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.

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