The Katrina Cottage Mistake

   I now believe we made a mistake when we named the Katrina Cottages just after the hurricane. I met with Andrés Duany the Saturday after the hurricane to lay out the foundation principles of what would become the Katrina Cottages. A few days later, while Andrés was traveling to meet the Governor of Mississippi to set up the largest planning event in world history, sponsored by the CNU and slated for one month later (200 planners working in one mammoth room,) I was putting out the call for cottage designs first to members of the New Urban Guild, and then to everyone in the larger New Urbanism movement. Over a dozen Guild members (and a few others) responded, designing over two dozen Katrina Cottages before the Mississippi mega-charrette began.

   In early December, the New Urban Guild got a great opportunity when an exhibitor at the January 2006 International Builders' Show pulled out at the last moment, and James Hardie picked up the booth in order to publicize their sponsorship of the New Urban Guild's house plan collection for the Gulf. Someone suggested building a Katrina Cottage as the centerpiece of the booth (since the cottage designs were the beginning of the Guild's Gulf Coast plan collection,) so I asked Marianne Cusato if she could quickly finish working drawings on a design she had done the first day of the Mississippi charrette because her design had run in the local paper and I thought it made sense to extend the story of that cottage rather than to pick one of the others that hadn't yet been published. Marianne agreed and quickly produced the drawings and construction began. Every other model home built for the builders' show was enormous and bloated, but the little yellow cottage stole the show.

   Much has happened in the three years that have passed since then. But one thing keeps happening again and again, and it has finally caused me to realize that we made a big mistake. "Katrina Cottage" was the wrong name to use.

   Why? Time and again, people on the Gulf Coast have come up to me quietly and said "that's a really bad name. Everybody that lives here hates it." The first few times it happened, I dismissed it as post-traumatic stress, but now that the near-whispered conversations have persisted for over three years, I have finally realized why they are right. Think about it:

   For people in other parts of the country who read about it, it's the "What A Great Thing To Do For Those Poor People On The Coast" Cottage. Or the "I'm Glad I Could Help" Cottage. Katrina is synonymous with their charitable activities... because that's what Katrina meant to them: send a little money and feel better.

   But for the people who lived through the hurricane, it's the "Losing Everything I Ever Owned" Cottage, the "Having To Leave My Dogs Behind" Cottage, the "Death Of A Friend" Cottage, the "Clinging To Treetops For Dear Life As My World Washed Away" Cottage, or the "Forced To Move A Thousand Miles From Home" Cottage. Not literally the cottages, of course, but "Katrina."

   What can we do? It's too late to change history, but it's not too late to change the future. At the very least, we could learn from this and never name a recovery artifact after the disaster again. But the real point is that names should inspire or entice us, not depress us, and that we should be more concerned about the people who will be using the named object than those who only observe it. What do you think? Please comment, and let's have a discussion... thanks!

© 2012 The Guild Foundation Press