New Orleans Rolls the Dice

As the Louisiana city builds the world's largest casino, many question gaming's long-term benefits

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN the New Orleans city council in April approved construction of the Grand Palais - this city's first casino and designed to be the world's largest - gambling supporters promised that the decision would usher in an era of new prosperity and help make New Orleans a world-class city.

"This is a historic day, we have created a project we can all be proud of," said Mayor Sidney Barthelemy (D), who earlier said the city would get up to $45 million in property payments for the land used by the casino, money it can use any way it likes. Casino developer Christopher Hemmeter said the casino will probably generate $700 million a year in revenues, and Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) - perhaps the most important gambling supporter in Louisiana - said the influx of tourists, jobs, and economic developm ent will mean good times for all: "Nobody within a 200-mile area is going to be without a job if he or she wants to work."

Although the lure of casino riches has entranced nearly everyone in a city that regards parades and parties as an art form, many here say the casino, which could be operating next year in a 400,000-square-foot French Empire-style building, will fall far short of salvation for this economically troubled city.

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`WE have people here who are hurting, people without jobs and little hope of getting them, even at McDonald's," says Jim Chisom, a community and civil rights activist who spends much of his time trying to revitalize one of New Orleans's historic neighborhoods, the Treme area near the French Quarter. That section, more than 200 years old, has a majority black population.

"What happens when something big like a casino comes along is that smaller things like neighborhoods are forgotten," Mr. Chisom says, "and everyone is so excited about this big ol' casino, they've completely lost sight of the man and woman in the street, the person out there fighting to live."

For activists like Chisom, New Orleans is a sinking town, a place with a rich and almost Continental history that is declining under the weight of its own particular burdens. Statistics bear out Chisom's pessimism: For more than 30 years, the city has been losing most of its white, middle-class workers.

Median family income in New Orleans has dropped from about $23,000 in 1970 to $21,000 in 1990, while the city's poverty rate - the poverty line for a family of four is $13,000 a year - increased in the past decade from 26.4 percent to 31.6 percent, making New Orleans the third-poorest city in the United States, behind Detroit and Laredo, Texas.

In 1960, the New Orleans population was 627,525, of whom 37 percent were black. By 1990, the overall population was down to 496,938 with a 65 percent black majority.

"We can see that things are getting worse and worse in the city by the number of new faces we see in here every day," says Biaggio DiGiovanni, the assistant administrator of the Ozanam Inn, a private operation providing food and shelter for the city's homeless. "Last month we served about 29,000 meals here, and of that number more and more are going to white people, women, children, and families in their 20s. It is much more widespread than ever before."

Just as widespread is blight. The vast majority of the 8 million tourists who visit the city every year rarely venture beyond the antique and T-shirt shops of the French Quarter or the mansion-lined Uptown Street-Charles Avenue streetcar route. Surrounding these tourist landmarks are dozens of neighborhoods where crack dens reign supreme, unemployed men sit on front stoops, and vacant homes - many dating back to the pre-Civil War era - are boarded up and eventually demolished by a city fearful of their p otential as drug dens.

WITH the onus of poverty also come health problems. In 1991, black infant mortality was nearly 17 for every 1,000 births here versus 8 per 1,000 in the more affluent and white suburbs of the city. Nearly 5,000 babies that year were born to unwed mothers, while more than 2,000 babies had mothers who were 19 years of age or younger. "It's all directly related to poverty," says Pat Delaune, a public-health nurse for the city. "Poverty and a lack of education are our greatest enemies here."

Many civic and political leaders trace New Orleans's woes to the collapse of the once-colossal oil and gas industry in the mid-1980s. When oil prices crashed and the number of rigs along Louisiana's Gulf coast dropped from 450 in 1982 to 150 in 1990, prosperity and good jobs also declined. Since then New Orleans has faced a series of severe budget crunches, layoffs, and a reduction in most city services.

"Without question, having the oil and gas industry go belly up hurt New Orleans more than we probably still know," says Vincent Maruggi, assistant director of the University of New Orleans (UNO) division of business and economic research. "There aren't too many other cities in the US that have gone through the kind of economic depression that we have. I've seen one study showing that we lost up to 30,000 jobs. No matter how you look at numbers like that, it's a devastating loss."

