Flashbacks October 2005

Hard Times in the Big Easy

Articles from the '40s through the '80s on the delights and drawbacks of life in New Orleans.
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After Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August, a level of destruction and chaos that had once seemed impossible in America became devastating reality. In New Orleans, levies broke and water poured out of Lake Pontchartrain—destroying large swaths of homes and businesses, drowning hundreds, and stranding others on rooftops. The nation looked on in awe and horror not only at the havoc that Katrina had wrought on one of its most beloved cities, but also at the stark poverty and inequality that the storm had exposed. Over the years several Atlantic writers have taken a close look at New Orleans—offering thoughtful considerations of both its unique delights and its endemic problems.

In the spring of 1940, The Atlantic Monthly published a travel piece in which David L. Cohn contrasted the elegance of New Orleans's architecture, food, and people with the dirty underbelly of political corruption that also characterized the city. The article, which Cohn wrote in the form of a letter to a European acquaintance, captures the off-beat and often enigmatic nature of New Orleans culture. "New Orleans," Cohn wrote, "is an easygoing, pleasure-loving, colorful, odoriferous, church-attending city whose dead are buried above ground and whose politics is carried on underground."

For Cohn, many of the city's problems during the twentieth century were embodied by Huey Long, the calculating, corrupt Louisiana governor-turned-senator who had been gunned down in the capitol building in Baton Rouge five years earlier. Long, in Cohn's view, was not himself responsible for creating the culture of crime and corruption that plagued New Orleans, but he had certainly taken advantage of the city's long history of political backwardness and criminal rule. Cohn wrote:

New Orleans had been politically rotten since 1870. For years its police had collected tribute from prostitutes and gamblers; elections were bought at a dime a dozen (the prices of all locally produced commodities are dirt-cheap in the lower South), and the municipal services of the South's largest city were those of a tank town that had just been struck by a tornado.

Louisiana, potentially one of the richest states in the Union, had shamefully neglected education, health, roads, and other public services. The mass of the people wallowed in poverty. New Orleans, for instance, had only a small economic middle class. Its principal residential streets were merely palm-studded facades concealing dozens of mean little streets filled with the houses of the poor. And, with the ground having been prepared, Huey Long rose.

Cohn acknowledged that Long's political machine had recently been dismantled, leading some to hope that a brighter future lay in store for New Orleans. But he thought it was possible that the city's troubled past might haunt it forever:

What now if a people who have long been ruled by pimps, thugs, brothel keepers, and gangsters, under a system which required them to pay their taxes and keep their mouths shut, are suddenly given their liberty? Will they be able to govern themselves? Or—more pertinently—will they soon yearn again for the good old days when they had nothing to do but do as they were told?

Nearly forty years later, in the July 1978 issue, James K. Glassman published "New Orleans: I Have Seen the Future, and It's Houston," an article that looked at the burgeoning commercial growth in New Orleans and the political and social implications of that growth. Glassman opened his piece by writing:

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 any other geo-economic 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.

There was a sense in New Orleans, Glassman observed, that the city's denizens would rather live with a depressed economy and unique culture than with a bustling economy and a city that, having opened its doors to industry, resembled "crass, plastic, and commercial" Houston. However, as the city's rampant poverty continued to deepen and more and more of New Orleans's residents began leaving the city for outlying towns, Houston was increasingly coming to serve as "a nagging example of the prosperous city New Orleans could have become but probably never will."

By the mid-1960s it was well understood that New Orleans was in deep economic trouble. The mass exodus from the city to the suburbs had left little wealth behind and a large segment of the city's population in the throes of poverty. In keeping with the quintessentially New Orleans spirit of conducting business in its own unique way, the city decided that the best way to fight poverty would be to erect the now infamous Superdome. Glassman wrote, "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."

When then-governor of Louisiana, John McKeithen, heard the proposal for the Superdome he proclaimed, "By God! That will be the greatest building in the history of man. We're gonna do it!" But McKeithen was off by a long shot:

The Superdome did not ... turn out to be the greatest building in the history of man, or even the second greatest. It was beset with cost overruns and political scandals. Voters in 1966 were told that the Superdome would cost $35 million, the same as Houston's Astrodome, which it would dwarf; the final figure was $165 million. The Dome was supposed to make an operating profit its first year; instead, it has shown a large deficit for each of its three years of operation, and no one today seriously thinks the Dome will ever come close to paying for itself.

However, the decision to construct the Superdome, while perhaps not economically prudent at the time, marked an important turning point in the evolution of industry in New Orleans: beginning in the late sixties and seventies, tourism rather than oil and shipping was becoming the preferred mode of business.

In an article titled "Hard Times in the Big Easy" (August 1987), Nicholas Lemann, a native of New Orleans, observed the trend toward tourism that had been gradually taking place in his city over the past two decades.

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 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.

The changing nature of shipping practices in the United States, and New Orleans's reluctance to update its own practices along with the rest of the country led to the eradication of many jobs. "In recent years," Lemann wrote, "New Orleans has been slow to adapt to the age of containerized cargo and was hurt by the shift in American trading patterns to the Pacific, which has made Los Angeles-Long Beach the boom port ... There are today a third as many jobs on the New Orleans waterfront as there were in the early seventies."

As jobs and businesses along the waterfront evaporated, marketers and commercial entrepreneurs dreamed up new ways to use the abandoned space. Retail stores, restaurants, and hotels—all designed to show tourists what New Orleans was "really" like—were installed. The old buildings and businesses that had typified New Orleans for locals were overrun by corporate institutions, and the city's traditional culture was gradually commodified.

As late as the sixties the charms of New Orleans were mostly unself-conscious by-products of local history and ethnicity. Now they're becoming the province of marketers going after the convention trade ... There is talk of a new streetcar line along the river, not to take people to work but to fulfill tourists's assumptions that New Orleans means streetcars. When I was a reporter at an underground newspaper in the French Quarter, during the early seventies, the staffers used to have coffee and beignets (which we called doughnuts, a word that's since been banished because it's not colorful enough) at the Morning Call, and red beans and rice at Buster Holmes, both ageless, fabulously seedy establishments whose clienteles ranged effortlessly from heroin addicts to debutantes. Now the Morning Call has moved to a swinging-singles suburb called Fat City, and Buster Holmes to the "food court" at the Jax Brewery. Such are the wages of the death of the port.

With the shift from port economy to tourist economy, new jobs were created, but jobs in the service industry were for the most part lackluster in comparison to the higher-paying port-based jobs. And though tourist money did begin to surge through New Orleans, it became increasingly located in the hands of just a few. In many instances, the money quickly circulated right back out of New Orleans. Lemann captured the effect of tourism on the overall economy of New Orleans, writing:

There are non-aesthetic reasons to worry about New Orleans's increasing dependence on tourism. Tourism can enrich a small group of local entrepreneurs, including real-estate developers and concessionaires; some of these come from groups, like the black middle class, that were previously shut out of the business life of the city. New entry-level jobs in hotels are cold comfort for unemployed longshoreman, but they are a real help to poor blacks working as domestics or not working at all. Still, tourism is cyclical, and it's dominated by national chains whose profits go out of town.

David Cohn closed his correspondence by writing, "New Orleans is old and has seen much and is a little weary, but she is still beautiful and quietly conscious of her charm." There is no doubt that now, in the wake of Katrina, New Orleans is more than "a little weary." However, with the prospect of rebuilding the city now before us, we have a unique opportunity to fix the problems of the past and set right one of America's greatest cities.

Ramsey Prather

Ramsey Prather is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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