The book by Gary Rivlin closest to the heart of the Reader will always be his first. Rivlin was fresh out of Northwestern when he started covering the Harold Washington era for the Reader back in the 1980s. His copy required heavy editing, but his stories were special for what they didn’t do: they didn’t share the mainstream media’s bewilderment and panic at the sight of an insurgent black mayor challenging the familiar white faces that ran Chicago. Rivlin got what was going on, recognized it as healthy, and explained it. Never was an alternative newspaper’s alternative viewpoint more necessary.And in 1992, when Rivlin published his award-winning book about the Washington crusade, Fire on the Prairie, it was clear he didn’t just get his subject—he owned it. And he wrote about it with grace as well as authority, showing his Reader friends how far he’d come as an author. Reviewer Ward Just, praising Rivlin’s book in the Los Angeles Times, said Rivlin was "most interesting on Washington and the black factions"—the black establishment that believed the new mayor had to reach out to white liberals and the militants who "would have been happy to see every white on the city payroll fired and forgotten." As Washington dealt with this fractious base, "the public was at sea," said Just, "owing to the innocence of the press, principally television."
But Rivlin’s readers weren’t at sea.
By the time Fire on the Prairie came out Rivlin was in Oakland, California, writing for the East Bay Express. Jump forward to the summer of 2005. By now he’s written for Wired and the old Industry Standard, published two more books, and is covering Silicon Valley for the New York Times. When Hurricane Katrina strikes New Orleans, the levees fail, and the city disappears underwater, the Times sends him there to help out with the coverage. He stays eight months, and the question that fascinates him is, What now? Would New Orleans rebuild, and how, and for whom?
Just out: Katrina: After the Flood, in which Rivlin answers these questions. "My fifth book," he says, "and it’s by far my hardest and by far my best. I think I was rewriting Fire on the Prairie except it was a flood. And I’ve got a bigger stage—Katrina was even bigger than Harold."
Chicago and New Orleans "couldn’t be more different in some ways," Rivlin tells me, "but it’s a black-white city that was dealing with black-white issues—historic inequities." After Katrina, for instance, money passed out to home owners to rebuild was determined by the assessed values of their houses, and houses in white neighborhoods were assessed far higher than houses in black neighborhoods. So a white owner might get twice as much money to rebuild the same house. Rebuilding the entire city was something New Orleans couldn’t afford, and it didn’t make sense from a practical standpoint either, as 40 percent of the city was below sea level to begin with. As the worst-hit areas were poor black areas, wasn’t this a golden opportunity to create a new New Orleans that was smaller, wealthier, whiter . . . ? The thought crossed the minds of powerful people.
"The term people used back then was Disneyfication," Rivlin says. "They’d turn New Orleans into a Disneyland version of itself." Keep Bourbon Street and the beignets, and surround them with—Phoenix?
It didn’t happen. Maybe it couldn’t have. Even in ruins, New Orleans might have been too powerful a cultural force not to insist on its own rebirth. One of the white movers and shakers tempted by the golden opportunity was Joseph Canizaro, chairman of the New Orleans urban planning committee and close friend of Karl Rove. Says Rivlin, who got close to Canizaro, "In the end he said, 'I’m a white man in a majority black city. I can’t do this.'"
Today New Orleans is smaller than it was—down 60,000 or so from its pre-Katrina population of about 450,000—but it’s still itself, and in some ways, thanks to the rebuilding, "better than it’s ever been," says Rivlin. (It’s certainly better, he says, if you’re a tourist.) But it remains a work in progress. The lower Ninth Ward, for instance, a poor black area obliterated by Katrina, is nowhere close to restored. "There might be a house per block on the average," says Rivlin. "Rebuilding 100 homes in a community that lost 4,000 means it looks a lot like Detroit, except that you’re building that place up and Detroit is coming down."
When Rivlin left New Orleans in 2006 it was because he had to—"I was allergic to mold," he explains. "I’d take cortisone shots but they were wearing me down." He was covered with rashes. An optimist, he'd figured New Orleans would quickly rebuild and in three years he’d write a book about it, but that didn’t happen. He quit the Times in a buyout in 2008, freelanced, wrote another book, and put New Orleans behind him. But a few years ago he and his editor, Ben Loehnen of Simon & Schuster, were talking over book ideas.
"What about that Katrina book?" said Loehnen.
"You want me to write about that?!" said Rivlin.
"Sure, for the tenth anniversary," said Loehnen.
"It was like a dream," says Rivlin—the book he’d always wanted to write but believed there was absolutely no reason to. But this month brings both the tenth anniversary and Katrina: After the Flood. The New York Times just called it a "valuable book" and Rivlin "a sharp observer and a dogged reporter" who’s "unerringly compassionate toward his subjects" even though his "most valuable journalistic skill is his acute sensitivity to absurdity." (That combination served him well during Chicago’s Council Wars.)
But there was nothing in the Times review that Rivlin appreciated as much as a judgment in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "well-reported, deftly written, tightly focused."
This was one old newspaperman speaking the language of another. "I can’t tell you how much pride I take in whatever I write," says Rivlin, "and he wrote it reporter to reporter. 'I do this stuff too, and this guy did a good job.'"