Return to the ‘City That Care Forgot’

Updated 12:07 PM EDT, Wed August 12, 2015

Story highlights

New Orleans has missed opportunities since Katrina, says CNN's Todd Leopold

Leopold, who grew up in the city, wonders if city is stagnating

Editor’s Note: Todd Leopold is a producer and writer with CNN Digital’s Features team. He spent his formative years in New Orleans (Og Snoclaf!) and returns regularly to visit his family and have lunch at the Camellia Grill. The views expressed in this essay are his own.

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A few weeks ago, I made a visit to New Orleans, the city where I grew up. It was hot and muggy – typical July weather – but there was no nonbottled water to be had in local eateries. The city was under a boil-water advisory because of an apparent power outage at one of its pumping stations.

As my wife and I made the rounds for meals, some of the restaurants we visited were conscientious: They had shut off their self-serve soda fountains or posted signs telling patrons that tap water and ice were unavailable.

But at others, it was blithely business as usual. Was the water OK? Had they prepped their kitchens appropriately?

Who cared?

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

It was, frankly, so New Orleans.

’America’s very own banana republic’

This city can be exasperating.

Some years ago, somebody gave New Orleans the nickname “The City That Care Forgot.” The phrase was, and remains, a double-edged sword: a testament to the hard-working and hard-living citizens of the Crescent City and an indicator of the “ah, whatever” shrug hanging over its corrupt politics, its ramshackle infrastructure and its belief that partying trumps all.

It’s a city that takes pride in its entertainment skills – and quietly engages in business as usual. A friend of mine, a native, once called New Orleans “America’s very own banana republic.” There is irony in this statement, given that New Orleans fruit merchant Sam Zemurray helped invent the actual banana republic in the early 20th century. Zemurray would probably find today’s New Orleans strangely familiar.

I thought the storm would change the city in some profound way. New Orleans nearly drowned. When it survived, I didn’t expect it to lose its colorful atmosphere or its joyful personality – in fact, in its Catholic soul, I thought those aspects of city life would be even more pronounced – but I did expect it to have more self-recognition. More fairness. More, dare I say it, competence.

But 10 years after Katrina, New Orleans remains its highly stratified self. I’m not sure it’s any different now than it was before the storm.

“In 2005, 38% of the children in New Orleans lived in poverty, 17 percentage points higher than the U.S. as a whole,” wrote Bill Quigley, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor and social justice advocate, in a blog post. “The most recent numbers show 39% of the children in New Orleans live in poverty, still 17 percentage points higher than the national average.”

I spoke to Calvin Mackie, an engineer and entrepreneur who’s been trying to change those numbers. Mackie, who has a doctorate in fluid dynamics, has been particularly focused on STEM education – part of which is teaching children about the role of water in the below-sea-level city – but has had his share of frustrations.

“The reason why New Orleans has been so stagnant is that it’s so incestuous,” Mackie tells me. “The incestuous politics, the incestuous business relationships, the incestuous clubs – all of that has to be mitigated to a certain degree.”

You’d think the billions of dollars pumped into southern Louisiana by the federal government ($71 billion, according to the New Orleans Advocate) – not to mention the national media spotlight – would have changed things. On the surface they did: there are new levees, a new streetcar line on Canal Street, a mammoth flood control and landscaping project on some Uptown avenues.

But the city is still a fragmented place, says Mackie.

“We had a chance to bring larger parts of the community into the fold, into participation in the economy, and we did not,” he says. “No efforts have been made to change the socioeconomic dynamics of the city.”

’This is the end of the world’

Of course, the city could have been a ghost town.

The hurricane narrowly missed a direct hit on New Orleans, but in the immediate aftermath the levees protecting the city fell apart. About 80% of the city, which lies up to 7 feet below sea level, was inundated in the ensuing flood.

You probably remember the images: helpless people stranded on highway overpasses. The Superdome roof, its paint peeled away like the skin of an onion. Boats of rescue workers rowing through the streets. Houses bearing a telltale spray-painted “X,” denoting damage and, perhaps, death.

The flooding in New Orleans was responsible for half the hurricane’s $100 billion-plus in destruction; the city lost more than 100,000 jobs in the immediate aftermath, and its population, measured at about 485,000 in the 2000 census, declined to 230,000 in 2006. (It now stands about 380,000.)

The storm killed 1,833 people. Almost 1,600 were in Louisiana. At least 400 of those drowned.

“All I kept thinking was, ‘Jesus, this is the end of the world. There’s nothing left,’ ” says Joe Gendusa, a former teacher and school administrator.

We’re sitting in a coffee shop on Magazine Street. The cafe is one of the conscientious ones; my lemonade has been made with bottled soda water. Magazine Street looks great, its 19th-century charm updated with numerous art galleries, restaurants, boutiques and shops.

Mr. Gendusa – I still have a hard time calling him “Joe” – was the teacher for a program that channeled a handful of local students into the city’s hotels, teaching them the ins and outs of the hospitality business. I was part of the program my senior year in high school, spending my afternoons in Mr. Gendusa’s class and then in a department of the Hyatt Regency. (Seeing the Hyatt’s broken windows and blowing curtains after the storm made my heart sink.)

The program was successful but, New Orleans being New Orleans, short-lived: A school board can’t measure the value of job training as easily as it can grades on a history test, so by the late ‘80s the hotel program was defunct.

