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.