Hurricane Katrina struck a year ago-and New Orleans is still pathetic. “The things that made New Orleans so charming,” said an old friend who still, with increasing reluctance, lives there, “are the reasons it isn’t coming back.”
She hit the nail on the head.
What are these “things” that once charmed us but now doom the city?
It’s not racial discrimination, which is there but was enormously overblown as an issue in the days immediately following the storm. It’s the corruption, an overblown public sector, and a craven political class and a social elite that is insulated from the rest of the city that make New Orleans so hopeless today.
All of these things, believe it or not, seemed picturesque when I was a young reporter in New Orleans. An article in the current Fortune magazine, one of the best pieces written on post-Katrina New Orleans, captures that lazy acceptance of corruption in those lazy, halcyon days:
“For years the city’s debs-and-dinner-parties set was proudly insular, its attention focused on its own affairs even as the city decayed. Corruption, inefficiency, and crime were the subject of ironic jokes over cocktails, not protests; the city’s disamenities were treated, all too often, as part of its storied charm. When New Orleans almost entirely missed the ’90s boom, it elicited little public dismay.
“‘We make a joke that’s not a joke,’ says Elliott Stonecipher, a well-known political analyst in Shreveport. ‘Nobody in Louisiana knows what noblesse oblige is. New Orleans is a hotbed of civic apathy – the only city in the country where rich, powerful people don’t have their fingers in everything.'”
For a reporter, it was heaven-there was always some crooked, colorful politician to write about or a member of socialite doing something decadent. But now these people can’t get it together to rebuild their city. First, there’s the corruption issue. It’s twofold-one level it’s street crime, and on another, getting business done in New Orleans requires a lot of bribery.
There was no transparency-you’ll be amused to note in the Fortune article that, when property assessments were made public, the assessors threatened to sue. Businesses, the kinds of businesses needed for New Orleans to fix herself, don’t want to go into such a situation.
As Nicole Gelinas, who will speak on an IWF panel on Katrina (Sept. 26, at our headquarters), notes the street crime, even more than the big time crime, makes daily life in New Orleans precarious. It used to be charmingly precarious, not it’s just scary as hell. Here is Gelinas’ picture of the New Orleans low-level corruption that makes people afraid to go there:
“Thousands of opportunistic vultures have looted stores all over the city, and shot in the head one police officer who tried to stop them. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has posted photos on its website of other police officers joining in the widespread theft from unattended stores. Looters have picked clean Wal-Mart’s gun department downtown. This anarchy is regrettably not all that surprising. Disaster does not make a weak peacetime civil and social infrastructure strong. Unfortunately, New Orleans must now ask for deserved billions in recovery money even as Americans see images of a city that loots itself on its worst day.
“New Orleans teems with crime, and the NOPD can’t keep order on a good day. Former commissioner Richard Pennington brought New Orleans’ crime rate down from its peak during the mid-1990s. But since Pennington’s departure, crime rates have soared, to ten times the national average. The NOPD might have hundreds of decent officers, but it has a well-deserved institutional image as corrupt, brutal, and incompetent.”
(Here’s a Gelinas article that compares New Orleans and Houston methods for handling crime.)
The Republican candidate for mayor of New Orleans, who ran against the successful Ray Nagin, and the unsuccessful Mitch Landrieu, stressed fighting crime and private enterprise. He didn’t have a chance.
People in New Orleans have been sitting on their duffs, wondering when some nice federal money will come their way. Hollering for some money. I wish they weren’t getting a cent. Only if enough people decide to rebuild, through the private sector, can the city come back. Oh, and, they’ve got to make it safe.
Sound angry? I loved New Orleans, and, indeed, I planned to live there again one day. But it may be that it was just too charming. I’m not at all hopeful about a city that, a year later, has made absolutely no progress.
The Fortune piece shows some hope. There are citizens trying to bring back their town. They’ve got a hard row to hoe.