The terrible events on the Gulf coast this week have had an intense effect on me personally. I lived for seven years in South Louisiana, 6 of them in Baton Rouge and 1 in New Orleans. These cities were the setting of much of my childhood and adolescence and obviously I have many fond memories of these places. Watching the horrific footage on television provoked some reflection on other aspects of life in that area, and I was instantly reminded of the bad things that were preponderant then. The panic of the refugees at the Superdome and the despicable violence brought on by looting gangs made me realize why my family had left the state for Texas, and why so many of Louisiana’s finest minds continue to leave their home state for greener pastures elsewhere.
Life in New Orleans back when I lived their in the mid-Eighties was far from your average American city. Its unique history, architecture, and cultural mix offered and urban experience that most Americans would find almost foreign. What was evident even to a young elementary school student like me was its apparent weakness in its institutional structure. The public school system was a cruel joke, extremely segregated in its student population (exclusively black) and of such low standards that private schools were the only means by which one could get a passable education. Families of all incomes sent their children to private schools, which tried to admit as many students as possible. Due to the city blocks’ compact design, poverty seemed to be visible at every corner, in which the distance between absolute ghetto and posh Victorian mansions was only a few short blocks. Sometimes a Greek revival masterpiece sat next door to a boarded-up crack house. The police presence was never that evident, and a sense of safety mostly non-existent. The parks were nice, though, the Audubon Zoo superb, and the cuisine was always tasty.
But those few good things point to the larger problem about New Orleans: the good and the bad were side by side in New Orleans, the city grid a checker board of prosperity and high tradition mixed with depraved poverty and rampant criminality. This wasn’t necessarily a recent occurrence but rather a fundamental part of New Orleans’ urban and social structure. There is a perennial class of native elites in the Crescent City, decedents of the city’s first successful agricultural barons, merchant tycoons and political dynasties. They live in the same neighborhoods for generations, and provide much in the way of philanthropy and cultural amenities to the city. Then there is a thin middle-class, most of whom eventually move to the surrounding suburbs for want of better public schools and less crime. Finally there is everyone else, a vast population of the poor subject to unspeakable conditions.
This teeming underclass that seemed ubiquitous is what I most remember about New Orleans. As the television footage plainly illustrates, poverty and wealth are tied to race, a feature that has been consistently maintained for much of the city’s history. This delicate but perverse balance prevented fluid social mobility, as newcomers to the city would find their prospects limited by their lack of connections to the New Orleans elite and its shallow and depressed economy. Political corruption is intrinsic to the government functions of the city, and entrepreneurship was mitigated by the powers that be as a threat to the control of the elites’ own enterprises. Being a resident near Dallas, the business climate at home as compared to life in the “Big Easy” was like night and day. I often find that the picturesque image of New Orleans conceals a truly dysfunctional city, constantly on the financial brink, always hoping that the construction of an aquarium, a casino, or convention hotel will revive the economic fortunes of the city overnight. It’s as if city leaders had never considered that the best way to acquire greater prosperity for its citizens as a whole would be to refurbish and renew its rotting educational infrastructure and police force. It has been long evident that city leaders in New Orleans had little of a practical agenda to implement and more of a desire to exert personal influence and secure their family’s power in the local city’s politics.
Yes, as I look back at life in New Orleans, it was back then a city on the brink: not of being destroyed by a hurricane, but more of losing control of its oppressive social equilibrium. The stratified population that make the city what it is has encouraged the cultivation of a large permanent underclass, unable to take care of itself and wholly dependent on its patrons among the city’s historic elite. What hurricane Katrina achieved was the unveiling of New Orleans’ ‘dirty laundry’ in the form of its most fragile and helpless begging and even dying for help while its elites fleeing without any sense of solidarity.
Nicole Gelinas discusses the corrupt nature of New Orleans further here.