New Orleans: I Have Seen the Future, and It's Houston

For many who love New Orleans, the changes that accompany commercial growth inspire fear—but in the meantime the city's economy stagnates and its population declines

For the past century or so, New Orleans has been a city that has gotten by on charm alone. Very few people here seriously consider New Orleans part of the "New South" or of the "Sunbelt" or of any other geoeconomic entity conjured up in the past two decades. And, until a few years ago, hardly anyone in New Orleans minded being left out. New Orleans might be poor, but it is happy. In fact, during last year's mayoral race, one of the candidates ran TV commercials that showed a bustling skyline with a voiceover ominously intoning, "Do you want New Orleans to become another Houston?"

Though the candidate being touted lost the race, to many people in New Orleans his point was a telling one. Houston is seen here as a symbol of everything crass, plastic, and commercial—the antithesis of the image of New Orleans held by New Orleanians. On the other hand, Houston is a nagging example of the prosperous city New Orleans could have become, but probably never will.

Despite the fact that New Orleans has perhaps the finest natural location in the country for commerce, the city's economy has stagnated for at least twenty years. Population has declined; unemployment is among the highest in the South; and New Orleanians have remained among the poorest in the nation. Little has changed since the 1970 Census, which showed that out of the fifty largest cities in the country, New Orleans had the highest percentage of families living below the federal poverty level: 21.6 percent, against 18.4 percent for second-place Newark. New Orleans also ranked last among the fifty cities in percentage increase in median family income between 1960 and 1970, and forty-third in median years of education per adult.

It wasn't until 1975, when James Bobo, a University of New Orleans professor, published a highly critical report on the state of the local economy, that the public began to pay attention to what was going on. Bobo's report was entitled "Pro Bono Publico?"—a play on the motto of the most prominent Mardi Gras parading club, the Krewe of Rex, whose members are the sort of civic leaders that Bobo blamed for the city's stagnation. Bobo's thesis was simple: New Orleans had lost its industrial base. Manufacturing jobs were declining year by year, with the slack taken up by lower-paying, less stable jobs in service industries, mainly tourism. The steady fall of the economy had taken place with the acquiescence, if not the blessing, of the city's political and business leaders, who tended to like things the way they were and who probably feared the kind of social change that more industry would bring.

The politicians, businessmen, and socialites who run New Orleans have through the years practiced their own brand of benign neglect. And the neglect—at least until recently—really has been quite benign. New Orleans, despite its tropical fecundity and its pervasive sense of impending violence (storms approaching from the Gulf, a murder rate about twice as high as the national average, as well as a major proportion of disasters highrise fires, mass lynchings, yellow fever epidemics, ferry sinkings, snipers, race riots, and hurricanes), has always been an easy city to live in—even if you're poor.

Until five years ago, a ride on a bus or streetcar was only fifteen cents. In 1970, a plate of red beans and rice—standard Monday fare in the city and when well prepared, a culinary triumph, redolent of Tabasco, shallots, and spices, and the richness of long-cooked ham hocks, which turn the sauce to velvet—was only twenty-eight cents at Buster Holmes, a famous French Quarter hangout on Burgundy Street. Smoked sausage on the side brought the tab to seventyfive cents. Plentiful natural gas in the state made utility bills cheap: five years ago, the average monthly charge was around $20. And then there were free attractions such as Carnival—the two weeks of parades and drinking and balls leading up to Mardi Gras; jazz funerals; band concerts in Jackson Square; the smell of roasting coffee along Tchoupitoulas Street in the early spring; and the joy of standing behind the French Market in May and watching the turgid Mississippi rush by.

Haute cuisine

Most of these pleasures still obtain. The nickel phone call—a relic of the Huey Long populist era—survives. A streetcar ride up St. Charles Avenue along a grassy median strip planted with camellias and azaleas is now thirty cents, and you can pull the windows all the way down and feel the breeze. No air-conditioning. A lunch of red beans and rice and sausage is now up to $2 in most restaurants, but you can dine for just under $10 on shrimp remoulade, fresh lake trout amandine, and dark chicory coffee at Galatoire's, which, after a declining spell, ranks again as the best restaurant in the French Quarter and one of the best in the country.

People in New Orleans (which is pronounced by the populace either "New Or-lee-uhuns" or "N'OR-luhns") still spend a good deal of their time arguing the merits of restaurants and not all the restaurant talk is about Galatoire's or Arnaud's or Antoine's.

In recent years, most of the conversation has centered on two places on the West Bank of the Mississippi—LeRuth's, in a Victorian cottage in Gretna, about fifteen minutes from the French Quarter, and Mosca's, a simple roadhouse with a Budweiser sign out front, about forty-five minutes from the center of town on the road that leads to Avondale Shipyards, the state's largest employer. Mosca's serves a Creole-Italian mélange of cuisine—oyster casserole with garlic and a touch of anise; broiled shrimp in pepper, butter, and rosemary; homemade sausage and homemade pasta. LeRuth's cooking is more of the haute variety: oyster and artichoke soup, fried softshell crab topped with lump crabmeat in lemon butter, cantaloupe sherbet and mandarin ice.

