Several years ago I was in Nuremberg, Germany — the city most Americans know as the site of the Nuremberg trials. And it is that. But it is something more. It is a city that was reduced to rubble by Allied bombing, then rebuilt, brick by brick, after the war, from photographs, civic documents, and every visual and documentary source possible.
While the old character and feel of the city was kept in the rebuilding, its aging infrastructure and utilities were made state of the art. Nuremberg stands, today, as a testimony to the legacy of old Germany and a showcase of the new.
It is a truly wonderful place — pedestrian-friendly, vibrant, environmentally innovative, and forward-looking. It does not shrink from its Nazi past, but neither does it dwell on it. But that is a subject for another time. What is important here is that the absolute devastation of the city — and Nuremberg was truly devastated by the Allied carpet-bombing — was not seen as a death sentence, but as an opportunity to re-imagine the city in a way that did honor to the past while incorporating all the best of modern technology and vision.
We have such a chance before us in the city of New Orleans. What occurred there is a tragedy that beggars the imagination. But it should also fire the imagination. Here is one of America’s great cities — perhaps America’s most unique city — and we have a chance to rebuild it in a way that does homage to its past and points the way for an America of the future.
This is a unique moment in time. We pray that other devastations by war or disaster will not befall us. But this one already has, and it will be the measure of our heart and American spirit how we respond to the challenge.
Consider — a Black city, full of an energy and creativity that is unlike any other in our country. A city that is surrounded by water, able to support a system of canals and waterways that not only would alleviate some of the flood peril, but would create a Venice or Amsterdam-like urban experience here on our shores. A chance to try out new technologies of waste treatment, water systems, utility delivery, construction techniques. A chance to do new town planning. An opportunity to provide jobs in reconstruction to people who are desperately underemployed in the best of times, and love their city with a passion that would make them the worthiest and proudest workers possible.
It could be a new grand experiment in everything from urban planning to race relations. It could be a laboratory of dreams.
Yet, where are the voices calling us to embrace this opportunity? Where are the visionaries, the dreamers, the people who truly want to see a nation of hope and possibility?
I do not understand how we can be so blind to this moment in time.
From the vision of the City on the Hill to the building of a trans-continental railroad, we were once a nation that saw ourselves as a beacon of possibility. And though history has taught us that our success as a nation came at the price of the destruction and enslavement of other people, we now are aware of those tragedies and could strive hard not to repeat them if we sought to move forward toward a future worthy of our dreams.
Is there not one national leader who will stand up and call us to seize the moment? Is there none who would see that saving that city and the areas around it is a national opportunity as well as a national obligation?
Are most of the displaced poor? Yes. Are most of them Black? Yes.
But does this not make the opportunity all the more exciting? If we believe in helping people to help themselves, let us, as a nation, call to those people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, put the hammers in their hands, bring the best and brightest minds in urban planning, transportation, and city design to help them. Enlist the historians, enlist the educators. Enlist anyone who can engage in the great discourse that would be required to turn this disaster into a testament to American ingenuity and dreams.
We could do it. We should do it. But we won’t do it until a voice, Republican or Democrat, is raised, saying that this should be our national vision.
It saddens me that the Republicans are so lacking in compassion and the Democrats so lacking in vision that no one from either party is standing up and calling us to embrace this great national opportunity. It, alone, is a vision worthy of who we wish to be as a people.
Right now, we are a house divided and wildly out of balance.
Katrina gave us a chance to heal that division and restore our balance; she gives us a chance, still. It may well be that history will judge us as a nation by our response to her, not by our response to some vague and shapeless threat of terror.
As of this moment, that judgment will be harsh.