When Does It Make Sense for a City to Downsize?

Roberta Brandes Gratz examines New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward to make the case that even neighborhoods past their prime are worth fighting for.
April 7, 2012, 1pm PDT | Ryan Lue
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When New York's South Bronx started hemorrhaging residents in the 1970s, it pursued a policy of "planned shrinkage," whereby the city scaled back its services in hopes of consolidating residents into a smaller, more manageable area. But that school of thought, Gratz charges, only gives cities momentum to keep on shrinking.

So when the remaining residents of South Bronx were left with piles of uncollected garbage, broken streets, and closed schools and fire stations, they had to rebuild without the City's help. "[They] fought back fiercely, refused to leave, took over vacant buildings, fixed them up on their own, stuck it out with minimum city services, and, with mottos like 'improve don't move,' set about on a sweat equity path that was the catalyst for a slow, incremental citywide rebound... That is why New York grew again, instead of shrank."

And now, seven years after Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans in shambles, the same "slow, incremental rebound" is taking place in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. Though the neighborhood received "few dollars and little energy" from official relief efforts and continues to see the tropical wilderness slowly encroaching on the landscape, "clusters of rebuilt houses and new construction are not hard to find. The sound of the hammer or buzzsaw is ubiquitous."

"Officials too often assume shrinkage is inevitable. But do they ever inquire of the diehard hold-outs why they stay? The answers are clues to regeneration instead of assumptions of continued loss."

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Published on Thursday, April 5, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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