impact on the adjourning suburban areas. I do not think they live or die on whether New Orleans thrives, particularly."

The 2000 census indicates that 65 percent of Jefferson residents do not leave the parish to work, and only 28 percent commute to New Orleans. Figures are comparable for St. Tammany. Most New Orleanians work in their city, though 21 percent commute to the suburbs.

Jeffrey Roesel, principal planner with the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, said the concept of a central workplace that serves commuters along the periphery is obsolete, not only in this region but in many across the country. Jefferson has adapted by developing business parks in Elmwood and Avondale, and St. Tammany is doing the same along the U.S. 190 corridor.

Jefferson's vulnerability

While major businesses have already diffused around the region, many of them would not exist but for the city and its core industries, especially tourism and higher education. Roesel offered the example of Sysco, the Elmwood food distributor that supplies the booming tourism and convention industry in New Orleans.

"The census indicated that there is not a direct commute from suburban areas to New Orleans, at least to downtown, as much as there used to be. We have more of a decentralized work force," Roesel said. "That does not mean the economics are not interdependent."

Indeed, Jefferson's elected officials are keenly aware that the health of their retail strip along Veterans Memorial Boulevard -- chockablock with grocery stores, restaurants, big boxes and a shopping mall -- depends in part on the robust return of New Orleans' population.

"We are separated by the 17th Street Canal, not a major mountain range," Parish Councilman Tom Capella said. "So many people from the western part of New Orleans come here for their daily needs."

Yet several planners and elected officials predict that Katrina could accelerate the growth of office space in the suburbs, especially after the scheduled expansion of the Huey P. Long bridge opens an area now prone to congestion. The suburbs, with the notable exception of devastated St. Bernard, are generally primed for growth because their governments weathered the storm in better financial health than the city did.

Meanwhile, New Orleans faces hurdles in business development because its political culture is perceived as corrupt, its public school system remains a shambles and elected leaders have not made key decisions on how the rebuilding will take place. All of these factors spell opportunity for the suburbs.

"What you may have is pockets that resemble a central business district in different areas," surmised John Young, chairman of the Jefferson Parish Council. "You may have more mixed-use development in Jefferson Parish, more demand for office space. Growth would truly be more metropolitan."

But suburbanites have not always embraced growth, especially the construction of dense, high-rise housing or offices that boost noise and congestion. If zoning codes restrict urban-style development, suburbs will stagnate or continue to sprawl outward, possibly into flood-prone areas.

"Like it or not, we're going to look more like the standard American model than we have in the past," Roesel said.

Because Katrina could prove a centrifugal force in the local economy, spinning new development toward the suburbs, urban planners are again advocating the construction of a light-rail system that would not only decrease reliance on cars but also encourage development closer to the central city.

"The more New Orleans and its suburbs can link themselves through a network of transit, the better it will be for all of them," said Reed Kroloff, dean of the School of Architecture at Tulane University.

Quality institutions

Kroloff is among the doubters who question whether the suburbs will be ascendant if businesses and residents do not return the city in large numbers. He says the brand name that attracts visitors to the region is New Orleans, not Mandeville or Arabi or Kenner. The strange cultural crock pot that produced jazz and gumbo came not from suburban subdivisions but from the racially mixed neighborhoods of the city.

"If New Orleans were to falter entirely, all of this would go away. Those places would find themselves returning to insignificant outposts in a dangerous coastal region," Kroloff said of the suburbs. "A lot of it has to do with the accumulation of how much there is in the big city. There is so much more contained there than in all the towns that support it. If there is a big hole, it would be hard for them to continue on."

Several urbanists said the full recovery of its pre-Katrina population, 444,515 by the Census Bureau's 2004 estimate, is not necessary for New Orleans to remain the crux of the region. More important, they said, are strong schools, restoration of basic services such as hospital care and the resurrection of attractive, diverse neighborhoods.

"It is not so much a question of size. There are very vibrant small cities," said Muro, of the Brookings Institution. "But there needs to be some progress in New Orleans towards health in terms of education levels and the economic mix."

While the city lurches toward recovery, its suburbs could begin to experience significant social change. St. Tammany is struggling with renewed growing pains as its population has further taxed the capacity of local infrastructure. Jefferson, which had a growing racial minority population before Katrina, especially on the West Bank, could become more diverse as non-white people rebuild their lives away from devastated neighborhoods in the city.

Low-income workers could look to outlying areas for affordable rental housing. If they previously relied on the huge government services sector in the city, they could begin to overwhelm hospitals and other institutions in the suburbs. Young, the Jefferson council chairman, said the two public hospitals in Jefferson have already seen a rise in indigent patients since the closing of Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

Suburban communities, which have in some ways insulated themselves from problems and complexities of urban life, could begin to look more like the city.

"These are not places where people of modest means have lived," said Ned Hill, a Cleveland State University economic development professor who has written extensively on the city-suburb relationship. "Are they going to be willing to open up their doors and allow affordable or more dense housing, so something other than the managerial class can live there?"

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Kate Moran may be reached at or (504) 883-7052.