Spray painted on a New Orleans wharf warehouse near the Lower Garden District: “Next time, we vote for somebody who cares.”
Nearby, inside the 79-year-old po’ boy restaurant, Domilise’s, Karen, a petite 63-year-old with deep family roots in Louisiana, says: “Our form of government doesn’t work anymore, and it’s not worth saving. When there’s no accountability and no responsibility, what good is it?”
The room nods in agreement. No one even bothers to narrow it down to a specific government. Every one seems to agree that it applies to all of them – federal, state and city.
There’s an air of revolution in the small, cramped restaurant. It’s not that such emotions are unusual for New Orleans. Rather, it’s the sense that people aren’t going to take it any more and mean to change things.
It’s a dramatic turnaround for New Orleans, where the air has always been heavy with the aroma of good food and with fatalism about public corruption. The city has always been the city equivalent of an Internet chat room, where people could reinvent themselves and their past. This time, the people seem determined instead to reinvent the city and its future. Activist groups are springing up with a regularity usually reserved for new restaurants.
After initial resistance, Governor Kathleen Blanco was met with a blistering assault from the Citizens for One Greater New Orleans, and she reversed course, leading the fight to reform the levee boards that had come to symbolize all that is wrong with New Orleans government – favoritism and corruption, ineffective and short-sighted.
The “One Voice” movement also got the attention of Mayor Ray Nagin, businessman turned government reformer, who supported the group early and often. However, he was assailed by many for his clumsy political rhetoric and his lack of understanding that being mayor is more about being a leader than a manager. Many of the grassroots activists are campaigning against his reelection.
But the most intense vitriol is aimed at the federal government, and rather than ebbing over time, it seems to grow in intensity as headline after headline chronicles federal officials who are out of touch and inept, giving Congressional elections new importance. Leading the charge is the Times-Picayune, a powerful reminder of the impact that exceptional newspaper reporting and impassioned editorial writing can have.
Why does this matter to Memphis?Because we’ve always had more in common with New Orleans than river and music. Frequently, we’ve looked to the Big Easy to glimpse into the future. Because of the strikingly similar demographics in Memphis and New Orleans, that city has always been the place where we could look to see what could happen if we didn’t deal with problems. No matter how bad poverty, teenage pregnancy, student performance, infant mortality or the disparity between white and black family incomes were in Memphis, we could always count on it being worse in New Orleans.
Now, all that has changed.
For the first time, we may be able to look to New Orleans for something other than a worst case scenario. Yes, there are the obvious lessons that apply to us, such as the need for a disaster communications system based on up-to-date, reliable technology; completion of the emergency preparedness plan that seems to be never ending and for seamless coordination between our troubled Homeland Security Office and our undermanned Emergency Management Office.
Beyond these kinds of lessons, however, New Orleans is a petri dish for innovations in city-building. The “big picture” issues pivotal to a 21st century New Orleans are just as pivotal to our city:
· Make its future known for smart growth, rational land use and high-quality design
· Create a shared vision for economic development that shifts the economy from low-skill to high-skill and from tourist-centric to talent-centric
· Enact a development code that binds together a city too often divided by race and that encourages density and mixed use, mixed income, walkable neighborhoods
· Capitalize better on universities as engines of economic growth and innovation and as neutral ground where unifying plans for the city can be developed
· Encourage newfound citizen involvement by formalizing a process that invites new voices and new people into the public process
· Build a wireless city where connectivity and communications – keys to the future - are omnipresent
· Anchor the future in today’s musicians by providing housing incentives, practice space and financing
· Build a “green,” environmentally sensitive ethos seen in planning, energy efficiency, construction codes, architecture and a network of parks and outdoor recreation
· Build a transportation system that emphasizes bicycles as much as streetcars and includes a light rail system
In the end, for New Orleans to succeed, it must raise the bar. Blown away with half of the city was citizen apathy, and Katrina left New Orleanians with little choice but to rethink how they want to live in their city and how to make it happen. Maybe Memphis can learn enough from its sister river city to start building a future of innovation on our own. Pre-earthquake.