The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America

The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America

by Scott Cowen, Betsy Seifter

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After seven years of service as the president of Tulane University, Scott Cowen watched the devastation of his beloved New Orleans at the hands of Hurricane Katrina. When federal, state, and city officials couldn't find their way to decisive action, Cowen, known for his gutsy leadership, quickly partnered with a coalition of civic, business, and nonprofit leaders


After seven years of service as the president of Tulane University, Scott Cowen watched the devastation of his beloved New Orleans at the hands of Hurricane Katrina. When federal, state, and city officials couldn't find their way to decisive action, Cowen, known for his gutsy leadership, quickly partnered with a coalition of civic, business, and nonprofit leaders looking to work around the old institutions to revitalize and transform New Orleans. This team led the charge to restore equilibrium and eventually to rebuild. For the past nine years, Cowen has continued this work, helping to bring the city of New Orleans back from the brink. The Inevitable City presents 10 principles that changed the game for this city, and, if adopted, can alter the curve for any business, endeavor, community—and perhaps even a nation.This is the story of the resurgence and reinvention of one of America's greatest cities. Ordinary citizens, empowered to actively rescue their own city after politicians and government officials failed them, have succeeded in rebuilding their world. Cowen was at the leading edge of those who articulated, shaped, and implemented a vision of transformative change that has yielded surprising social progress and economic growth: a drowned city identified with the shocking images of devastation and breakdown has transformed itself into a mecca of growth, opportunity, and hope.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After Hurricane Katrina, most of Tulane University lay paralyzed and underwater. Cowen, president of Tulane at the time, led a charge to dramatically refashion the university, and the surrounding city, with a mission of social service and responsibility. In forthright and upbeat fashion, Cowan details the development of that mission, and the sometimes-controversial renewal plan he helped steer with civic and business leaders. Facing unprecedented devastation and a shockingly slow and inadequate government response, Cowen and company were forced to make “hard call” that often met with resistance from, among others, members and representatives of an understandably suspicious population of poor, mostly African-American residents. The university soon restructured and mobilized its academic departments, such as the School of Architecture, bringing services and expertise to blighted areas of the city, and encouraging undergraduates (via a new academic requirement) to actively engage neighborhoods through the Center for Public Service. Part memoir, part leadership study, the book offers 10 principles for rebuilding American cities. Given Cowen’s central role in the regeneration of New Orleans, this is a bird’s-eye view that’s sure to appeal to policy makers, activists, and corporate managers. In addition, Cowen acknowledges historical patterns that feed both the city’s character and the frictions it faces as a diverse but still unequal society. (June)
From the Publisher

“On its surface The Inevitable City is a book about leadership by a man who led his community through a crisis. But what it really is is the story of a love affair, between a man and the city he did so much to save. One day historians will realize how incredible it was that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans found its greatest leader in a university president. They will turn here to see how and why he did what he did.” —New York Times bestselling author Michael Lewis

“Our most famous fictional resident, Blanche DuBois observed that she depended on the kindness of strangers. The truth is in the time after Hurricane Katrina the fate of New Orleans was depending on the vision and competence of a guy that grew up in New Jersey. That person was Tulane President Dr. Scott Cowen. New Orleanians unanimously credit him as being the most significant individual in the resurrection and rebirth of the city. This book is a superb place to become educated on post-Katrina New Orleans.” —James Carville

“Scott Cowen takes us on his personal journey rebuilding and revitalizing his university and community after the worst natural disaster to ever hit a modern American city. His unflinching courage and deep compassion propel a narrative that is at once a leadership epic and an examination of the true meaning of service. Scott reminds us that while we mourn the losses inflicted on our beloved Gulf Coast, we must never let that be the end of the story--we must write the next chapter.” —Lisa Jackson, VP, Apple Inc and former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency

“In this beautifully written book, Cowen describes how New Orleans' leaders, in partnership with its extraordinary and diverse community of citizens, drew on the history, culture, unbreakable spirit and unquestionable strength of this unique metropolis to reimagine new models of urban renewal and reawakening. The Inevitable City serves both to inspire and instruct all of us who know that while great storms are always possible, revitalization and rebirth are more often the result when men and women of courage and determination face the storm together.” —Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, former president of Brown University

The Inevitable City is a wonderful and accurate account of Hurricane Katrina. Scott Cowen saved Tulane University and helped save the City of New Orleans. We had no greater leader.” —Archie Manning

