"Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio."
...but it's damn well worth it. As the two year anniversary of Katrina looms only days away, every major news outlet (and most of the minor ones) will turn their eyes southward, doing stories about the state of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Two days ago, a local talk radio show asked the question that will be on the lips of most of those reporters, "How are things going down there?" The consensus answer was, "Slowly." Infrastructure (already in bad shape before the storm) is not up to snuff. The city is particularly lacking (and always has been) in public transit. Rent is too high for your average family (or your friendly neighborhood blogger), and new Homeowner's insurance policies are just now beginning to be written. Whole neighborhoods remain empty, the owners waiting for basic services to return to that area and the service companies waiting on the people to return before restoring service. The "Road Home" program has been, for many people a godsend, but for others a complete nightmare. Billions have poured into the state and for the "man on the street" it's hard to see where most of it went.But walk down the streets of the French Quarter and (other than signs and t-shirts with some choice words for a lady named Katrina) you almost wouldn't know that anything had happened. Bourbon is still lively with the perfect mix of hand grenades, strip clubs and the blues for your average tourist looking to have a good time. Cafe du Monde is still serving beignets and cafe au lait and they are still deliciously bad for you. The Lower Garden District is still one of the nicest places for an afternoon stroll in all the world, and the Mississippi River is still flowing, making our country (and the soil at its mouth) rich. Louisiana has things that no other state has. In fact, few countries can boast the combination of natural resources, culinary delicacies and cultural heritage that our little boot can. In capable hands, this state might be (probably would be) one of the most significant and politically powerful in the nation. Our population would be booming, with Baton Rouge and New Orleans recognized as cities on par with Atlanta, Dallas, etc. Young people born and educated here would be excited about their occupational opportunities here, instead of fleeing for the rest of the "New South". But we haven't had good stewards. New Orleans in particular and Louisiana in general have had a long line of exciting, charismatic and wholly corrupt politicians running things, pretty much since the beginning. When we have managed to elect an honest one, they generally turn out to be completely incompetent. We're sort of damned if we don't, and damned if we do. This culture of corruption has done so much damage to our image on the national (and international) stage that it is little surprise when the federal government is slow to disperse funds in our direction, but more than willing to foot the bills for Mississippi. In Mississippi, they have some confidence that the money will get spent properly, here it might well build a new deck for the Mayor's cousin. Louisiana has a problem, and our neighbors are starting to notice. The Dallas Morning News had this to say about the latest scandal involving City Council member, Oliver Thomas: "New Orleans deserves better than its elected leaders. When will New Orleanians demand it?" My hope is, starting this October with the Gubernatorial election, but it's not a very strong hope. In a city soaked in sadness, in a state completely mired in corruption, with a populace that is overtaxed, under payed and misrepresented, why do people stay?
This is not the first time that question has been asked. Smarter people than me have asked it, and smarter people still have tried to answer. In 1877 a writer, Lafcadio Hearn, was responding to a friend's inquiry about the state of New Orleans. Hearn had been here for several months researching and writing. He said this:
If it weren't quite so long, I might make that my motto. It's nice to know that even after almost a century and a half of more "frauds and maladministrations" that feeling that in spite of its shortcomings and pitfalls (maybe even partly because of them) this city is still worth living in, perhaps more so than most other cities in the nation. The general feeling (at least that I get) is that politicians steal and lie everywhere, senseless murders happen on the street of any major city (and some not so major). Taxes, rent, and energy costs are high all across the country. While the heartland may be safe from hurricanes, tornadoes destroy homes and lives there every year and earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides fill the "natural disaster" card out west. The long and short of it is this: Life is miserable and death imminent (to some degree) anywhere you go, so why not live somewhere you love? I love New Orleans. I am not alone in my affection for her, and as long as they keep the lights (and air-condition) on, there will always be somebody here in the Crescent City.