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Joel Kotkin: Will New Orleans Revive?

[Mr. Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The City: A Global History" (Modern Library, 2005).]

Like the Mississippi itself, cities have risen and fallen through history. Herodotus noted in his own time, the 5th century B.C., that "human prosperity never abides long in the same place." Many of the cities that were "great" in his time were small in the recent past, he noted, while many leading cities of his youth had shrunk into relative insignificance. Herodotus considered understanding the causes of this rise and fall to be among the major callings of historians. Identifying why a city prospers or not over time remains highly relevant, not only for tragedy-struck New Orleans, but for virtually all Western cities in the age of terror.

Current intellectual fashion tells us that the crisis in New Orleans stems primarily from human mismanagement of the environment. Yet blaming global warming or poor river management practices will not bring the city back to its condition last week, much less return it to the greatness that defined it in its 19th-century heyday. The key to understanding the fate of cities lies in knowing that the greatest long-term damage comes not from nature or foreign attacks, but often from self-infliction. Cities are more than physical or natural constructs; they are essentially the products of human will, faith and determination.

A city whose residents have given up on their future or who lose interest in it are unlikely to respond to great challenges. Decaying cities throughout history -- Rome in the 5th century, Venice in the 18th -- both suffered from a decayed sense of civic purpose and prime. In this circumstance, even civic leaders tend to seek out their own comfortable perches within the city or choose to leave it entirely to its poorer, less mobile residents. This has been occurring for decades in the American rustbelt -- think of Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis -- or to the depopulated cores in old industrial regions in the British Midlands, Germany and Russia.

Happily, urban history also contains examples of cities that have rebounded from natural and other devastation, sometimes far worse than that wrought on New Orleans. Carthage, purposely destroyed and planted with salt by its Roman conquerors, later re-emerged as a prominent urban center, becoming the home of St. Augustine, author of "City of God." Modern times, too, offer examples which can inspire New Orleans residents. Tokyo and London rose from near total devastation in 1945. Perhaps even more remarkable, albeit on a smaller scale, has been the successful rebuilding of Hiroshima into an industrial powerhouse and one of Japan's most pleasant seaside cities.

Americans, too, have shown how to improve their cities after natural disasters. The 1905 San Francisco earthquake and fire leveled most of that city, leading some to believe that the future center of the region would be across the bay in Oakland. Yet the ingenuity and ambition of its citizens would not allow this to happen. Led by A.E. Giannini, founding father of the Bank of America, a somewhat overgrown gold rush Deadwood emerged by the 1920s as something closer to the "Paris of the Pacific."...

Will New Orleans meet this challenge? The key may lie not so much in calculating the amount of money sent from Washington, but whether the events of this week will transform attitudes toward growth, economic diversification and commitment to the overall public good. On the surface, there is reason to be skeptical. Once the premier city of the south and commercial center of the Gulf, New Orleans has been losing ground for the better part of a century. It has surrendered its primacy to other, newer cities -- Miami and Houston -- which have fed off the "animal spirits" of entrepreneurs and had the foresight to invest in basic infrastructure....

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