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New Orleans, the Reluctant 'City Laboratory'

Ten years after Katrina, a complicated culture of “experiments” continues to shape the city.
A restored home in New Orleans.
A restored home in New Orleans.Shawn Escoffery

Referring to New Orleans as anything like a “laboratory” during the first weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters receded would have been a bad move. As displaced residents trickled back into the city, they were first and foremost seeking help with piecing their old lives back together: How were they going to pay for a new roof? Where could they find their displaced aunts and nephews? How would they soothe their traumatized children back to sleep during rainstorms? Any conversation about “experimentation” wasn’t going to fly with already rattled residents.

And yet, public hypothesizing about a “new” New Orleans began nearly immediately. James Reiss, an avatar of Uptown wealth and chairman of the Regional Transit Authority, helicoptered back into New Orleans after the floods to declare, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.”