Monday, February 22, 2010

Letter from New Orleans

Here we are in the fourth week of a five-week stay in New Orleans. Anything to get away from New York weather in February. I grew up here, leaving after high school, while Donna spent three decades here running a contemporary art gallery. So rather than visiting, we are returning home.

New Orleans is a slow-paced town. Compared with most other cities, we move deliberately.  We obsess over food and restaurants.  Eating out, the conversation revolves about what we ate last night, what we’re eating now, and what we’re going to eat tomorrow. Life goes on pretty much as it did when I was growing up here.

And the social structure is little changed. In a 2007 Commentary magazine essay entitled, “New Orleans – An Autopsy,” a former grammar school classmate of mine, Ben C. Toledano, ascribed much of the city’s economic diminution relative to our peers to the practices and prejudices of a narrowly based social and economic oligarchy that largely controlled the city.

So the economy continues to be tourism-dominated. Too many people earn minimum wage and too few jobs are created. Too few of the best and the brightest can find opportunities here, and they leave to enrich other communities. Our erstwhile peers when I was growing up -- Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta -- have morphed into major metropolises, with growing populations, greater commercial importance, and higher standards of living. New Orleans just shuffles along.

What a Weekend!  But on the surface, you would never sense those issues.  Particularly this month. Normally, the big deal this time of year is Mardi Gras. But over a single weekend in February, Mardi Gras was eclipsed by two dramatic events: the Saints winning their first-ever Super Bowl, and a reform mayor winning election in a landslide.

Everybody knows the Saints story. They suffered through four decades of futility, and rightfully earned the sobriquet “Aints.” But this year, the planets were in alignment and the fairy tale ended happily for New Orleans.

I've never seen so many people in the city so elated about a single event. It was clearly the biggest morale boost in the 4 1/2 years since Katrina struck.  Thousands of fans surrounded the airport on the team’s return from Miami. Hundreds of thousands attended the celebratory five-hour parade two days later that brought the city to a halt.

By contrast, the Indianapolis Star reported:

Sparse crowd greets Colts on return

By Kevin O'
The end of the Indianapolis Colts' season came down to 11 people. Not the 11 players on the field during the Super Bowl, but the 11 who showed up at Indianapolis International Airport.
Unfortunately, success on the football field doesn’t help solve the city's historic problems of miserable governance and economic failure. Yet many people I’ve talked with in the post-Super Bowl euphoria seem to think that good things will happen because of the Super Bowl.  Somehow, they equate an athletic victory with an economic accelerator. This lack of realism underscores one of the problems with New Orleans -- too many live in a dream world.

Hood Robin?  Like many cities, New Orleans and Louisiana politicians consider professional sports teams to be a driver of economic development. This is an argument, shared by many other officials around the country, that simply is not borne out by disinterested analysis. But politicians love sports, they love the idea of having an NFL teams in their community, and they love the seats they get for the games.  So we have this remarkable situation where hard-pressed taxpayers finance über-wealthy owners with stadiums, stadium upgrades, and cash subsidies to stay put.

In the euphoria that followed the Super Bowl victory, a new deal was just announced that further locks in the Saints owners, the Benson family. According to the Feb. 21 Times-Picayune, the terms perpetuate and even enhance older agreements that are mind-boggling. 

"Counting all the impacts of Superdome enhancements, new and remaining state subsidies, property leases and other sources of income, the deal for the Benson family and the Saints adds up to more than $400 million in guaranteed revenue over the next 15 years. Additional financial benefits could flow from co-investors using tax credits and from non-guaranteed office, plaza and parking revenue."

Hundreds of millions of dollars transferred from the state and city to the family – for which they promise, promise, promise not to ever leave New Orleans (never, or until the termination of the contract, whichever comes first).  Rob the poor to pay the rich.  Some deal.

Real Solutions  What about real solutions to the city’s problems?  They start with better governance.  And fortunately, the February 6th election of Mitch Landrieu as mayor -- the day before the Super Bowl -- could go a long way toward restoring the integrity and competence of the city's governance. I need remind no one about the sad history of corrupt and incompetent mayors.

The most remarkable aspect of the election is that Landrieu won 365 of the 366 precincts, and had almost five times the vote of the runner-up. In a city long victimized by poor racial relations, the fact that Landrieu won across every economic, ethnic, and racial segment bodes well for the city for the next four to eight years.

Football victories by good teams make people feel good. Electoral victories by good people can actually do good.

