Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Former Carpetbaggers View

Tom Bethell has penned an article in The American magazine about the progress of rebuilding in New Orleans a former resident. Rather than comment on it, I prefer to highlight certain passages that I think are to the point of our current rebuilding process.

On employment:

On the subject of New Orleans, [Tommy Lemann] was cautious and judicious, sometimes insisting that he not be quoted. There’s a labor shortage, he said, and this is possibly the city’s most serious problem. Many positions are unfilled, and shop windows all over the city have “Help Wanted” signs. New workers need housing, but there is also a housing shortage. To get housing, you need a job. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I was to hear others mention the same apparent conundrum.

Activity at the Port of New Orleans is back up to pre-Katrina levels, and law firms “are doing pretty well from what I hear,” Tommy Lemann said. “So much business is coming out of Katrina.” Tulane University had a lot of damage, and freshman enrollment fell. But it has been sustained at the professional schools. According to the indispensable Katrina Index, published by Brookings, Tulane started the 2006–07 school year with four-fifths the number of students it had before Katrina. “It would be adverse if we couldn’t get the young professionals to stay,” he said.

Americans got a televised taste of that culture at the convention center after the storm. As some Orleanians pointed out, the scenes were probably not so different from those that prevail on any other day—minus the dreadful shortage of food and water—in the worst parts of the city’s housing projects. Katrina drove many of the poor to cities (possibly as many as 100,000 to Houston ) with a stronger work ethic and a different attitude toward welfare. In October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its final post-Katrina report, said that the unemployment rate among displaced evacuees was 17.9 percent, down from 34.7 percent in March; by contrast, the rate among return evacuees had actually risen, from 5.3 percent to 7 percent.

What no one says in public, but is widely conceded in private, is that, while tragic in many ways, the storm’s displacement of families may, in fact, encourage greater independence and better lives for the refugees. In New Orleans, many of them had become inured to state support and its perverse incentives.

On housing:

I had already read plenty about the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward, in the part of the city east of the French Quarter, so I wondered if he could recommend some other, less advertised destination in the Tour of Ruin that is on every visiting journalist’s itinerary. Tommy Lemann suggested Metairie Club Gardens, “the most affluent flooded area of town.” Submerged under five feet of water, it is the only place where he has seen abandoned mansions. The owners in some cases are up in years, and don’t want to rebuild, he said, or they have no mortgages and are rich enough to move elsewhere. Or they worry that the area will flood again.
On population:

The population of the city, about 450,000 pre-Katrina, is now estimated at around 200,000. New Orleans may now be the second-largest city in Louisiana (Baton Rouge is probably first). The labor force in the New Orleans metropolitan area, which also includes suburban Jefferson Parish, has dropped from 640,000 before Katrina to 438,000 last October, according to Brookings. In the latest U.S. Census estimate, Louisiana had lost five percent of its population, a quarter-million people, mostly to Texas and Georgia.

New Orleans probably has a smaller population today than it had in 1880, when, with 216,000 people, it was the tenth-largest city in the United States, just behind San Francisco and ahead of Cleveland and Detroit. An article in The Times-Picayune—a transformed newspaper since the 1970s, with copious and excellent post-Katrina coverage—reported before Christmas that 84,000 residents have moved to Atlanta. Many went by car (unlike Houston, to which refugees were herded in buses), and “significant numbers” are doing well. “They consider themselves Georgians and say so.” It seems likely that many will not return.

The racial composition of the city has changed since the storm. Because black areas suffered more destruction and because many blacks lacked the means to resettle in New Orleans after Katrina, the African-American share of the population of the city, according to a survey commissioned by state agencies last summer, has fallen from 67 percent to about 46 percent. By income, Orleans Parish, which is contiguous with the city, was the eighth-poorest county in America before the storm, and New Orleans over the years has maintained an entrenched culture of poverty and entitlement, epitomized by its vast public-housing projects.

On commerce:

Next, I contacted Jeannette Hardy, a veteran journalist who, years ago, was the editor of The Courier, the alternative weekly where I published my first articles. Ginny later became editor of New Orleans, the city magazine, and then joined The Times-Picayune. She drove me uptown to a coffee shop on Magazine Street. Between the Mississippi and St. Charles Avenue, Magazine Street is well located, and it is thriving. The neighborhood is a swath of cafés, bakeries, restaurants, antique stores, and clothing boutiques that runs five miles. Lately called the “isle of denial” because it was so little affected by Katrina (though it suffered serious wind damage), the area is likely to be central to the city’s recovery in the years ahead.

“This town is traumatized and everyone in it, including me,” Hardy said as we sat down to coffee. Katrina’s aftermath was “so much bigger than one poor little city can deal with—a poor, divided city with different cultural values.” People are paying mortgages on houses that don’t exist anymore for fear of ruining their credit ratings, she said. “New Orleans needs Washington. We need a Marshall Plan. We did it for Germany. Why not New Orleans?”

