Nearly 100 years ago, after a catastrophic flood of the Seine in January 1910, residents of Paris faced a dilemma similar to that in New Orleans after the levee breaks of Hurricane Katrina. As we try to learn Katrina's lessons about how cities live and die, the story of another great metropolis is both familiar and inspiring.
Following weeks of torrential rainfall, the waters of the Seine swelled to levels not seen in 250 years. The river bubbled up into buildings filling homes and businesses for weeks. When the electricity shorted out, the City of Light became dark and cold, and frightened Parisians crowded into emergency shelters. Few could escape the broken city since railroad tracks sat under feet of water.
France's prime minister and president toured the ruins, bringing comfort to victims. Their presence argued that government was hard at work for the people. The president even tasted the soup at one shelter, much to everyone's delight.
But more importantly, Parisians organized themselves. Residents rallied to help one another rebuild, despite political and economic divisions. People rowed boats through the streets saving others and built miles of temporary wooden walkways. Parisians received much from their government, but got more from one another.
In extreme moments, when we cannot rely on urban infrastructures, we can only turn to one another, as Parisians did in 1910. New Orleans has done the same thing in the past four years, as neighbors helped each other and grassroots organizations sprang up to nurture returning communities. But there is still much to do.
How can New Orleans make its social ties stronger? It should ensure that New Orleans becomes the place it deserves to be begins by embracing the fact that the city is no longer -- and no longer should be -- the "country's most insular city." Citizens must welcome the shifts in culture, economy, politics and possibility that come with changing demographics.
Planners, public officials, business leaders and citizens must preserve the unique character of neighborhoods while making them more resilient to economic and physical decline. This involves carefully selected investments in historic business corridors and "clustering" redevelopment.
And a city like New Orleans deserves public spaces -- like those in Paris -- that are second to none. In neighborhood parks, along the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, and on residential boulevards, the Crescent City has more potential for a high-quality public sphere than almost any city in the country. As the post-Katrina maintenance of City Park has demonstrated, citizens will do their part by using these spaces as points of pride, celebration, and building community.
A century ago, Parisians demonstrated that a city's public spirit counts for a lot in challenging times. The question for New Orleans remains how to continue putting theirs to work. From the story of Paris's flood comes the simple but enduring reminder that rebuilding a city can be done with a powerful collective will from the grassroots -- and impossible without it.
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Jeffrey H. Jackson is associate professor of history and director of the environmental studies program at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. He is the author of "Paris Under Water: How The City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910." Robert E. Edgecombe, a native New Orleanian, worked as an urban planning consultant for GCR and Associates during Katrina recovery from 2006-08 and is currently a graduate student in the department of urban and regional planning at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.http://blog.nola.com/guesteditorials/2009/08/public_spirit_revives_great_ci.html