Challenges and Opportunities  And some good things can happen, will happen, and are even happening already. Chief among the needs is reducing the city's crime rate. New Orleans has often been near the bottom nationally in many rankings-- e.g., education, poverty, job creation.  Unfortunately, however, we lead the country in one ranking – per-capita murder rate. That is not a leadership we're particularly proud of, and it’s certainly not one that tends to attract convention planners or company relocators. But I’m convinced that it’s a problem that is fixable -- by a competent civic leadership -- and will be fixed.

And thanks to Katrina -- yes, I said thanks to Katrina -- the K-12 public educational system is one of our rays of hope. After the storm, the state government took over one of the worst K-12 educational systems in the country and facilitated the establishment of charter schools (all  union-free). Over half the schools now are charters – highest in the country -- and the numbers continue to increase. And the charter students' performances and attendance figures also are rising dramatically. (Note the piece I wrote two years ago on the Edible Schoolyard charter school.) See, we actually lead in something other than the murder rate. Indeed, New Orleans has become a national laboratory for reforming the public school system.

Leaving Behind the Banana Republic Economy Job creation is a far more difficult job. The city has suffered a brain drain since the 1930s when Huey Long perfected a culture of corrupt government that has spread throughout the state.  One result – Louisiana and New Orleans have been abysmal failures at keeping their talent or inducing outside companies with high-paying jobs to be moved here.  Every other southern state has been more successful. We have been unable to change our brain drain into a brain gain, or to create economic engines of growth.

But that could change now in New Orleans. As vital services restored, as the crime rate drops, as a new educational system develops, and with a renewed emphasis on economic development, the city can start eliminating the negatives and accentuating the positives.  It can play up one of its unique attributes -- it's a desirable and stimulating place to live.

Here’s Question for You Tell me honestly, if you were CEO of a company in Somewhere, USA, seeking to start up, expand or relocate, would you rather spend your remaining years being bored to tears in 99% of the cities in the US, or would you rather live in a city with incomparable élan, musical heritage, multicultural populace, unique architecture, and fabulous restaurants? Would you like to dine out Saturday night at Denny’s, or maybe the local Holiday Inn dining room, or would you rather delight in the fare at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, or Galatoire’s in the French Quarter, or Gautreau’s uptown, or one of hundreds of other bastions of a Creole-cum-Cajun-cum-French-cum-Southern cuisine unique to the world?

Parades  And parades. Lots of parades.  New Orleanians love, love, love parades.

New Orleanians will parade for any reason. For all reasons. They parade when people die, they parade when football teams win, they parade for weeks before Mardi Gras, they parade all day on Mardi Gras, and they even parade for their animals. A week ago we walked to the French Quarter and watched the Krewe of Barkus go by -- yep, a parade of dogs.  

And there's the Krewe du Jieux, which I learned of in the online publication, Tablet, in a piece written by Justin Vogt. At its parade, you can spot the sign, "Jew Dat."  Naturally, it already has a spin-off, the Krewe du Mishigas.  Given that old habits die hard, it's highly unlikely that the kings of Comus (the most social, old money and secretive krewe) and Jieux will meet at midnight on Mardi Gras any time soon.  But, hey, who knows?  The Saints won the Super Bowl.

Streets  A note on some favorite New Orleans street names.

Uptown, three streets that cross St. Charles Avenue in succession: Webster, Henry Clay, and Calhoun. How fitting that the Yankee Daniel Webster and the Southerner John Calhoun are separated by the “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay.

In a city with such a rich artistic heritage, it's only appropriate that all nine muses are represented by streets. Indeed, just below the Garden District you'll find, in succession, these streets: Urania, Polymnia, Euterpe, Terpsichore, Melpomene, Thalia, Erato, Clio, and Calliope.  Of course, the natives pronounce almost all of them all wrong -- it's part of their charm. But, then, New Yorkers don't even know how to pronounce their own Houston St. (they call it "how stun").

Last, I'm enamored of Broad Street and Toulouse Street.  Why?  Because they formed the answer to a clue in a treasure hunt I participated in during high school. The clue was "baggy trousers."  The answer was obvious.  We immediately drove to the intersection of "broad and too loose."

Speaking of Job Creation  From the Feb. 21 Times-Picayune:
CORRECTION: I am sorry to disappoint all the readers who wished to apply for the position, but New Orleans does not employ a “sex assessor.” That was a misprint in Wednesday's column. It should have read “tax assessor.”


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