Rebuilding Tohoku: What We Can Learn from New Orleans

By Misa Kurasawa : Reporter of Toyokeizai
March 11,2016
Misa Kurasawa
Reporter of Toyokeizai

 

 

Graduated from New York University with BA in Journalism/Economics.  After spending 11 years in the U.S., she came back to Japan and joined Toyo Keizai in 2006.  While covering industries like media and electricity, she also has been actively writing about American technology startups and entrepreneurs.

 

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Downtown New Orleans (Photo by Kimon/PIXTA)
Today marks five years since the Great East Japan earthquake. Amid calls for the "Tohoku reconstruction," we can see roads, facilities, and other infrastructure being steadily rebuilt. There are, however, about 65,000 people still living in temporary housing, and over 180,000 people still in refugee status. Reconstruction still has a considerable way to go.
Moving forward, to find a model for a true Tohoku renaissance, we can turn our eyes to the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, which was hit by the massive hurricane Katrina in August 2005. About 80% of the city was flooded, with more than 1800 lives lost as a result; reconstruction seemed almost impossible in the wake of such catastrophic damage. Today, however, New Orleans is reclaiming its old energy—the city is now seeing an increase in jobs supported by new investment and businesses in the region.
One of the driving forces behind the rebuilding effort proved to be the nonprofit organization Broad Community Connections (BCC). The organization, which was founded in 2007, found that after Katrina, the south part of Broad Street, the main thoroughfare trasversing the city, experienced a deteriorating food situation, with a steady stream of grocery stores evacuating the area.
So, BCC raised $21 million and started a project called “ReFresh.” As a part of the project, BCC attracted an experimental low-price grocery from Whole Foods Market to the region, while at the same time offering employment support to provide jobs for locals in the New Orleans dining industry, and opening "kitchen centers" where people could learn ways of making healthy meals and exercising. This initiative not only helped the residents become more health-conscious but boosted local employment and launched new businesses.
We caught up with BCC’S founder Jeffrey Schwartz while he was in Japan to attend a forum organized by ETIC. and Japan Society, and talked about the path New Orleans took to its revival.

 

It’s been 10 years since Katrina, and five years since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Do you think that five years makes a difference?

I think it makes a huge difference. You go from thinking about just recovery to actual renaissance. Just the idea that five years out, you’re still dealing with the effects of the disaster in a sense, whereas the next five years, you get to start thinking about how to bring people, buildings, and places back.

Why did you start Broad Community Connections?

Jeffrey Schwarz, Executive Director, Broad Community Connections, New Orleans, spoke about BCC's efforts at Local Innovators Forum held in Tokyo on February 28.

It was just the idea that communities can solve their own problems in a lot of ways, that government is a partner in that, but that individuals, and different neighborhoods, and different towns, and communities can solve their own problems, and can be entrepreneurial about that. I think Broad Community Connections is very much in that theme.

We started the organization seven years ago, and the first couple years were tough. It was slow-going, but I think we knew that we needed things like grocery stores, we needed small businesses. We needed residents to come back. We knew that that wasn't going to happen without trying to be very active about it. We started the organization really to address these same types of concerns.

Can you elaborate on what sort of problems, New Orleans had before you started BCC?

The thing that's interesting about New Orleans is that the hurricane hit at a not very good time in the city's history.

New Orleans had a very big port and tourism. It had energy - the oil, gas, and energy industry. Its economy was not very diversified. It was a good economy but not very vibrant. The hurricane hit at a time when the city was really not doing very well. A lot of the work that we do at BCC is around addressing, not just the immediate effects of the storms, like the buildings getting water in them and getting flooded, but also addressing some of the longer term issues. Some of the areas we work in hadn't seen investment in probably 40 years.

So, we are working on both issues, the immediate recovery as well as the long term issues like getting a grocery store in a neighborhood, getting new houses built, getting new business in, that sort of stuff. Even parks. The city hadn't built a new park in New Orleans in 20 years and so now there's a new park in the area that BCC works in.

Tell us about the accomplishments that BCC has made so far.

Schwartz and other forum attendants visited Tohoku area while they were in Japan.

We're still a small organization. We like to say, "Small but mighty." We've been around for seven years now. We've had a lot of success with working on a couple fronts. One is with small business owners. We've worked to support really small business owners, whether it's renovating their buildings, getting new signs, or doing some of the physical improvements, as well as helping them get resources to run their businesses better, whether that's financing, like getting money, or getting the technical assistance.

We've also been successful working with government and advocating to get things, like new parks, and new regulations, or regulations changed that support development in our area. Then also things like bicycle lanes, and tree plantings, and beautification things, very basic but important things.

The third thing is about development. We've realized that it works a little bit differently in America but pretty similar to Japan, where development typically happens with the help of a city but usually it's a private corporation or individual who develops, whether it's a skyscraper or even a small building. We weren't seeing very high quality development happening in our area. What we decided to do was to do development ourselves, to be our own developer, and that's been so successful.

Why did you think the opening of a grocery store would help rebuilding New Orleans?

New Orleans is known for having very good food, and it's also very rich, but very unhealthy food in some ways. I think lots of different neighborhoods, not just the ones we work in, the community members, residents, kept telling us, "We need a grocery store back in the neighborhood." For us and for a lot of people, when they were thinking about coming back to a neighborhood after a disaster, things like schools, and grocery stores, and different services, that's what helps them decide whether or not to come back.

