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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?

"Given the changing image of the inner city in recent years -- it's no longer perceived as just a dangerous and dilapidated place -- I suspect that a fair number of people would welcome the opportunity to relocate to St. Louis' underutilized neighborhoods," Hurley says. "But I also suspect that a fair number would pick up and move to outlying suburbs as soon as they got the chance, just adding to our problems of sprawl."

Andrew Theising, professor of urban studies and politics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, tempers his enthusiasm with a caveat of a different sort: "We need to fill up our excess capacity with people. When St. Louis was a big, bustling city of 800,000, we were a city of immigrants. People coming to St. Louis from around the world clearly is what gave this city its bulk, its size, its power and its capacity. I don't see how you can make St. Louis a great city again without making it a magnet for people outside the region.

"Is it realistic to bring people here from New Orleans?" Theising asks. "Yes and no. Yes, because we could move them and house them. But we need people to help settle them and assimilate them -- not just move them."

Local communications and real estate magnate Mike Roberts calls the idea "frivolous," but he's not averse to contemplating its upside. "If we're going to wax philosophically, you've got to ask: What is special about New Orleans that we all recognize? It's got the Mississippi. We've got the Mississippi. It has riverboat gaming. We have riverboat gaming. It's the heart and soul of music, partying and Mardi Gras. We have the second-biggest Mardi Gras. They have adult clubs. We don't, but we do on other side of the river. I think our challenge is we're a little too conservative by nature to be perceived as a hip, cool spot to hang out."

Moving New Orleans 700 miles north "would predominantly benefit the African-American community," Roberts notes -- provided black contractors are permitted to benefit from the growth. "I think too it would substantially increase the political base for the African-American community and allow for more leadership," he adds. "You put 300,000 to 400,000 new voters -- or even a million -- into your state, you're going to change things. It would certainly benefit the Democratic Party."

So Missouri might become a Blue state -- and St. Louis a two-football-team town.

"It would certainly make the [Edward Jones] Dome a lot more cost-effective," points out sports economist and Webster University faculty member Patrick Rishe. "The city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana have given so many kickbacks and tax money to [Saints owner] Tom Benson to keep the team in the city. Now following Katrina, I think they're going to have to spend that money elsewhere."

Not that the National Football League would permit it. "They could pull off dual football teams here because the NFL has such great revenue sharing," Rishe says. "But the owners would have to approve the move, and that's doubtful -- and the Rams probably would not want the competition."

Pro basketball is another matter, says Rishe, citing abysmal attendance figures posted by New Orleans' National Basketball Association franchise, the Hornets. "I think it's a real scenario that the Hornets move here. Prior to the devastation of Katrina, the Hornets were probably going to leave New Orleans in the next five years anyway," Rishe says. "We were in contention for the Hornets. [St. Louis Blues owner] Bill Laurie wanted to own the team outright, but that was not the preference of George Shinn, the owner. So it never happened.

"But as much as it would pain those in St. Louis, Kansas City has a better shot of landing the Hornets, because they're building a new arena," Rishe concludes.

"If St. Louis said, 'We will take you all in, no questions asked, if you want to come,' that would be marvelous," says Herbert Gans, reached by phone at Columbia University, where he teaches sociology. "And if there's something in it for St. Louis in terms of using the infrastructure -- I think that would be economically very sensible in terms of the national interest. It was a big city, and there's lots of that big-city infrastructure left and it ought to be revitalized."

Gans, author of The Urban Villagers, a classic study of Italian-American residents in Boston's West End, is quick to minimize the chances of St. Louis actually cashing in on a significant scale. But he likes the notion nevertheless. "If the government of Missouri could even as a trial balloon propose it, that would be marvelous, simply so it gets on the record and can be discussed.

"I wouldn't assume that anything will happen, but that's no argument against raising it," Gans adds. "If enough cities then said, 'Gee we could do that too,' and they compete, that suddenly raises the value of all these poor New Orleans people and the president would have to dole some out to Detroit and some to St. Louis. I'm fantasizing here a little bit, but I think it's a marvelous idea."

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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