“Dr. Cowen (Scott) articulates how to turn disaster and despair into an opportunity to make our world a better place. By creating a culture that values education, service, faith and commitment we can change the fate of Urban America without eroding its cultural character.” —Chef John Besh, author of Cooking from the Heart

“Cowen offers the blueprint for revitalizing our nation's urban centers with his experience as a leader through the recovery of The Crescent City after America's costliest natural disaster.” —Scott Greenstein, President & Chief Content Officer, SiriusXM Radio

“Scott Cowen writes with obvious passion and personal knowledge.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

Kirkus Reviews
The outgoing president of Tulane University looks back on his role in the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans.When Hurricane Katrina drowned the Crescent City in 2005, it appeared as if the once-great American metropolis might never recover. The deceased bodies of poor, mostly black citizens were left for days to decompose on muddy streets, and many of those who survived the floodwaters were later denied relief at gunpoint when they tried to flee. At the same time, members of the wealthy white elite were openly talking about suddenly having a clean slate to start rebuilding New Orleans to their liking. Into that context came the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, formed with Cowen as the quarterback charged with rebuilding the decimated school system and, by extension, the city. That any impoverished child in the forsaken town ever again sat down in the classroom to study is a remarkable achievement. However, the blueprint used for that success—with its emphasis on charter schools and high-stakes testing—was controversial at the time and remains so today. Cowen skates over the particulars while continually exalting his can-do leadership doctrine. He delivers some blame to embattled former mayor Ray Nagin and his famous “Chocolate City” speech for inciting early black suspicion of the reconstruction effort. Although Cowen later takes pains to outline New Orleans’ long and tragic history of racism and social re-engineering, he seems oblivious to how the poor, black citizens of New Orleans might perceive a meeting with a group of white bankers and real estate developers in which one of his pals was quoted as saying, “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.”More controversial and polarizing than the universal prescription for urban ills it yearns to be.

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The Inevitable City

The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America

By Scott Cowen, Betsy Seifter

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Scott Cowen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-46424-8




* * *

IT'S 10 A.M. ON A SUNDAY AND I'M AT MY DESK, WRITING. OUTSIDE the window, across the street in Audubon Park, a group of Mardi Gras Indians are practicing for St. Joseph's Day, one of the lesser-known holidays on the New Orleans calendar. Mardi Gras is the biggest blowout of the year, but we celebrate a lot here — formal occasions like St. Joseph's Day and Super Sunday and informal ones like second-line parades and jazz funerals. People take to the streets all year long, swept up in tides of music and movement.

Looking out my window, I see that the Indians are wearing their costumes — extravagant scaffolds of plumes, rhinestones, and beadwork. They're riveting. Arms flung wide, feet stomping, the men execute peacock struts and ruffle their feathers. The tambourine shakes out a beat and strange words float in the air.

The Mardi Gras Indians are African American, with possible traces of Caribbean and Native American heritage, strains that are evident in the songs and dances. According to local lore, the impulse to dress up as Indians stems from a feeling of kinship with the Native American tribes who took in runaway slaves in the nineteenth century. Some of the chiefs say that another motivating force for the creation of tribes was opposition to the predominantly white Mardi Gras processions. Feeling unwelcome, African Americans made their own parade.

One of the complicated things about New Orleans is the racial divide: How divided is it? You talk to different people, you get different answers. On the one hand, there's a lot of easy warmth and acceptance, a feeling of "we're all from here." There's also a strong multiracial element, with many genetic mixtures and many shades of skin color. On the other hand, there are occasional collisions along racial lines. Even so, it's not like elsewhere. The civil rights movement stopped short of New Orleans, at least in the sense of open hostilities. Everything down here is more subtle, more encoded, than elsewhere.

I should add that I'm not "from here." I'm originally from New Jersey, a place with very different social codes. I was also, for a long while, a transplant to Cleveland, Ohio, the rust belt city derided as "the mistake on the lake" but in fact a place of interesting textures and customs. Still, New Orleans is different: more intricate, more layered. There's something in the air, a complicated, liberating ethos of permissiveness, indulgence, acceptance, forgiveness. As my wife Margie puts it, she's never lived in a place where she's known so many people who've been in jail, not for violent crime but for white-collar misdeeds, shady dealings, minor corruption. People tend to shrug off other people's mistakes, as they shrug off their own. That's the way it is down here.

