Hard Times in the Big Easy

A portrait of a city that is fast losing its feeling of immunity from the discontents of urban life
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When I was growing up, in New Orleans, it was a given that by all conventional measures of civic accomplishment my home town ranked low. Every so often some national organization would conduct a survey of cities, ranking them according to crime rate, school test scores, per capita income, park acreage, and so on. New Orleans always came out 89th, or 103rd. This was not a cause for alarm to me, except perhaps insofar as it kept us from getting professional sports franchises. I was raised to believe that New Orleans was so vastly superior to other places in the realms that really mattered—which were charm, a sense of history, pop-culture vibrance, and the pleasurableness of life—that these periodic low ratings were inconsequential, or a sign that the rest of the country was on the wrong track. There were always a few Jeremiahs (usually professors or corporate executives—that is to say, people who were "not local") who urged New Orleans to reform and become more like Atlanta and Houston, but it seemed that each one, within a few years of issuing his warning, found a job in another town. Real New Orleanians didn't listen to them. Who wanted to be like Houston, where, at the time, the buildings were ugly and you couldn't get a mixed drink?

Last fall is the first time that I can remember when New Orleans's supreme confidence about itself seemed to be truly shaken. The city was suffering through the oil bust along with Texas, Oklahoma, and the rest of Louisiana, but it had also been visited by a series of more particular misfortunes. The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, much publicized both as a tourist attraction and as a chance to restore New Orleans's old brick warehouse district, had fallen humiliatingly short of its attendance projections. Then it had gone bankrupt. So had a couple of the familiar old family run department stores, Godchaux's and Kreeger's. So had perhaps the only billionaire in Louisiana, an oilman named Ken G. Martin. The governor, Edwin W Edwards, had been tried twice on charges that he had accepted bribes in exchange for granting certificates of need to hospitals, and a jury to which he had played with shameless populist brio had acquitted him.

Louisiana had, and still has, the highest unemployment rate in the country, now 12 percent (the rate in Texas is just over eight percent). The state and the city were both running budget deficits; New Orleans's new mayor, Sidney Barthelemy, just in his first six months in office, had laid off 1,100 city employees and put the rest on a four-day work week to save money. Though everybody agrees that the poor quality of New Orleans's public schools is the city's greatest problem, the voters in September had defeated a proposal to raise property taxes to help the schools. The Port of New Orleans had begun to run a deficit too, and it had renegotiated its union contracts and lowered its rates. Property values were dropping. The symphony was teetering on the brink. Odessa, Texas, has a symphony!

In December there was a crime wave that had the city obsessed: it dominated the television news shows, the pages of The Times-Picayune, and all conversations. The actual rate of crime, except for auto theft, was at about the average of the preceding decade, but a series of armed robberies had struck at the core of the New Orleans subconscious, where reside feelings about social life, the family homestead, and relations between the races: in the stately, calm Uptown section, where the white establishment lives, a group of black teenagers, in a succession of stolen cars, were following people home from parties and holding them up at gunpoint on their own doorsteps. One well-known man was shot in the head. Another lost an eye to a robber's bullet.

A poll commissioned by The Times-Picayune showed that 71 percent of whites and 78 percent of blacks felt that crime was up from a year before, and fully 55 percent of the whites polled said that a friend had recently been activities of crime. Bankers and partners in the big law firms began carrying guns to parties, where, even in daytime, armed security armed security guards had become a fixture. A few pillars of the community actually packed heat at work in their high-rise offices. Crime conveys the feeling that things are falling apart with an immediacy that the gloomiest economic statistic will never have, but surely it was the background of New Orleans's many other troubles that made the crime wave so alarming.

By January the police were back to a five-day week and had announced that they had caught the perpetrators of the Uptown armed robberies. New Orleans crept back from whatever brink it had been on. In fact, it immediately voted down another proposed tax increase, this time for more police and fire protection. There isn't any longer the sense that life is in immediate danger of becoming untenable, and when visitors come (for the 1988 Republican Convention or instance), the city will be able to slip smoothly into its familiar funky but aloof charm, the attitude that gave rise to its favorite nickname of the moment—the Big Easy." Still, there's a deep-seated feeling that the current problems are different from all earlier ones—that they will leave New Orleans much worse off, or drastically changed, or both.

From afar it appears that the price of oil has been the most important factor in the life of New Orleans over the past ten or fifteen years. But oil hasn't affected the character of the, city nearly as much as two shifts that took place during the time of the oil boom and bust. one in political power, from whites to blacks, and the other in New Orleans's economic base, from the port to tourism.

Politics in New Orleans is conducted. more in the manner of a northern or Latin American city than of a Sun Belt one. It is taken seriously as a profession and an art form. People enjoy election campaigns—what with second primaries, elected judges, and bond issues, there always seems to be one going on—and politics attracts smart, tough, ambitious people, not disinterested patricians and public-spirited, businessmen.

For years political power lay primarily with the Regular Democratic Organization, a white, blue-collar machine whose strong hold was the neighborhoods along the river where the longshoremen lived. But the Voting Rights Act and white flight doomed the Old Regulars. In their place rose black organizations called SOUL, COUP, and BOLD, each headquartered in a different black neighborhood. In the sixties most white politicians didn't see that these groups were taking over the leadership of black politics from the old-line Baptist ministers, or that in just a few years New Orleans would have a black voting majority (the city is now more than 60 percent black, and the electorate is 52 percent black).

One white politician who brilliantly foresaw the shape of things to come was Moon Landrieu, a city councilman who won the 1970 mayor's race in an upset, on the strength of the support of blacks and Uptown whites. The Landrieu coalition, which was quite similar to the coalition of blacks and affluent whites in Chicago that would elect Harold Washington mayor, seemed to be the future of New Orleans politics. Blacks liked Landrieu because he was the first mayor to renounce segregation—during his two terms he gave blacks hundreds of important jobs in city hall, where previously, it is only a slight exaggeration to say, the only black employees had been janitors and maids. He was popular uptown, too, because he consulted the white social and business establishment more than his predecessor had and because, as an articulate racial liberal, he made New Orleans look good nationally.

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Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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