The genius of LeRuth's is Warren LeRuth, a product of New Orleans's tough Third Ward (a largely residential and light industrial area called Mid-City) and of Jesuit High School. Practically every white Orleanian of note went to that school—from former Mayor Moon Landrieu to the popular local TV sportscaster Hap Glaudi, who spends about half of each show congratulating aged couples on their golden wedding anniversaries and giving out the scores of CYO Biddy Basketball League games. LeRuth is the sort of local hero who belies Walker Percy's claim in Lancelot that in 300 years of history, New Orleans "has never produced a single significant historical event, one single genius, or even a first-class talent—except a chess player, the world's greatest. But genius makes people nervous, so he quit playing chess and began worrying about money like everyone else. It is altogether in keeping that the famous Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was over and was without significance." (Percy might have pointed out that the battle was fought not in New Orleans but in Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish to the east of the city, today a blue-collar neighborhood that constitutes another world entirely.)

And, oh yes, the chess player was Paul Morphy, the only world champion this country produced before Bobby Fischer. Morphy's old house is now Brennan's Restaurant on Royal Street. In the end everything here gets back to food.

Gardens of the past

To food, or to buildings . . . In the past ten years or so, this city has rediscovered its past. Fortunately New Orleanians in the fifties and sixties lacked the energy to tear down their nineteenth-century architectural treasures and uproot the spreading live oaks. Now, most of the treasures remain. The new generation of young professionals in their twenties and thirties make a pastime of renovating Greek Revival cottages and Victorian shotguns (long, narrow New Orleans cottages exactly one room wide and four or five rooms deep, so called because you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and the charge would pass through every room and out the back).

Much of the awareness of the value of old houses can be traced to a series of volumes begun in 1972 and published by the Friends of the Cabildo, an organization of supporters of the Louisiana State Museum. Each of the books—there have been six so far—catalogues historically important buildings in one neighborhood.

New Orleans is, above all, a city of neighborhoods. A study made by the architectural firm of Curtis & Davis in 1974 identified eighty of them. The two most important ones now being renovated are the Lower Garden District (the area between the Garden District itself, where the city's most glorious mansions were built, and the downtown business district) and the Faubourg Marigny (across Esplanade Avenue, downriver from the French Quarter).

Both of these neighborhoods had been occupied by poor whites and blacks before the renovators moved in. The Victorian cottages are now painted in pastels with handsome contrasting shutters. Parks have been cleared and replanted, and both neighborhoods are fine places to live. But in the process of renewal the natives have been forced off their own land, and while the city's architecture has been preserved, its folkways are being destroyed, especially in the Irish Channel area near the Lower Garden District.

There are neighborhoods, however that remain relatively untouched by upper-middle-class civilization: genteel Gentilly, the setting for Walker Percy's Moviegoer and the city's first suburb; Bywater, downriver from the Faubourg Marigny and one of the earliest settled parts of the city; and Old Algiers, a ten-minute ferry ride from Canal Street and still a part of New Orleans proper though it sits in splendid bucolic isolation.

Populous Suburbia

Compared to the charm of the city's neighborhoods, New Orleans suburbs tend to be pretty desolate places. The largest, Metairie, consists mainly of a sea of tract houses built in the sixties and of singles' apartments. Across the river, Gretna is much of the same. Metairie and Gretna are both parts of the great suburban parish of Jefferson, which will probably surpass Orleans Parish (New Orleans itself) in population in another fifteen years. Currently the population of Jefferson is around 420,000, of Orleans, 560,000.

Jefferson's chief political figure, Assessor Lawrence Chehardy, for years attracted New Orleans residents to his parish with some of the lowest property taxes in the land. Then, in 1974, Chehardy managed to get the new Louisiana constitution to adopt an article that bars all property taxes on homes valued under $50,000. Chehardy has since stepped down as assessor in favor of his son, and devotes most of his time to trying to get the legislature to raise the property tax exemption to $100,000 homes.

Meanwhile, Jefferson continues to distinguish itself as one of the most poorly run rich counties in the United States. Its schools and roads are as bad as those of Orleans Parish (even though Jefferson's per capita income is much higher), and it has far more venal public officials (as an investigation of graft in public works by the U.S. attorney's office continues to show).

The migration of whites to the suburbs in the sixties was less virulent than that experienced by the cities the East. In New Orleans, between 1960 and 1970, the white population fell 16 percent while the black population rose by the same percentage. In Newark and in Atlanta, during the same period, the white population fell by 33 percent and 18 percent respectively while the black population rose by 50 percent and 33 percent.

The population of Orleans Parish continues to decline, as it did in the sixties when there was net emigration of both blacks and whites, but the rate of decrease seems to have slowed by about half. Between 1970 and 1974, for example, the New Orleans population declined from 593,000 to 569,000, but by 1976 it had leveled off at 562,000.

Many of the people who leave New Orleans are moving not to the comfortable suburb of Metairie but to the more fertile employment territories of Houston, Dallas, and New York. New Orleans is thereby losing some of its best and brightest. A few years ago, a TV commercial for a local bank featured a young black man who had graduated at the top of his class at Xavier University. The commercial told how the bank had financed the young man's education and how he was now a great addition to the community, working for a leading engineering firm. What the ad didn't say was that the leading engineering firm is in Atlanta. Similarly, top graduates of Tulane Law School regularly go to work in New York.

Still, there is a strange charisma that draws many native Orleanians back to the city after a few years of apprenticeship in the banks of New York or the law firms of Washington. The future of the city is, in great measure, in the hands of these prodigal sons and daughters.

The ones who have returned in recent years have found that while the city's charms have been kept intact, the world now is too much with New Orleans. Real estate prices have soared and rents have gone up; utility rates are much closer to the national average; and life has become more of a scramble, more the way it is in Cleveland or Schenectady. Finally, in the mid-sixties and early seventies, when the city felt itself forced to face the fact that so many of its people were poor, and without jobs, its solution was, of course, to erect a building—the Superdome, the largest covered stadium in the world.

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