New St. Louis

Time for this town to cash in on Hurricane Katrina

Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaeser is up for a little creative thinking too. Like Gans, Glaeser doesn't cotton to the notion of importing New Orleanians to St. Louis against their will, but he's all in favor of sending out a few hundred thousand invitations.

"St. Louis had the sharpest population decline between 1990 and 2000 of any larger city in the country. This means that there's a good case to be made that attracting more people would be a good thing, and it may be sensible for St. Louis to get in the market," reasons Glaeser, who teaches at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and researches how cities grow. "There are certainly many attractive things about St. Louis -- not the least of which is its relatively inexpensive housing. The leaders of St. Louis should absolutely see themselves as having the potential to attract displaced residents."

Because many displaced New Orleanians will undoubtedly wind up settling elsewhere, Glaeser says, the federal government ought to be considering how best to help them start new lives.

Translation: money.

"I'd prefer just [giving] people cash, but I could imagine everyone who comes to your city with the New Orleans diaspora carries with them a voucher that goes directly to the city government for handling infrastructure and education," Glaeser says. "If you manage to attract 50,000 New Orleans residents, each one of them would carry with them a government voucher for $5,000 or $10,000, which could then be used for providing schooling or infrastructure or other things like that.

"The question is whether you're gonna be able to attract these people," he concludes. "That's the job of the leadership."

Don't hold your breath, Columbia's Gans advises. "Missouri is controlled by Republicans, so they wouldn't want an influx of Democrats."

Not that Louisiana will fare any better. "The biggest problem is that the monies that will be needed for this are not going to come," Gans predicts. "The Republicans are going to dump all these people in trailer parks and then wash their hands of them and decide it's a state responsibility."

In the days following Hurricane Katrina's landfall, St. Louis-area volunteers proudly assembled, then resignedly dismantled, a local "Welcome Center" for evacuees. The facility, set up at the behest of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a vast hangar near Lambert Airport, reportedly was equipped for 2,000 arrivals, with dorms, showers, a pharmacy, a children's play area and job-information booths (among other amenities), at a cost that ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But although up to 5,000 evacuees are said to have passed through the St. Louis area, no one used it.

And not everyone is prepared to get onboard with New St. Louis. "Stay away from our musicians!" jokes Craig Colten, a geography professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. But he's serious about his belief that New Orleans can be rebuilt, and should be. "New Orleans is a vulnerable place, there's no doubt about it. But some of the city is above sea level, and that's the area that pretty much survived this storm."

Colten concedes that "ultimately there will be a number of cities that will benefit [from the hurricane] to some extent. New Orleans has been losing population since 1960. But New Orleans as a city has kind of paid its way in American society. I don't know that abandoning it to the slow declining forces of nature makes a lot of sense for the country as a whole. You have the genius of the location -- a combination of the social demographics and the location itself -- physical factors of the city that in part inspired the music and the cuisine of the area. I don't know if you can replicate that in any real way in a new city."

Well, we've got history too. Way back in 1764, St. Louis was founded by Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau, who were staking out a strategic nexus for the fur trade. Historians believe the city that came to be built here was modeled after the one from which the Frenchmen had journeyed: New Orleans.

Having made the same trek two centuries later, the Serices like what they see. "We just rented an apartment in the Central West End. I love it," says Mark Serice. "It's a great area of town -- it's urban, it's a little trendy, it's a really neat area.

"My broiler chef from Brennan's, Vincent Burke, relocated just by coincidence to this area -- he has some relatives in St. Charles," Serice adds. "When I found out he was up here, I said, 'You need a job?' And he did. So this works out perfectly for both of us."

Chad Garrison, Kristen Hinman and Mike Seely conducted some of the interviews for this story.

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