Some observers chart the decline of New Orleans to a far earlier time. "You can make the argument that the 1850s was one of the last great decades for this city," says Terrence Fitzmorris, an adjunct professor of history at Tulane University. "That was the last era of prosperity before the devastation of the Civil War, when cotton was king and Louisiana had the highest per capita wealth in the nation."

Historically, Professor Fitzmorris continues, life has always been a challenge in New Orleans, and the continuation of that challenge leads easily to the city's much celebrated ability to feast and fest, as seen in its slogan: The City That Care Forgot. "The people who moved here moved to a place in the midst of a fetid swamp, a city overrun with yellow fever, tuberculosis, unclean water, and corrupt politics," Fitzmorris says. "It all tended to make people somewhat fatalistic."

It has also tended to make people celebrate in the face of their greatest adversities, a trait that commerce-oriented visitors from other places frequently find bewildering. When the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair lost more than $120 million, outsiders were shocked by the sometimes blatant peculiarities leading to the fair's bust - such as the disappearance of state funds intended for the fair. New Orleanians, though, fretted more about the fate of the Gondola, an

elaborate steel contraption that allowed riders to travel, high in the sky, back and forth across the Mississippi River.

When Governor Edwards twice faced trials for criminal racketeering in the mid-1980s (in each case he was acquitted), less effort was put into a campaign to recall the chief executive than was expended on an elaborate Mardi Gras float, with an Edwards mannequin bedecked in prison garb and carnival beads, made in his honor.

The city's penchant for celebration is also seen in the revenues it generates when it has fun. Mardi Gras brings in more than $27 million annually, while the constantly expanding New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held for two consecutive weekends every spring, is worth another $10 million.

These events work for New Orleans, says Jason Patterson, the executive director of the Louisiana Jazz Federation, because they utilize the things New Orleanians do best: making music and having fun. Noting a recent study that valued the local music industry at up to $1 billion, Mr. Patterson continues: "When we talk about the music industry in New Orleans, we're talking about street-level music, neighborhood clubs, festivals, recording studios, and even publishing houses, all of which have been on the in crease in the past couple of years."

This "infrastructure of an industry," as Patterson calls it, has also enabled thousands of musicians to ply their trade in New Orleans in both high-paying tourist traps and ramshackle neighborhood joints where they play principally for tips. "It has a long way to go," Patterson adds, "but musically things are better now in New Orleans than anything I've seen in probably the last 20 years.... You have jazz clubs, rock, blues, and world-beat clubs featuring music like reggae, and ethnic music clubs. There' s been a real flowering of the industry."

New Orleans's reputation as the literary mecca that gave sustenance and inspiration to writers like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and John Kennedy Toole also continues to attract real and would-be writers to the city. Literary festivals, university seminars, and small coffeehouses that sponsor writers' forums and poetry readings only add to New Orleans's allure.

"It's a city that is very conducive to being creative," says Aaron Walker, a 22-year-old writer who moved to New Orleans from Virginia. "There's a great deal of individuality here, everyone has their own walk.... Tomes ... can be written about this place, and that's an attraction that's irresistible to a creative person." To survive until he makes money from his writing, Mr. Walker works as a waiter in the French Quarter.

In addition, throughout the city are young people, particularly African-Americans in New Orleans's public-housing projects, creating visual arts that often end up in some of the city's finest galleries. But whether such creativity, no matter what form it takes, can usher in a new era for the city, removed from reliance on oil and gas profits, remains to be seen.

Some economists believe the only way New Orleans will ever see a return to its former prosperity is through economic diversification. "The slack has to be picked up somewhere, and more and more we're seeing it with tourism and the entertainment industry," says Mr. Maruggi of UNO. "The jobs that we've lost have all been in the older industries like shipbuilding and oil and gas. Tourism is our one real growth area, which I suppose is the biggest argument in favor of the casino.'

But Ms. Delaune, the public-health nurse, who daily sees the ravages of the ill-nourished children, unwed mothers, and young girls having babies, says that only the people of New Orleans can save their city. "No one great thing will do it for us, and we need to stop thinking that way. We have to all pull together and take control of our lives again."

Noting that medical and housing needs in New Orleans's inner city might surpass those of a large third-world city, Delaune adds: "Despite all of the things I see, I still refuse to believe it's hopeless. We're a city and a people who have been through every disaster imaginable, and we're still here struggling on."

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