The List December 2005

Cities Rising

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The key questions in the reconstruction of New Orleans, which early estimates say may require ten years and more than $200 billion, are already taking shape: Should the city give up on low-lying areas to better protect the high, or simply build more and higher levees? Because the destruction was concentrated in poor and black neighborhoods, will the new city be a smaller, gentrified, theme-park version of its former self? History shows that cities tend to recover fully, and with surprising speed—though the lessons of the disasters that crippled them are often quickly forgotten. Here are some disasters that have befallen modern cities, and the recoveries that followed.

1. Chicago fire, 1871. The fire destroyed 18,000 buildings and left nearly a third of the city's residents homeless—though only 300 died. Real-estate developers quickly seized on the fire as a great opportunity. Whole blocks stood clear and ready for redevelopment, and downtown land prices speedily rose above their pre-fire levels. The "Burnt District" was largely rebuilt in two years, with great zeal and little care—the Chicago Tribune warned that more would die in the reconstruction than in the fire itself. In a second round of rebuilding, in the 1880s, Chicago pioneered the vertical city of steel-framed skyscrapers.

2. Galveston storm, 1900. "The Wall Street of the Southwest," Galveston was once the center of America's cotton trade, but it sat on little more than a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico, with no seawall to protect it. After a hurricane pushed a sixteen-foot storm surge over the nine-foot-high island, 6,000 to 8,000 of the city's 37,000 residents were left dead. Galveston recovered; over the next eleven years the city (including a 3,000-ton church) was raised by as much as seventeen feet and sheltered by a seawall. But Houston, spurred by the oil boom, soon surpassed it.

3. San Francisco earthquake and fire, 1906. An early-morning earthquake and a three-day blaze ruined about three quarters of the city, killed some 2,500, and left half the population homeless. The city was rebuilt within nine years at a cost of $350 million—though few protective measures were taken against future fires or earthquakes. The Marina District was created by pushing rubble into the bay.

4. Leveling of Warsaw, World War II. Warsaw was well on its way to ruin by the time Adolf Hitler gave orders to destroy it completely after the 1944 uprising. Eighty percent of the city was left in rubble, and 800,000 of its 1.3 million residents were killed. But only four months after Warsaw's liberation its population was up to nearly 400,000, though the city still lacked even the most basic services. Within eleven years its population had returned to the pre-war level. The new, Soviet-backed regime eventually rebuilt a portion of the old city as a historical monument, but took some socialist liberties. Religious ornamentation was erased, and late-nineteenth-century buildings (which smacked of capitalist excess) were simply never rebuilt.

5. Tangshan earthquake, 1976. The cradle of Chinese industry (built over a fault line), Tangshan lost 97 percent of its residential buildings and 78 percent of its industrial plants. The official death toll in this city of one million people was 240,000, although some estimates are as high as 655,000. The quake remains the deadliest in urban history; the superstitious suspected that the dying Mao Zedong wanted to take the country with him. Outsiders said it would take twenty years to rebuild the city, but within a decade China had put the finishing touches on a more spacious (but drably uniform) city dominated by concrete apartment buildings.

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