In my seven pre-Katrina years in New Orleans, I was, in a way, a tourist. But since Katrina, I feel more like I'm "from here." I've become engaged with everything New Orleans — the music, the food, the artists, the history; the hurricane parties, the Mardi Gras floats, the smell of jasmine, the glitter of the river. I've met remarkable people, like the late Jefferson Parish sheriff Harry Lee, who figured out how to get Tulane's database files out of a downtown building when the city was under martial law, and like Quint Davis, the mastermind and producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, who almost singlehandedly brought the city's music — everything from the Mardi Gras Indians' chants to Professor Longhair's blues — to national prominence. And then there's Bob Breland, my regular cabdriver, whose colorful turns of phrase, careening sense of humor, and encyclopedic mind for city detail remind me of Ignatius from John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.

There are also the people I don't know personally but who make me feel like I know them. I was in the grocery store not long ago, and a woman in an extravagant hat, some sort of feathered thing sitting on the rim, passed by me in the aisle. She smiled warmly and said, "How ya doin', baby?" I smiled back and told her I was fine, how was she doin'? It's like old home week everywhere you go. In the pre- hurricane years, I grew to love this town. It was Katrina that changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, and gave me the chance to do something here.

I turn again to the window. The Mardi Gras Indians are still chanting, and I try to make out the words. Hey Mama, hu tan nay, pock a way pock a way. It's patois, mixing English with what sounds like nonsense words. We have a group of linguists at Tulane who are analyzing Indian songs to try to identify their roots in French, Spanish, and Native American dialects. We also have a group at the law school trying to copyright the costumes of the Indians as works of art, so that the tribes, some 40 of them, will benefit whenever they're displayed at art museums or on the web.

I love watching the Indians dance, but I'm aware that I'm only an observer. I see them framed in the window: They're out there, I'm in here. A lot of the life of the city, vivid, messy, exotic, is "out there," while I spend my time in offices and conference rooms. Maybe I've become more part of the city, a transplant with roots, but I'm still somehow separated from the culture — which may be one reason I've been able to do certain things, hard things, that people born and raised here couldn't or wouldn't.

Another reason I could do things is Tulane itself. New Orleans, already beset by multiple urban problems, was in danger of a disastrous decline in the aftermath of Katrina. Because the fate of the city was so closely tied to the university, I ended up playing a part in its rebuilding. Tulane's part of the story is about seizing an opportunity and assuming a responsibility that chance presented and, in the midst of chaos and paralysis, taking action. Action meant hard things: challenging tradition, breaking rules, disrupting the status quo, causing pain. But "before" wasn't ever coming back. Everything we did at Tulane was done in the belief that the cost, and there was always a cost, was worth it — because we had to change things, and fast, if we were going to have a future.

The story of the four months after Katrina is really two intertwined tales: what the university did to "build a village" in the flooded and anarchic city, so that students could come back for a spring term, and what happened in the city itself, where civic leaders tried to plan a new urban environment while half of the community was scattered across the entire nation. This chapter describes what we did at Tulane; chapter 2 takes up events in the city. Both narratives cover roughly the same time period: those critical months of posthurricane chaos.

I begin with what happened in the autumn of 2005, when the very idea of a future was in doubt.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE STORM, TULANE, like every other institution and business in New Orleans, was scrambling for basic survival. Though the situation was dire, it was also clouded with uncertainty — the fog of disaster. In the end, the facts looked like this:

• More than 1,500 people died in the Greater New Orleans area. Most drowned in their homes or expired in the 100-degree heat of their attics. Many hundreds more died from stress-related illness and inadequate health care in the year following the storm.

• More than 200,000 homes were destroyed, and many more were damaged.

• More than 1 million people — 80 percent of the greater metro population — were displaced for at least six weeks, many for months. (And, according to some estimates, 100,000 have still, nearly a decade later, not returned.)

• More than 80 percent of Orleans Parish, or county, was flooded — a landmass equivalent to 7 times the size of Manhattan.

• The hurricane resulted in 22 million tons of debris, more than 12 times the amount of the 9/11 tragedy.

• Katrina has been ranked the most expensive natural disaster in the history of the United States.

