'The City That Care Forgot' Plays Catch-Up With South
A 10-minute walk through New Orleans can take you past an art gallery, a biker bar, a five-star restaurant, a convent, and a casino. French is spoken on streets with Spanish names, while African rhythms waft through Jewish cemeteries.Skip to next paragraph
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It's the home of jazz and zydeco, beignets and blackened redfish. It's a city with deep roots in the slave trade, a place where people still carry white umbrellas to weddings, and the only American town that spends millions each year on a costume party.
But there's a darker side. Buildings as old as the Louisiana Purchase are left to rot. The city's stately live oaks are being devoured by termites. Crime is so pervasive that few people host dinner parties without hiring security guards.
In a way, these qualities make New Orleans a perfect metaphor for the Super Bowl: It's a paean to commercialism and excess, a source of immense talent, a place of violence and spectacle.
As it prepares to host the Super Bowl, "the city that care forgot" faces a crucial moment. In coming years, New Orleans must patch up its eroding neighborhoods and catch the wave of economic development rolling across the South, while preserving the polyethnic gumbo that makes it unique.
"New Orleans is one of the few American cities that has its own culture," says Mayor Marc Morial. "If we can build on the city's natural resources and its diversity, that will be the key to our renaissance."
Indeed, that renaissance may be close at hand. Tourism here continues to boom, rising 6 percent last year, and a flood of conventioneers and marquee events like the Super Bowl offer New Orleans opportunities to tout itself on a national stage.
Last week, the respected Places Rated Almanac ranked the Crescent City in the top 10 percent of places to live in North America. And last month, the National Civic League named New Orleans an "All-American City."
The economy, while never brisk, has been bolstered in recent years by oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing international trade at the city's sprawling port, and revenues from legalized gaming. Mayor Morial and the city council enjoy unusually broad community support.
But challenges remain, and they are mighty. With high corporate taxes, a largely unskilled labor force, and serious deficiencies in public education and infrastructure, few companies are relocating to New Orleans. In addition, the city's experiment with casino gambling has been a disaster. Several riverboat casinos have failed, and a land-based casino built downtown lies vacant after initial gaming revenues proved miserly.
Then, there's the crime problem. In recent years, the city's homicide rate has been one of the nation's worst, and a steady progression of scandals involving corrupt and brutal police has prompted some lifelong residents to pack for the suburbs.
Although many people have confidence in the city's police chief, Richard Pennington, who was hired in 1994 to tackle the department's corruption problems and dampen criminal activity, their patience is running thin. Last month, a gunman burst into a pizzeria in the city's French Quarter and shot three people to death. The crime sparked a mass march on City Hall, and a city council meeting was interrupted by merchants with whistles and signs that read: "It's public safety, stupid."