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

The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans, Louisiana (AP)

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.

In the 1977 election the Landrieu coalition held together to elect a black judge, Ernest "Dutch" Morial, mayor over a white candidate with a working class base. But by the time of Morial's re-election campaign, in 1982, the tone of local politics had changed. Morial, a canny, proud, imperious, occasionally mean bantam rooster of a man, got crosswise of Uptown, which backed a clean-cut, inexperienced young white candidate against him. He felt that Uptown expected a degree of obeisance from him that it wouldn't have expected from a white mayor. "If anyone didn't warrant opposition, you're looking at him," Morial told me when I visited New Orleans not long ago. He won without getting many white votes, and the morning after the election, in an interview with Allan Katz and Joe Massa, of The Times-Picayune, he said, "I don't know why people want me to deal politically differently than any other mayor. Is it because I'm a nigger? Because I'm a nigger, I've got to be shat on by everybody else?"

From then on Morial was the hero of the black poor and the bugaboo of practically all whites. This was an unexpected turn of events. Moral is no Jesse Jackson—he and his wife are scions of New Orleans's light-skinned, Catholic black-Creole elite, and he is fairly conservative politically. Many middle-class blacks see him as someone who looks down on nearly everybody of both races, and who assumed a confrontational stance toward whites partly as a matter of political calculation (today, out of power, he works in a white law firm). But Uptown residents, who had been convinced that New Orleans was making an unusually serene progression out of segregation, were horrified. Not just Morial but also whites began to use the word nigger again. Morial then embarked on a crusade to change the city charter so that he could run for a third term. This failed in two city referenda. The 1986 mayoral election was really another referendum on Morial, pitting a black candidate backed by him against Sidney Barthelemy, a black city councilman who had endeared himself to whites by leading the fight against the charter change. Barthelemy won by standing the Landrieu coalition on its head. He got 85 percent of the white vote and 35 percent of the black vote, which makes him perhaps the only black mayor in America with a white political base.

As if to prove that the folklore about the relationship between height and personality in men is right, Barthelemy, a Creole like Morial, is tall and nice whereas Modal is short and wily. Morial and Landrieu, who don't get along, illustrate the magnificent style that a politician can achieve. Landrieu chomps cigars, Morial wears a pinky ring, and both can size up a person in an instant and nurse a resentment for decades. Barthelemy hasn't shown yet that he's in that league, and his position is precarious. New Orleans whites have a complicated attitude toward black political power. There will probably never be another white mayor of New Orleans, but that means white voters will have a lot of clout as the swing vote in elections between two black candidates. They're a tricky constituency for a black mayor to manage. Whites in New Orleans pride themselves, in the southern manner, on how well they "understand" black people, but the understanding is usually a paternalistic, patronizing one. They are not ordinarily haters, but they can be, when the racial climate becomes less than perfectly genteel. If the mayor is wholly accommodating to whites, though, he loses points with blacks.

Barthelemy has cause to worry also about the loyalty of the other part of his constituency, the black middle class, because the city's deficits have forced him to cut away at its economic base—government employment. But middleclass blacks in New Orleans don't seem as wary as one might expect. They are the one group in the city that has gained ground over the past twenty years. New Orleans East, a Houston-like neighborhood of brick tract houses with neat lawns, now has a substantial population of blacks who grew up poor. They've been the principal beneficiaries of the rise of black political power, and they don't find the decline of the port, which never benefited college-educated blacks, so tragic as whites do.

In a sense, the port has been doomed for a very long time, perhaps ever since the advent of railroads reduced the importance of a location at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In recent years 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. The coup de grace was administered, unintentionally, by Congress in 1980, when it passed the Staggers Rail Act, which deregulated railroads. Having never developed a manufacturing base for finishing the goods it imported, New Orleans is a transfer port-most of what's shipped in is immediately shipped out again. As such, it depended on the pre-Staggers Act Interstate Commerce Commission, which could virtually dictate shipping patterns by setting rates. Now much of its former commerce goes through Charleston and Savannah, or skips the cargo-ship stage altogether and goes overland by truck. There are today a third as many jobs on the New Orleans waterfront as there were in the early seventies.

