New St. Louis

Time for this town to cash in on Hurricane Katrina

Two months ago Mark Serice was newly wed, comfortably ensconced in the New Orleans suburb of River Ridge and working as chef de cuisine at Brennan's, a venerable French Quarter eatery famed for its abundant breakfast spread and as the birthplace of Bananas Foster -- which, to heap decadence upon opulence, the restaurant makes available at breakfast.

Hurricane Katrina changed all that.

Today Brennan's is closed for repairs and Serice is adjusting to a new commute: from the Central West End to Truffles bistro in Ladue. The 35-year-old New Orleans native, who found himself among the several thousand Katrina evacuees to land in St. Louis when his wife's employer transferred her here after the storm, says he had little trouble finding a job. "We're staying with some people in the Central West End, and they had a neighbor who passed my résumé on to Ladue Market, and Ladue Market passed it on to Truffles Restaurant," Serice recounts. "Truffles happened to be losing their chef -- he was starting his own venture -- and they needed a chef fairly quickly. I was just right place, right time. Very lucky."

You might say St. Louis lucked out too -- of all the places the Serices might have been flung by Katrina, they wound up here. Imagine that: A city that's been shriveling like a naked man in a cold shower chalks up a pair in the win column.

Now picture that couple multiplied by a few hundred thousand.

Plenty of people are lining up to profit from the Crescent City's calamity, St. Louisans included. In fact, the winds had hardly subsided down there before the civic hot air began to blow up here. "As you know," St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission president Carole Moody imparted last month in an online update of local convention bookings, "our staffers have been calling on many meeting and convention groups that have been displaced through the end of this year and well into 2006."

Like a buzzard to a bloated carcass, Moody descended: "To help meeting planners minimize their losses and to convince them to select St. Louis over other alternative sites, we have offered free or discounted space at the America's Center convention complex to groups that meet certain size requirements."

As of mid-September the commission had lured one big fish -- the National Catholic Development Conference, which ponied up for 2,200 hotel rooms earlier this month -- and two littler ones: a summer 2006 reunion organized by the USS Independence CV-62 Association that had been scheduled for Biloxi, Mississippi, and a "small meeting" convened by Fresh Cup Magazine, a publication for specialty coffee vendors, next spring. Says Convention & Visitors spokeswoman Mary Hendron: "We're hoping to see ten good pieces of business out of [the evacuation] in the long term." (An anticipated update on further progress was not available by press time.)

But why stop at the convention business? Why not simply relocate New Orleans, lock, stock and beignets, to St. Louis? We live in a city, after all, that was built to accommodate more than 800,000 citizens -- which it did, in the 1940s and '50s.

Like New Orleans, St. Louis has since faced many of the problems associated with a deteriorating urban core.

Unlike New Orleans, St. Louis isn't underwater.

The estimated cost of rebuilding New Orleans opened at about $200 billion and has proceeded to rise like Lake Ponchartrain in a gale. No one can say what kind of time and money will be required to protect the benighted city from future hurricane-borne devastation. And scientists are already warning of the high probability of more storms yet to come. Perhaps worse than Katrina. Perhaps even this year.

In Katrina's wake, a New Orleans official observed that what befell his city is "devastating, but it's also an opportunity to make New Orleans one of the best cities of the 21st century."

How about we bulldoze what's left of New Orleans and make St. Louis one of the best cities of the 21st century instead?

Call it New St. Louis.

Self-indulgent? Maybe. But surely cost-effective. And even as we shore up St. Louis' stature, we'd free up beaucoup funds to help those among the estimated 1.3 million evacuees who didn't have much to lose before the storm -- and who therefore lost everything.

"To try and put most of the evacuees in one place makes good economic sense, and St. Louis is a city that has a shell that could be filled up again," observes Tim Lomperis, dean emeritus of the political science department at Saint Louis University. "The whole north side is like an abandoned Beirut. Chicago has slums because there are people in the slums. We don't even have slums anymore; we just have abandoned warehouses. There could be, like, an urban homestead act to bring about the urban renewal of north St. Louis."

Andrew Hurley, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, sees the potential. "But it would not be a simple matter to just plop an additional 400,000 people in St. Louis and expect the city to return some mythical golden years," cautions Hurley, who teaches urban and environmental history. "There were important reasons why the city emptied out after World War II. The only way to make a city of 800,000 or 900,000 function smoothly is to revive mass transportation. Are we as a culture prepared to do that?

Next Page »