Thursday, December 22, 2005

The View from North Louisiana

Last week I visited relatives Shreveport, the first time I had been in Louisiana since Katrina ravaged the state. Since it lies at the northwestern corner of the state, the city did not suffer any physical damage from the storm. It did accommodate many evacuees who fled from South Louisiana, who continue to reside in a city that is quite different from where they were coming from. Shreveport is Louisiana’s third largest city, with a population of a little over 200,000 trailing only the capital city of Baton Rouge and New Orleans (at its height, of course). Culturally, Shreveport shares more with its neighbors of Arkansas and East Texas than it does with the Cajun/Creole-influenced parts in South Louisiana. It retains many traditional qualities of small cities throughout the South, particularly its conservative yet modest sense of aesthetic elegance and its deep Protestantism. Still I enjoy my visits there due to the refreshingly calm pace of life, its shady trees and rolling topography, as well as its stately yet tasteful homes.

As soon as we arrived in Shreveport I was told to park my car behind the house rather than in front. It was said that there were “visitors” from Katrina, which was apparently code for roving groups delinquent youths residing in the areas throughout the city allotted to FEMA trailers. Crimes consisting of vandalism and car theft have been on the rise in the city since the refugees arrived, striking nearby neighborhoods that were among the safest in the city.

I therefore had to ask how the hurricane and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans affected Shreveport. My relatives all acknowledged that Louisiana as a state is languishing, unable to promptly restore services, plan for rebuilding, and put politics aside. As anyone who followed closely the events surrounding Katrina, the Crescent City was dealt a huge blow by uprooting the state’s primary commercial and cultural center, leaving much smaller cities to take up the slack. From my relatives’ point of view, New Orleans was destined to be the next Galveston: Once the largest and most elegant port city in the Western Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane of 1900 would reduce to a small and quaint city highly dependant on tourism and robbed of productive and high paying industries. Baton Rouge thus becomes the new Houston, hosting many who fled New Orleans have opened shop to the city 70 miles up the Mississippi river on drier land. The capital city’s population has doubled overnight, the real-estate market has boomed, and its infrastructure overwhelmed. Baton Rouge’s geographic advantages are quite comparable to New Orleans, but the currently modest urban scale makes me wonder whether it will make the required investments in enlarging its infrastructure to accommodate such sudden growth. Having lived six years in Baton Rouge, it will be interesting to see how such a comfortably suburban and decent little city will cope with the changes brought to it, whether the city’s friendly and low key character will remain.

Browsing the editorial page of the local Shreveport newspaper, it was obvious that the state’s storied culture of corruption continued unabated. Rebuilding was slow all over thanks to much political infighting within the state and much hesitancy on how to best appropriate federal funds. The editors credited Mississippi for its speedier recovery and lamented the ineffectual leadership of their governor and elected representatives. In truth such demoralized tones are nothing new in Louisiana, the sense of embarrassment and inability an intrinsic part of political writing in the bayou state.

The general view from Shreveport is that the recovery will take years and that the demographic balance of the state of Louisiana has undergone a major shift. The provincial cities will be gaining many new residences, the large metropolises in surrounding states have become home to countless displaced companies and members of the underclass. Most of them will never come back to New Orleans, which will inevitably shrink. But what I truly wish will never come back to Louisiana is its corrupted political culture, with its colorful yet fraudulent characters. New Orleans, an eclectic yet eccentric city that earned Louisiana the reputation as the United States’ only “banana republic” was the cauldron this tradition. I hope the milder and more reasonable city governments of Shreveport and Baton Rouge will function as a corrective to the Byzantine mess that was New Orleans.

I’ve written posts on Katrina and New Orleans soon after the events here, here, and here.