Because of the health issues in the city and because of the neighborhood development issues, those are all reasons that we decided that a grocery store would be one of the projects that we would work on.

Tell us about the accomplishments that BCC has made so far.

We're still a small organization. We like to say, "Small but mighty." We've been around for seven years now. We've had a lot of success with working on a couple fronts. One is with small business owners. We've worked to support really small business owners, whether it's renovating their buildings, getting new signs, or doing some of the physical improvements, as well as helping them get resources to run their businesses better, whether that's financing, like getting money, or getting the technical assistance.

We've also been successful working with government and advocating to get things, like new parks, and new regulations, or regulations changed that support development in our area. Then also things like bicycle lanes, and tree plantings, and beautification things, very basic but important things.

The third thing is about development. We've realized that it works a little bit differently in America but pretty similar to Japan, where development typically happens with the help of a city but usually it's a private corporation or individual who develops, whether it's a skyscraper or even a small building. We weren't seeing very high quality development happening in our area. What we decided to do was to do development ourselves, to be our own developer, and that's been so successful.

How did the grocery store thing happen?

After probably two or three years of working on some of the basic stuff, we just decided that there was this vacant old grocery building. They hadn't returned after the storm. We decided that we were going to create a new grocery store in that building. It just took off like a rocket ship. It not only became a grocery store, but also became what we call a community health hub. It's a central place where you can go if you want to learn how to eat healthier and cook healthier, you want to learn how to garden, or get access to healthcare.

I don't think we knew that we would have a role in that, but it's ended up being so great. It works so well and it's really become something of a model. It'll always be different depending on the community that it's in, but I think it's a strong role for the nonprofit sector to bring government, private sector, and citizens together around the table talking.

Bringing everyone to the table is actually the hardest part when you do city planning. How did you make everyone work together when everyone has different ideas and purposes?

There's no magic trick that you can do—you have to be very open and be what we call the steward of the vision. We helped come up with the concept in partnership with other organizations and then we were the ones that just kept everybody coming back to the table. We were really just being a cheerleader for the project. We kept saying "This is the vision. Remember the vision. We're working towards this community health hub idea." Getting people to come back to the table was probably the most important role of BCC.

Are people coming back to the neighborhoods?

The neighborhoods are a little bit smaller still than they were before the storm, but I think within the next couple of years, they'll be at where they were when Katrina hit. New Orleans in general, it's not a huge city. It's only 1.3 million in the metro area. The region is already back to the same level as before Katrina, but the city proper, there's still about 50,000 people that just haven't come back yet. I think we'll be back to that within the next 10 years for sure and maybe sooner. The neighborhoods around where BCC works, they'll be fully back within a couple of years, in terms of the number of people.

How many small businesses are there?

There's about 125 small businesses just in this commercial area that we work in. There are very historic businesses in the area, so old steakhouses and a couple of older fancy restaurants. But then a lot of them are newer businesses that might have been around for 10 or 15 years, and some of them have only been around for one or two years.

There's a lot more interest now because of projects like ReFresh and a new park that was built in the area. All of that, I think, ties in to supporting small business owners because people want to come to areas where they feel excited and want to hang out. Whether they ride their bicycle there or want to have a coffee on the sidewalk, I think that all is part of how we support small businesses.

Are there more jobs there as well?

There are more jobs, for sure. Especially at ReFresh. There we created over 200 jobs at the site - in the café, in the kitchens, and there's some office space, so there are over 200 new jobs as a result of that. Then with the small businesses, there's probably 20 new jobs that have come along there. Small businesses, usually one or two people in each of the businesses.

Are there any other cities in the U.S. or the world which have followed this as a model?

The ReFresh project is unique. There aren't many other models exactly like it. There's this concept that we like to talk about called 'collective impact.' It's the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's not about just each individual partner; there's much more impact that happens when everybody works together and does what they do best. That's what we think is unique about our work.

Tohoku people also seem to be interested in ReFresh.

Yes, we know that there's lots of interest. Yosuke (Komatsu, President, Hope for Tomorrow, Onagawa-cho, Miyagi), who's working with Onagawa, keeps saying, "We're doing ReFresh in Onagawa." Yosuke is trying to link businesses like a seafood market with government, community members, and lots of different partners. He came and visited New Orleans back in October and he saw something that would be relevant in Tohoku. It doesn't have to be a disaster-affected area. Health is a concern everywhere.

You said the first five years was recovery, followed by five years of renaissance. What about the next five years?

Probably it's more than five years of renaissance. The reality is that it takes even longer. I think after the first five years of renaissance, you really start to see things that have been talked about a lot. I'm sure in Tohoku, everybody is going through the same thing, where there's constant talk about, "Oh, we're going to do this, and there's a plan for that." Then you finally start seeing the fruits of that labor, the different projects and the different plans actually getting implemented in those next five years.

Then even beyond that, then it's really the goal is to start sustaining that and making sure that the people that move there will stay there, and the people that are investing continue to invest. I think that's something where we see an ongoing role for an organization like BCC. We have other plans besides ReFresh in the area that we work in. The goal is to be able to continue doing those projects.