Friday, September 02, 2005

The Future of New Orleans

Nicole Gelinas has a sobering essay about the future of New Orleans that should be read by everyone. The general theme is:
Sure, the feds must provide cash and resources for relief and recovery—but it’s up to New Orleans, not the feds, to dig deep within itself to rebuild its economic and social infrastructure before the tourists ever will flock back to pump cash into the city’s economy. It will take a miracle. New Orleans has experienced a steady brain drain and fiscal drain for decades, as affluent corporations and individuals have fled, leaving behind a large population of people dependent on the government. Socially, New Orleans is one of America’s last helpless cities—just at the moment when it must do all it can to help itself survive.

Gelinas's central point is that the disaster of Katrina is merely causing the city's deeper sociological problems to manifest:
No American city has ever gone through what New Orleans must go through: the complete (if temporary) flight of its most affluent and capable citizens, followed by social breakdown among those left behind, after which must come the total reconstruction of economic and physical infrastructure by a devastated populace. . . .

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. . . .

How will New Orleans’ economy recover from Katrina? Apart from some pass-through oil infrastructure, the city’s economy is utterly dependent on tourism. After the city’s mainstay oil industry decamped to Texas nearly a generation ago, New Orleans didn’t do the difficult work of cutting crime, educating illiterate citizens, and attracting new industries to the city. New Orleans became merely a convention and tourism economy, selling itself to visitors to survive, and over time it has only increased its economic dependence on outsiders. The fateful error of that strategy will become clearer in the next few months.

Gelinas also argues that New Orleans is a sad city. I'd have to agree.

Permit a personal anecdote: In the fall of 1996, having just finished college, I spent several months driving around the country playing pick-up basketball. (It's a long story and no, you don't want the details.) I played on playgrounds in every one of the lower 48 states. I played in some of the "worst" neighborhoods in America--from Coney Island to Cabrini Green to South Central Los Angeles and, on the whole, my experiences were incredibly positive.

Most of the time I was a distinct minority: a middle-class, college-educated white kid playing in neighborhoods that were frequently poor and nearly all-black. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I would honestly say that the friendliest, most hospitable people I met during those months were almost always in the "worst" neighborhoods.

There were only a thimbleful of exceptions, one of which was New Orleans. I spent a day or two playing at parks in the south end of town and the racial hostility and sense of lawlessness was palpable. Driving through the streets I got ugly looks from nearly everyone I passed. It was one of the only times during my trip that I felt not entirely safe. At one point, a nice fellow from the neighborhood with whom I had been playing, was packing it in for the night; he suggested that I go to another park about a half-mile away since it was next to a police station and he thought I'd be safer there. From my limited experience I couldn't tell you what all of the components were to the hostility I saw, but a partial list would surely include racial segregation and social inequality on a scale that should embarrass any American.

I bring this up not to claim any deep insight into what is happening in New Orleans, but merely to underscore Gelinas's point about the terrible difficulty in rebuilding not just the city's infrastructure but its society. If you've only been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras or on an expense account, you have not seen the real city. The real city, as Gelinas points out, suffers from such decay, mismanagement, and inequity that it will be a wonder if it can right itself.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I went to undergrad at Loyola University of New Orleans and I stayed there every summer, even though I was from South Florida. I love NO, it is very interesting city and a place where really bizarre shit happens. This hurricane and its aftermath are extremely troubling; however, that place (and the whole state of Louisiana) is grossly mismanaged and has been for years.

When you mentioned Edwin Edwards, most people would laugh and it had its charm in a weird way. He was a crook but he was our crook. That might be charming but a when a disaster strikes like a hurricane, charming isn't going to do shit for you. Lots of people are dead because of bad planning and leadership on the part of local and state government. Sure this is a huge disaster and an act of God; however, there is a way to plan and react and local and state governments are dropping the ball.

Anonymous said...

For pete's sake, write about your pick up basketball days. That sounds pretty interesting. I read Bill Simmons pretty religiously, so "long stories" don't scare me.

Anonymous said...

No, we absolutely want to be bored by the details of Johnny V's b-ball bonanza! Seriously, I've read your stuff for the past several years and I cannot fathom the notion of you driving from city to city playing bball in the hood. This has the makings of a brilliant story. Please please share.

TopCat said...

I grew up near a city that is almost identical in pathologies, social structure, and squandered potential -- Atlantic City, NJ. I wish I could be optimistic for the future of the people left behind, but I really can't see anything that can be done.

Peter Cook said...

"...New Orleans didn't do the difficult work of cutting crime, educating illiterate citizens..."

We have a pathalogical problem in a number of cities - Newark and Los Angeles among them, in addition to New Orleans. Large neighborhoods behind the power curve of poverty, lack of family structures and role models, generations living on welfare, and, I think most important, lack of education, upward mobility, and hope.

Liberals will want to throw money at the problem. They may be partially right - only government has the resources to break the vicious cycle. Money is necessary, but not sufficient. Only by enabling self-motivation can we address the waste of human capital inherent in these situations. The New Orleans disaster not only exposes clearly the nature of the problem -it demonstrates the risk and cost to our country and its economy of failing to fix it.

I enjoyed dinner with Jonathan on the recent WS cruise, and hearing about the nature of blogging. Now I look forward to intellectual leadership from WS to find solutions to these problems. What can conservatives do? Think of the economic value if some way can be found to change the impact of this underutilized human capital from a drain to an asset in our economy.

Is there some way to make the rebuilding of New Orleans a pilot or demonstration project of conservative leadership to rebuild not just the city, but its social structure as well?

woodrobin said...

The hypocrisy of your condescension to New Orleans as a "helpless city" and the patronizing skyhooked tinge of racism that accompanies your white man on safari anecdote about pick-up b-ball is astounding. Having read it, I decided to mine your blog for references to left-leaning bloggers you seem to despise (who, unlike you as far as I can tell, seem to appreciate the deeper causes of this tragedy - a necessary step before a deeper cure can be effected).

Having used your blog for the only purpose it seems to me to serve, I will now be removing it from my browser bookmarks and feedreader. Goodbye.

panther33 said...

"I will now be removing it from my browser bookmarks and feedreader"
Oooh! That'll teach the nasty racist.

woodrobin said...

Re: Panther33's comment

Just happened across this:

"Oooh! That'll teach the nasty racist."

You can't *teach* a racist. Racism is, among other things, deliberate ignorance in the face of obvious contrary evidence.

You either avoid the racist, or remove them from the equation, depending on the severity of their expression. For racist bloggers, simply swiping addresses of blogs I might actually like to read, then going on about my business, seemed a prudent course. Arguing with a racist is like trying to teach a snake to tap dance. It wastes your time, and annoys the snake. He's not equipped to be other than what he is, or simple observation of the world around him would have corrected his condition years before he wrote this nonsense.