Joe, a native New Orleanian, eventually retired from education and plowed his considerable local knowledge – he founded a New Orleans cocktail tour – into tourism. For years, he also did a Katrina tour for Gray Line, the sightseeing company. It was another way to educate the public, he says – not just visitors, but locals who worried about gawkers.

“We had to explain, do you realize these are people from all over the country? They sent money, they sent help down here. They only saw what they saw on television,” he says. “They deserve to see what really happened.”

Gendusa has some concerns about the city 10 years later. Tourism is thriving and some neighborhoods have recovered nicely. But the roadways are still abysmal – you could crack an axle on some of St. Charles’ cross streets. And the crime is unsettling. Even The New York Times Magazine recently weighed in with a story about law enforcement efforts in the French Quarter.

And yet, some of the dominant chatter is about renaming Confederate monuments.

“There’s more (discussion) about the Confederate monuments,” Gendusa says, “but we’ve got more important things on the table.”

A missed opportunity

I understand his thinking. Trying to make sense of modern-day New Orleans is a sucker’s game.

This is a city with so many natural advantages. It’s a huge port, the biggest on the Gulf Coast, at the foot of the nation’s mightiest river. It has more history than all but a handful of American cities. It has oil and seafood, gambling and manufacturing. The music is great. The cultural atmosphere is tolerant. OK, the summer weather is terrible – the city was built in a swamp, after all – but the rest of the year ranges from bearable to glorious.

But unlike many other U.S. port cities, New Orleans has never really overcome its past.

Why isn’t it San Francisco or Seattle, with their thriving high-tech industries? Why not Miami, a jumping-off point to Latin America? Or Pittsburgh, an inland port and river city that’s remade itself as one of the most livable places in the United States?

I remember reading an article that compared New Orleans with Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta at midcentury. Three cities about the same size, but Birmingham was held back by racism while Atlanta leaped forward with transportation.

New Orleans, for better and worse, wallowed in being New Orleans.

Listen: Being New Orleans can be a wonderful thing. That’s what the tourists are there to see. Nobody comes to Hollywood for the homeless people under the 101 or visits New York for the trash on the avenues. I can’t blame New Orleans’ city leaders for putting its best face forward.

But that’s what leaders were doing before Katrina. In that respect, the storm has been a missed opportunity.

This is a city that’s been living on its history at the expense of actually being a city. To be sure, that history is incredibly valuable and illuminating: remnants of the French and Spanish, the slaves and the slaveholders, the landed gentry and the working-class strivers. It’s there in the architecture, in the service sector, in the very soul of the place. No wonder the tourists come and the ships still pull in to port.

Katrina almost wiped that history out.

What do you do then? New Orleans has largely rebuilt the history, but little more.

It can be different. You can walk the Freedom Trail in Boston and still be part of a 21st-century metropolis. You don’t have to pick between Colonial Williamsburg or Tysons Corner, Virginia.

At the cost of hundreds of lives and billions of dollars in damage, the city got the chance for a fresh start. So it gave the public schools to charters, which haven’t been much better.

“We have not been reformed with, we’ve been reformed on,” says Mackie. “We’re now arguing about whose F is better.”

The police department, which had its problems before the storm, has 600 fewer officers today than it did in 2005 and has struggled to staff up.

The daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, did Pulitzer Prize-winning work in Katrina’s aftermath and had strong local support. But the glory was short-lived: Like many newspapers, it cut back daily print publication (despite howls of protest). It’s now to be printed in Alabama.

Katrina nearly killed the city. But it wasn’t exactly living well before.

Death and remembrance

So this month we’re remembering Katrina. It’s become part of history, like so much of New Orleans.

Ten years on, maybe it’s time the city starts welcoming the future, too.

Katrina’s dead still haunt New Orleans. Chris Rose, then a columnist for the Times-Picayune, called his wrenching book on the storm “1 Dead in Attic.” When Brian Williams wanted to flash his journalistic bona fides, he talked about seeing a body float down the street in the French Quarter.

It would be nice to honor their sacrifice. And that of the living, as well.

Mackie, the entrepreneur, was ready to leave, he told me. “I was out,” he says. He didn’t need New Orleans; he had options in Atlanta and Michigan.

Then he changed his mind.

Todd Leopold
Todd Leopold

“I just couldn’t see myself deserting the city and the people I cared about,” he says. “I refused to give up hope, too.” He’s optimistic that the influx of new faces – many from out of town, many bringing new energy to the sluggish city – will help.

It may take another 10 years to truly restore the city, says Gendusa. On the other hand, it’s inspiring it’s made it this far, he says.

“I think New Orleans showed itself to have a lot of spirit,” he says. “There were times when I didn’t think it was ever going to come back to what it is today. I’m very proud of the city that it’s done that.”

As for me, why should I care? I haven’t lived in town for more than 30 years. When I graduated high school, I couldn’t wait to leave. New Orleans – this sleepy, deteriorating, provincial place – was the past.

But the past has a funny way of getting into your blood. I don’t know if I realized this until the storm came. Three weeks afterward, I drove my mother back home there (where she still lives) and the sights – the muck, the destruction, the tarps and the silence (oh, the silence) – made me cry.

So maybe it’s time for a new attitude.

Maybe it’s time that care remembered.

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