'The City That Care Forgot' Plays Catch-Up With South

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

"Every problem New Orleans faces must be viewed through the prism of violent crime," says Susan Howell, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of New Orleans. "This is a city under siege."

After the French Quarter shooting last month, the city council voted to increase the commission it charges the city's energy provider, a move that will generate $4 million in revenue that will be added to the police budget. Most of the money will be used to buy new equipment and raise starting pay for police here, which has historically been the lowest of any major US city.

But the ability of civic leaders to manage the crime situation has been hampered by racial divisions. According to Silas Lee, a political scientist at Xavier University, all but 15 of the city's 350 homicide victims last year were black, and many members of the city's African-American community complain that more attention is paid to crimes against whites or tourists.

In a city that's 70 percent black - up from about 50 percent in the mid-1980s - elected officials are often torn between concentrating law-enforcement resources in black neighborhoods or focusing on predominantly white tourist areas like the French Quarter.

"We used to have 100 police in the Quarter," says Sandy Miller, head of a citizens group and a 25-year resident of this European oasis, "now it's below 50, and the criminals know this. There's an atmosphere of lawlessness here that I've never seen before."

To Ms. Miller, the city's failure to protect tourist areas could ultimately drive visitors away, worsening the city's cash crunch. In a bid to increase pressure on the city government, some French Quarter merchants have erected signs warning tourists that they are entering a "high-crime area."

In some ways, however, the city's struggles have yielded unexpected benefits - or "lagniappe" in local parlance. Many civic-minded New Orleanians, from Mayor Morial to Ms. Miller, agree that the city's woes have forced diverse groups to shelve their prejudices and work together.

In 1995, the city passed a millage, or tax, aimed at improving infrastructure, sprucing up parks and public spaces, renovating schools, and constructing a new stadium across from the Superdome that could lure professional baseball and basketball teams.

If these efforts do improve the quality of life in New Orleans, and stem the tide of middle-class blacks and whites moving to the suburbs, this jewel box on the Mississippi River could find its historic gaiety and optimism restored. If not, it could continue its ominous drift into history's backwater.

"Disneyland can re-create the French Quarter," says Patrick Klotz, an attorney who represents several New Orleans civic groups, "but the reason New Orleans is such a tourist attraction is that people actually live here. Take away the neighborhoods, and it might as well be a theme park."

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