The rise of tourism filled the void left by the decline of the port especially neatly, inasmuch as the tourist industry required the same space the port had been using-the riverfront. Over the past decade the old downtown wharves have closed, one after another, and then been converted to tourist attractions. A waterfront promenade was built across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter; the old Jax Brewery was converted into a shopping-and-eating arcade; a Hilton hotel and a new convention center went up a little upriver, along with a Rouse Company development called Riverwalk. Last year, while turning down other tax increases, the voters approved one to finance the conversion of wharf space into an aquarium, and expansion of the convention center is the civic priority of the moment. Barthelemy's vision of the city's progress is almost entirely tourism-related—his great dream is to persuade a national entertainment company to build a theme park in New Orleans.

As late as the sixties the charms of New Orleans were mostly unselfconscious by-products of local history and ethnicity. Now they're becoming the province of marketers going after the convention trade. The locus of traditional jazz has moved from nightclubs to hotels. Festivals (like the new French Quarter Festival) arise not from traditional motives but from the perception that there is a gap to fill in the round of tourist festivities. There is talk of a new streetcar line along the river, not to take people to work but to fulfill tourists' assumption 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.

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 longshoremen, 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 town. And if New Orleans is primarily in the business of selling itself rather than its raw materials and its dock facilities, then being a city that satisfies its own requirements but not the outside world's might not work anymore.

It is within New Orleans's and Louisiana's power to cure many of their ills, through means far more direct than the Melanesian cargo-cult method of simply praying for businesses to relocate there. There's already a well-defined reform agenda.

All real power in Louisiana lies with the state government. State subsidies finance a wide range of local services, the most important of which is public education. The reason local governments can't pay for these services is that the state constitution prohibits them from levying income taxes and severely limits their property-tax revenues by exempting from taxes the first $75,000 of the value of every owner-occupied home. The state gets its money, in accordance with Louisiana's soak-the-rich tradition, primarily from taxes on business. The constitution limits the state income tax to a low rate, but all businesses pay a wide range of taxes (including a notorious inventory tax), and oil companies pay a severance tax, too.

When Edwin Edwards took office, in the early seventies, he shrewdly passed legislation tying the oil severance tax to the price of oil, and the money rolled in. In the 1981-1982 fiscal year 41percent of the state's revenues came from minerals. Edwards spent this money freely, especially on public employees—Louisiana has more of them per capita than any other southern state—and on pork-barrel construction projects. When the price of oil dropped, however, Louisiana was in trouble.

In the past fiscal year alone, Louisiana's mineral revenues have fallen by 30 percent, and the state ran a deficit of $206 million the year before that. This money has to be paid back fast, because the constitution outlaws deficits. Louisiana also owes the federal government almost $1billion in unpaid unemployment compensation, and its employee pension fund has an unfunded liability of nearly $5 billion. Early this year the state held up state income tax refunds for several weeks because of what was billed as a "cash-flow problem," and the state legislative fiscal officer announced that Edwards's new budget, submitted as balanced, would actually produce a $350 million deficit.

Edwards's way out is to institute a state lottery and legalize casino gambling in New Orleans. So far the legislature hasn't gone along with that. Another way is propounded by good government reformers: reduce or eliminate the homestead exemption, raise the state income tax, lower sales taxes (the sales tax in New Orleans is a whopping nine percent), and consolidate business taxes-not to mention get rid of Edwards. It's no mystery why the reform agenda hasn't sailed through; taxing individuals more and business less is a hard sell. In particular, the homestead exemption is a sacred cow. There is a depressing entente on the subject of financing public education, under which people with houses worth less than $75,000 are happy because they don't pay any property tax, and the small fraction of homeowners who do pay property tax are happy because they pay an amount that is among the lowest in the country ($1,000 a year for a five- or six bedroom house is typical) and can afford not to send their kids to the bad public schools that are a result, in part, of the low taxes.

The connection between the state's taxing policies and New Orleans's future prosperity, especially as a tourist town, is obvious. Everyone who considers doing business in New Orleans is horrified when he discovers that his employees will have a hard time finding decent public schools for their children, even in the suburbs. Visitors don't want to come back to a city that's dirty and dangerous because it can't afford to provide basic city services; a haunting event in this regard was the murder of a tourist last January in a new public park built specifically to appeal to tourists.

