May 21, 2006

Bumbling In Biloxi

Main Street runs through the center of East Biloxi. Tyrone's Barber and Beauty Shop stands about halfway down Main Street. Tyrone Burton has been cutting hair in Biloxi since 1962, and when I stopped in one morning, there were a half-dozen or so people waiting for a haircut or a style. They hadn't seen the rebuilding recommendations, and most of them hadn't even heard about them, so I went back to my car and fetched a copy and showed it around.

There were two women at Tyrone's, Renee Scott and Bernice Catchings. Before Katrina wrecked it, they had both worked at the Boomtown Casino, Scott as a wardrobe clerk and Catchings as a cook; each had been making $8.75 an hour and taking home about $6 after taxes — $12,000 a year for a full-time job and the jobs had disappeared six months previously. I flipped to the part of the plan that covered affordable housing, and they looked at it skeptically. "Affordable to who?" Scott said. "It won't be me, I can assure you of that."

"Affordable to who?" That's the first question, and the most difficult to answer. There used to be a lot of ways for people to get by in Biloxi: the communities were stable, houses were old and often passed down through generations and rental properties were plentiful and inexpensive. Now that much of it needs to be rebuilt, everything is going to cost a great deal more. I asked Andrés Duany what he meant by "affordable," and he said: "$140,000. We can make a really nice three-bedroom house for $140,000, working with mobile-home manufacturers." When I asked Bill Stallworth, a black councilman whose ward includes about half of East Biloxi, he was just as blunt. "That's not affordable for this area," he said. "Affordability is $65,000 to $95,000."


A very interesting and insightful piece from the New York Times magazine about the rebuilding efforts along the Mississippi coastline after Katrina. I've been interested in the New Urbanism movement after first hearing about it and its advocates when I worked at the Guggenheim years ago. Unfortunately, the plans for Biloxi, Mississippi simply ignore the very citizens that should be the focus of any revitilization:

The New Urbanists like to point to their inclusiveness and respect for regional traditions. Liz Moule told me several times that they had gone out of their way to bring local people into the forum. But judging from the list of invitees, that meant "local designers." Movement throughout Biloxi was significantly limited that week, with National Guardsmen stationed along the highway leading up to the Isle of Capri. Any unaffiliated citizen who wanted to stop by would have been turned away, and in any case, a lot of the evacuees hadn't come back to town yet. In the weeks that followed, there were public meetings to discuss the rebuilding, but many people didn't hear about them or were too busy picking through the debris that had once been their homes. Stallworth, the councilman, described a process that was already well under way before any of the residents were asked how they wanted to rebuild: "It took into account a lot of great planners and their ideas, but not very much from the people. At the town meetings, they pulled out all these plans and said, 'Isn't that nice' and 'What do you think about that?' But the time to ask these questions is on the front end, before you draw up all these plans." The working people of Biloxi — the shrimp fishermen, the bus drivers, the men and women who clean the casinos — weren't consulted, and there was no way to know what the plan might have looked like if they had been.

New Urbanism is like Whole Foods: it's meant to be good for you, but it's expensive, at least on the front end, and it comes with a set of cultural connotations that generally play best among the prosperous and the self-consciously progressive. At Tyrone's Barber and Beauty Shop, Bernice Catchings had flipped through the plan, with its spiffy little houses and tasteful storefronts, and said: "A poor lady like me, what the hell am I going to do with that? Walk by it and admire it? We can't buy it. The white man will always have us pushed to where we have to just . . . go by and admire it and then go home somewhere and eat them old beans and bread and be thankful."

A number of people involved in the Mississippi Renewal Forum referred to the Gulf Coast as a blank slate, but of course it wasn't, exactly. There were lives and mores at work there, which persisted even when most of the buildings were leveled. There are, for example, several thousand Vietnamese in Biloxi: they came to work on the shrimp boats and stayed to build houses and raise families. According to Uyen Le, who works for a Vietnamese community organization, many of them left behind a world where only poor people walk everywhere and a car is a sign of success. "That's the American dream: you get your own lot, and you get your own little house, and you get your own car," she explained. "And now you're talking about these walkable neighborhoods, and some people will say, 'I came to America so I could drive.' Some of these New Urbanist ideas don't really match up for this area." In the 65-page, 28,000-word "Reconstruction Plan for Biloxi," the word "Vietnamese" appears just once.

It appears that "New Urbanism" generates as much debate about it's benefits as does "gentrification." There will be factions that embrace and demean the movements without any room for compromise.

Posted by ronn at May 21, 2006 09:00 PM

"Unfortunately, the plans for Biloxi, Mississippi simply ignore the very citizens that should be the focus of any revitilization" The NYT does put that spin on the new urbanists' plans, but it's an inaccurate spin. You can see the plans themselves at and judge for yourself. Meanwhile, here is a lengthy and detailed article by a New Yorker editor that paints a different portrait: Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on May 23, 2006 10:04 AM
I live in Biloxi, and I thought the article was right on accurate. Thus Aurbach guy is a nut-case who posts his propaganda everywhere. Please ignore him. We’ve suffered enough and we don’t need people like that. Posted by: Halliday on May 25, 2006 02:38 PM
Halliday, I am sorry if you think new urbanists have added to the suffering in the Gulf coast. But I do know there are many residents of the coast who were inspired by the new urbanists' ideas and are enthusiastic about seeing them realized. I'd be interested in your reaction to the Oxford American article. Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on May 27, 2006 10:19 AM
Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe Posted by: WaltDe on August 31, 2006 08:38 PM
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