Wealthy Frenchman

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Descending to New Depths


New Orleans

I was surprised recently by a sudden shift in the tone of a veteran cabdriver, Stanley Taylor, who had been kind enough to take me on a nearly four-hour tour of the flood-wrecked regions of the city.

For most of the afternoon, Mr. Taylor had been wonderfully informative and polite, and his comments had been filled with sympathy for those who had lost so much to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

But as we headed back to my hotel, and darkness began to fall over the eerily still neighborhoods, his tone became unmistakably bitter. We had been talking casually about the thousands of extremely poor evacuees, most of them black, who were still stranded outside New Orleans, some of them scattered to the far reaches of the United States.

Mr. Taylor, who is black, snapped that maybe it would be better if some of them didn’t come back. “The poor people that’s gone,” he said, “they’re gonna have to stay gone. That’s where all the crime was coming from, see? Folks here want people to come back, but they want people with money to come back. The criminals? Shame on ’em. Sorry for ’em.”

During the immediate post-Katrina period, there were essentially two visions of a resurgent New Orleans. One, widely decried as racist, saw the new, improved New Orleans as smaller, whiter and more prosperous.

This was openly advocated. Just a few days after the storm, a wealthy member of the city’s power elite, James Reiss, told The Wall Street Journal: “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.”

Mr. Reiss, who is white and served in Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s administration as chairman of the Regional Transit Authority (he has since left the government), said that he and many of his colleagues would leave town if New Orleans did not become a city with better services and fewer poor people.

An alternative (and more widely desired) model of the city coincided with the approach that President Bush seemed to be taking when he made his dramatic appearance in floodlit Jackson Square in mid-September 2005. Mr. Bush promised not just to help rebuild New Orleans, but to confront the long-simmering problems of race and poverty with “bold action.”

Supporters of this approach envisioned an effort that would bring desperately needed assistance to the hurricane victims, helping to get them housed and back on their feet, while at the same time constructively engaging the contentious issues that have kept America’s blacks and whites in a state of perpetual hostility, and much of the poor in an all-but-permanent morass of ignorance and deprivation.

What is actually happening is worse than anyone had imagined.

New Orleans is a mess. It was brought to its knees by Katrina, and is being kept there by a toxic combination of federal neglect and colossal, mind-numbing ineptitude at the local level.

The police department here is a sour joke, and crime is out of control. More than 16 months after the storm, children roam the streets with impunity during school hours. Debris still covers much of the city. Doctors, hospitals and mental-health facilities are in woefully short supply. Thousands of residents are still living in trailers, and many thousands more are stuck more or less permanently out of town.

The result is that blacks and whites, feeling unsafe physically and frightened by the long-term prospect of dwindling opportunities, are eyeing the exits.

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who lost the mayoral race last May to Mr. Nagin, offered a grim assessment. While the ethnic breakdown may remain roughly the same, he said, the city is on its way to becoming “smaller, poorer and worse than it was before.”

Class, at the moment, is trumping race, which is how Mr. Reiss and Mr. Taylor, the cabdriver, came unwittingly to similar stereotyped conclusions. Unless the foundations of a livable city can be put in place — and they are not being put in place now — those with the ability to leave will do so. The poor, neglected as always, will be left behind.

“The same thing is moving African-Americans as is moving whites,” Mr. Landrieu said. “Everyone is asking: ‘Is it safe? What’s the school situation? Can my kids play outside? What does the future hold for them?’ ”

Without a creative new plan and energetic new leadership, New Orleans will be unable to save itself. Right now it’s a city sinking to ever more tragic depths.


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