For the past year the leader of the reformist charge has been Jim Bob Moffett, the chairman of the biggest company in town, Freeport-McMoRan. This wouldn't be unusual in any other city, but it is in New Orleans. Moffett is exactly the kind of person New Orleans used to be famous for ignoring: a flamboyant, country-talking, flashy-dressing, Texas-bred oilman whose powerbase is a Fortune 500 company, not a local family business. Usually people like Moffett end up in Houston or Dallas, where they're the toast of the town, but occasionally the old 1840s dream of living the grand life in the gracious capital of the South will lure one of them to New Orleans.

The previous occupants of the mansion on St. Charles Avenue where Moffett lives seemed proof of the impossibility of an oilman's breaking into the New Orleans social and business establishment: they gave big parties and made substantial donations to good causes, but they weren't invited to any of the right places. (He ended up serving a jail term and then committing suicide, and she as Gayfryd Steinberg, a society queen in New York, where acceptance comes much faster than it does in New Orleans.)

It's a testament to Moffett's superior drive and to the flagging self-confidence of old-line New Orleans that he has been much more successful than any previous oilman at becoming a civic leader. In 1981 his independent exploration company merged with Freeport Minerals and in1985 moved its headquarters from New York to a new building across the street from the Louisiana Superdome, with its street number emblazoned in Roman numerals on its entablature. Then he, along with a group of other businessmen, founded an organization called the Business Council, modeled on civic oligarchies like the Citizens. Council, in Dallas, and the Vault, in Boston, to whip the city and the state into shape again, and the establishment stepped back to see what he could do. He got a hero's welcome in the press.

Now, however, Moffett is in mild eclipse. Earlier this year a courageous state environmental bureaucrat denied Freeport a permit to dump gypsum into the Mississippi River. Moffett, who seemed to think he had a deal with the state (the governor's brother was once on the Freeport payroll as a lobbyist), blew his stack. He held a press conference in February at which he threatened to move his company away from New Orleans and called Louisiana a banana republic. The epithet stung badly—it had enough truth to it that it had been sort of hanging in the conversational air for a while before he used it publicly, and it's particularly wounding to New Orleans pride because it was coined back in the days when a New Orleans controlled company, United Fruit, was running half of Latin America. Such puissance is a faded, but cherished, memory. Iris Kelso, a veteran columnist for The Times-Picayune, wrote a few days later, "His ego, his temper and his unbridled tongue ended his days of effective leadership and his right to full public confidence."

When I met with Moffett, he was full of the old fire. He said that the Business Council, by hammering on the subject of the homestead exemption, had made it acceptable at least to talk about eliminating or lowering it, which is true. Unlike most native-born New Orleans leaders, he seems to be unwilling just to give up on public schools. "We have a responsibility to ensure the American way of life, he told me. "We have to make this an American city. [As a native, I felt a twinge of reflexive horror at this idea.] If you donit give every kid a chance, the whole system breaks down. You've got to educate the people. You have to believe in the American way of life, and it all starts with educating the masses." He told me that he doesn't really think New Orleans is a banana republic but he's worried that other people will. "Let me put it this way," he said, "Banana republic is not my nom de plume. I said if you make decisions that are not American-type decisions, people will continue to give us that nom de plume." New Orleans my not have forgiven him yet, but it hasnit turned his role over to anyone else either.

The question of what the Louisiana political system will do to solve its problems is an immediate one, and not just because of the fiscal crisis. There's a governor's race on. The irrepressible Edwrds has attracted an unusually strong field of competitors—three of Louisianais eight members of Congress, plus the state's secretary of state—but he's running with a breezy confidence that would be hard for many other people in his shoes to maintain. If Edwards wins, the reformers will have to wait for another day—a day four years from now. If the price of oil doesn't rise, who knows what shape the state will be in by then. If anyone else wins, next year's session of the legislature will be an occasion for at least serious attempts at change.

Politics in Louisiana, like life in Louisiana. isn't very often about what it rationallv should be about. The opportunity to turn the subject of a campaign from governance to either of the two favorite substitutes, race and the incumbents flamboyant personality, is well nigh irresistible. New Orleans took the opportunity in the past two mayoral races, when the issue was Morial and not the city's problems, and now Louisiana has a chance too—Edwards's support is mostly black, and he's certainly richly endowed with personality. No matter who wins, if the campaign could somehow hinge on the future of the state, it would be a concession to the need to be (alas!) a little more like the rest of the country—and also a small triumph.