New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's "Reflections: New Orleans and China" showed that he shared the same affliction as Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman -- gauging the success of the strong central power of Communist China by looking at its shining and efficient surface, without questioning its effect on the nation's unseen citizenry. For good measure, he even held Ronald Reagan responsible for both the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and last year's deadly Minneapolis bridge collapse.
For Americans watching events unfold on television late last month, the arduous evacuation of New Orleans and the grandeur of the Olympic Games couldn't have made for a starker contrast.
However one feels about its other policies, the Chinese government is clearly not afraid to invest in the future of its cities. The array of architecture it created for the Beijing Olympics was only part of a mosaic of roads, bridges, tunnels, canals, subway lines and other projects that have transformed a medieval city of wood and brick into a modern metropolis overnight.
The phrase "Potemkin Village" apparently means nothing to architecture critics. And perhaps some reprioritizing of that infrastructure spending would be in order, given the state of China's schools, hundreds of which collapsed during the recent earthquakes, resulting in grievous loss of young life.
And the Chinese government was able to "create" for the Olympics partly by bulldozing the homes of its citizens. The left-wing Guardian newspaper put the number at around 1.5 million displaced Chinese.
Ouroussoff then made an odious comparison:
Meanwhile, three full years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, much of the city remains a wasteland. As Hurricane Gustav raced toward the Gulf Coast, it became clear that the city's patchwork levee system could not guarantee the safety of its citizens. The evacuation of tens of thousands of residents was cheered as some sort of victory.
Who is to blame for New Orleans' plight? Ronald Reagan, of course. The critic had no room to discuss the incompetence of local officials or questions about what really caused the Minneapolis bridge collapse, simply stating:
Anyone who has watched the film "Chinatown" knows the story of William Mulholland's aqueduct, which transformed Los Angeles from a desert wasteland into a sunny paradise of trim lawns and orange groves. Less known is the story of modern New Orleans, which exists because of the system of canals, levees and pumps -- the largest in the world -- that were used to drain acres of marshland.
This kind of bold government planning died long ago, of course, a victim of both the public's disillusionment with the large-scale Modernist planning strategies of the postwar era and the antigovernment campaigns of the Reagan years. The consequences were obvious as soon as Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. And they have been reaffirmed many times since, with the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis and myriad accounts of our country's crumbling infrastructure.
Still, many Americans stubbornly regard any kind of large-scale public works project with suspicion. Three years ago, for example, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute unveiled a master plan for New Orleans that would have transformed large parts of the city into wetland areas. But the proposal, which was released as thousands of people were struggling to make their way back to the city, caused a public outcry and was immediately dropped. The institute compounded the problem by not including a workable proposal for how to house those dislocated by the plan.