Tulane University was not immune to this devastation. Seventy percent of the main campus and all of the health sciences campus were flooded with water ranging from one to three feet in depth. The university experienced losses in excess of $650 million.

But we didn't know all this at the time; we were dealing with facts as they emerged, day by day, in the aftermath. I was the president; the buck stopped with me. And there were hard decisions to make, actions to take. It was not a time (if there's ever a time) for crowd pleasing or grandstanding or leisurely democratic consensus. It was up to me to decide what would be most effective, productive, fair, and beneficial for a broad range of people and interests.

"Managers do things right, while leaders do the right things." Doing the right thing is not a matter of correctness or following a blueprint; it frequently entails difficult, controversial decisions, because the "right thing" is often in the eye of the beholder. Yet doing the right thing is what separates true leaders from those who do not have the capacity or insight to search out what's required to resolve complex issues. Leaders ultimately are held accountable for their actions and measured by their achievements; and it's doing what's right that determines success versus failure.

The central theme of this chapter is leadership and the challenges it poses for those who can find the strength and will to effect positive change.

DURING ALL OF SEPTEMBER 2005, following the August 29 landfall of Katrina, the administrative staff was in emergency mode, hunkered down in a hotel room in Houston with a flip chart itemizing the day's top priorities. (Except, that is, for a three-day hiatus in Dallas to escape Hurricane Rita, which, coming less than a month after Katrina, felt like one hurricane too many.) We worked 20-hour days there, people sitting underneath tables and sprawled on couches, taking notes and working on cell phones. We'd evacuated the school, at least, but its fate remained uncertain. There was a tremendous sense of urgency. I thought of the old joke: "How do you eat an elephant?" Answer: "One bite at a time." I took my wife's advice; I think of the flip chart as the concrete analog of her suggestion to make a list. We would get things done, one bite at a time.

I concentrated on Tulane, blocking out, as much as I could, the continuous tragedies elsewhere in the city. Some of my colleagues were not as good at compartmentalizing; some were separated from their families, some had lost their homes. I remember a key staffer, one of the administrative vice presidents, who was near meltdown: incapable of making a decision, not eating or sleeping, often on the verge of tears. I called him in and said, "I want you to know that I understand what you're feeling, but I have to ask you: Can you do the job?" He says my question knocked him out of his daze. After we talked, he shook off his paralysis, got down to work, and more than rose to the occasion. Others were not as resilient and, hard as it was, had to be replaced. There was so much to do, none of us could afford to feel things that intensely.

The first thing we did was decide to keep everyone on the payroll, despite the fact that we had no money coming in. It was clear people couldn't manage for months without a paycheck, and without a faculty and staff, we had no university. We'd get the money from reserves, loans, insurance proceeds, and eventually the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), though the latter became an almost impossible challenge.

Next was communications. David Filo, a Tulane grad who had cofounded Yahoo!, set up an emergency website where I conducted Live Chats with students, parents, and employees. Then we went after Tulane's database — our entire archive of information technology files had been left behind in a downtown high-rise. New Orleans was in lockdown, no one in, no one out, but Harry Lee, the Jefferson Parish sheriff at the time, the one with the magical connections, helped us arrange a raid: A self-designed SWAT team flew into New Orleans by helicopter and carried crates of discs down 14 flights of stairs to waiting trucks and then an airplane, which made it out of the city before curfew fell.

With email back in operation, we at least had a fully functioning virtual community. But physically, the displaced students, more than 13,000 of them, had to go somewhere for the semester. Higher education groups across the country leapt in with aid. Hundreds of colleges and universities offered placements, and most of them, in a move beyond generous, didn't accept tuition for the semester. That meant we could keep the tuition from the fall term to pay faculty and staff during the months of suspended operations.

Another make-or-break question was whether we could persuade students and faculty to come back to New Orleans by January 16, the start date for the second term. Here's where the wider anguish of the city, which had so affected me when I saw TV images on the treadmill in Houston, seeped into my make-a-list mindset. The city — not news to anyone who has read the Katrina accounts — was a mess; it was no wonder people felt uncertain about returning. It was soon clear that FEMA couldn't manage itself out of a paper bag, and mocking graffiti ("Katrina survivor, FEMA victim," "FEMA Kills," "I've been FEMA-ed") sprouted all over town. The police couldn't handle the looting and crime, which continued long after the storm had passed, and rescue teams couldn't keep up with the bodies of those who'd perished, leaving scrawls on buildings ("1 Dead in Attic") to direct the coroner to where the corpses were.