On "the Mexicans":

Hardy’s roofer moved his whole family to the city, she said, and electricians, plumbers, and painters are doing well. “A new class of entrepreneurs in the building trade is making a great contribution.” She admires the Hispanics who have come pouring in. In December, newspapers reported an immigrant “baby boom,” almost all Latino. Two healthcare units that saw over 1,200 pregnant women in 2006 said that virtually all were Hispanic. “Before the storm, only 2 percent were Hispanic,” the head nurse in Metairie said. “Now about 96 percent are.”

According to the Louisiana health and population Survey, the number of Latinos living in households in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes has increased by about 20 percent since 2004, even as the total population of the two parishes has fallen by 25 percent.

On restaurants:
Although tourism has lagged, conventions are beginning to return, and, according to the Brookings study, 89 percent of the hotels have reopened, as well as nearly all the well-known restaurants, such as Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, and Brennan’s, and the best relative newcomers, such as Emeril’s and Herbsaint. A friend was in town shortly after the gala reopening of Galatoire’s on New Year’s Day 2006 and said it was the same as ever, with local socialites and artists spending entire Friday afternoons drinking Myer’s Rum and soda and dining on trout amandine and oysters en brochette. Antoine’s, the most famous restaurant in the city, which opened in 1840, reopened just four months after Katrina. Since then, however, it has lost about $5,000 a day, according to a report in The Chicago Tribune. Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District, did not reopen until November, more than a year after the hurricane.
On Nagin:
The mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, concluded that he could not prevent people from spending their own money to rebuild their own homes—probably a wise judgment, politically and economically, although The Washington Post has criticized the “helter-skelter return of residents.” Likewise, The New York Times reported in August that City Hall “has settled back into its habitual easygoing rhythms; a well-placed insider there reported, with alarm, no sense of urgency among its officials.” But was inactivity so alarming? The good news is that it indicated that nothing too authoritarian was in the works.
On Couhig:

The leading Republican candidate in the mayor’s race was Rob Couhig, a lawyer with offices not far from the Superdome and City Hall. He came in fourth and threw his support to Nagin in the final round, declaring that the Landrieu clan had failed the city. One morning, I went to see Couhig, who told me that his office building at 1100 Poydras—just down the street from Mother’s Restaurant, famous for its Ferdi poor boy sandwiches—is full, and his firm is looking for more space.

About $25 billion in federal money will be spent in New Orleans in the next five years, he said. “The money is already in place.” He thinks that the fortunes of the city will depend more on the port, the universities, and a revival of the medical community (now much reduced) than on tourism.

“Our biggest need today is people,” he said. “We need fifty thousand people. There are employment opportunities for everyone from accountants to zookeepers.” But he is concerned that the powers-that-be have misdirected their talent search. Governor Blanco, for example, in a recent session of the state legislature, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds to attract a new German-owned steel mill with 3,000 jobs.

“But we don’t need jobs; we need people,” Couhig said.

On education:

I came away from the two schools impressed at the turnaround. Katrina has put one of the nation’s most retrograde school systems in the vanguard of reform. Currently, a significant majority of New Orleans public schools are charters, and that condition—different from any other large district in America—is likely to continue. A recent report estimates that 31 charter schools, enrolling 16,000 students, will be operating in the 2007–08 academic year, compared with 17 conventional public schools, enrolling 9,000 students.

As to whether charter schools can make a permanent difference, it is too early to say. Many of the students come from backgrounds that are hostile to learning. Can a relaxation of bureaucratic rules and the introduction of competition overcome that disadvantage?


The question is whether the aftermath of Katrina—filled with both bureaucratic foul-ups and individual enthusiasm, hard work, and perseverance—has at last dispelled the inculcated passivity and victimhood that have been especially strong in New Orleans.

Looking back, I was reminded of something that Tripp Friedler had said. A familiar metaphor occurred to him as we spoke, and he applied it to New Orleans. It’s the story of the frog dropped into water that is being heated slowly. It doesn’t notice, fails to react, and dies. Turn the heat up suddenly, however, and the frog jumps out. In New Orleans, the deterioration has been going on for decades, and, on the whole, the city’s leadership, too absorbed both by Mardi Gras balls and racial politics, refused to acknowledge it. Then came Katrina, abruptly turning up the heat.

A change for the better could no longer be avoided. My impression, after a week in the city, is that it has begun.

1 comment:

Ray said...

Houston's poverty rate is not exactly low. Is someone on glue here? Houston has had comparable poverty rates in the past (while having less of a percentage of African-American residents and vastly more expansive municipal boundary lines).

Jobless rates are also a piss-poor measure of how poor people are doing, considering that they only measure the percentage of persons considered to be a part of the labor force who have a job, not of the entire adult population.

By all means, push for New Orleans to move in a progressive direction. But can't someone find a better urban role model for the city than Houston?