City services were very slow to come back. Weeks after the storm, refrigerators full of rotting food still lined the streets; the smell of human waste hung over large portions of town; power hadn't been restored in many neighborhoods; and the New Orleans Parish School Board didn't open a single school in the fall term because of damage to buildings and the diaspora of so many students and teachers. Meanwhile, Ray Nagin, the mayor, seemed paralyzed: At the height of the crisis, he had failed to show up at the Superdome and the Convention Center to tell the huddled refugees what was going on in the city or provide the kind of encouragement and support so desperately needed. Since then he'd appeared in public only rarely, offering the occasional manic pronouncement ("New Orleans will be the new Las Vegas!") but no clear, credible plan of action.

Rage and despair were in the air, and conspiracy theories were beginning to flourish. Chapter 2 describes in detail the heated controversies about what, exactly, had happened in New Orleans and what, exactly, would happen next. In these early months, the media was often oil on the fire; reporters were on the prowl for the most dramatic and contentious storylines, and public figures weighed in with impassioned opinions. The Wall Street Journal published a piece suggesting Uptown businessmen who were opposed to rebuilding the flooded African American neighborhoods were plotting to reengineer New Orleans as a white corporate town. Rapper Kanye West said, "President Bush doesn't care about black people." Movie director Spike Lee held similar views, given full expression in his 2006 documentary, When the Levees Broke. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and Mayor Nagin also subscribed to the view that covert forces at the highest corporate and government levels were conspiring against the majority black population.

I'm slow to believe in conspiracies, but I can personally testify to the government's incompetence and stonewalling, based on a meeting I had with Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversaw FEMA. FEMA, which had been folded into Homeland Security after 9/11, had lost status and funding because of the intense focus on terrorism. From a psychological perspective, natural disasters were a far less satisfying foe than jihadists, and preparedness for such disasters was spotty in many American cities. As with most complex events, there was no one cause for the collapse of aid and rescue in the aftermath of Katrina. But the attitude of bureaucrats like Chertoff was certainly a major obstacle.

One day in early November, I sat in the steely light of Chertoff's office to make the case for a more flexible interpretation of the Stafford Act. The act was, in essence, a reimbursement regulation guiding FEMA's actions, and completely inadequate for a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina: It required contractors to engage in a long bidding process in order to repair damaged or destroyed property. This was time we didn't have, either at Tulane or in the city at large, if we were to save New Orleans from stagnation and despair.

I tried to impress on Chertoff the situation as I saw it, describing the devastation I'd witnessed, the potentially disastrous consequences of approaching the recovery with a business-as-usual mentality, the need to act boldly and flexibly. But Chertoff, a lawyer by background, would not, or could not, respond in a human way. All his answers were strictly legalistic and canned — he kept citing the language of the Stafford Act, as though scoring points — and his tone was officious. It was like talking to a robot. Finally, I stood up in frustration. "Mr. Secretary, this is getting us nowhere. Thank you for your time, but I'm leaving." I was at the door when he said, "Come back, sit down." We talked for another half hour after that, and his tone veered 180 degrees. He stopped issuing the standard message points and went into listening mode. I left with some hope of help, but it soon became clear that Chertoff was just pacifying me. Ultimately nothing came of the meeting.


Excerpted from The Inevitable City by Scott Cowen, Betsy Seifter. Copyright © 2014 Scott Cowen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Scott Cowen is president of Tulane University and was one of the key players in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His work has been widely covered by the media, including Fast Company Magazine, Newark-based The Star-Ledger, The New York Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is also a guest panelist on the Sirius talk show "Doctor Radio." TIME magazine has named President Cowen one of the nation's Top 10 Best College Presidents and New Orleans CityBusiness called him one of the 30 "Driving Forces" in New Orleans in the last 30 years.
Scott Cowen is president of Tulane University and was one of the key players in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He is the co-author of The Inevitable City. His work has been widely covered by the media, including Fast Company Magazine, Newark-based The Star-Ledger, The New York Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is also a guest panelist on the Sirius talk show “Doctor Radio.” TIME magazine has named President Cowen one of the nation’s Top 10 Best College Presidents and New Orleans CityBusiness called him one of the 30 “Driving Forces” in New Orleans in the last 30 years.

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