Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Orleanians Never Learned the Macarena?

Often, I find myself discussing New Orleans with friends of mine from Philadelphia. I am fond of one phrase that is especially evocative for that particular audience and have repeated it often in conversation.

"New Orleans never had a 1990s."

It's true. While other urban areas rode the wave of the economic boom of the decade, New Orleans lost the last remnants of its hydrocarbon industry to Houston.

My Philadelphia friends shudder when I say that because we remember what Philadelphia was like as it emerged from the Darkest Ages: crack, crime, Rizzocrats, and the Move bombing. Certainly many problems still exist in Philadelphia and I don't wish to speak of it as if all of its problems are fixed and forgotten - certainly that is not the case.

Still, during the 1990s, at least some things about Philadelphia changed for the better. The national economy improved and Mayor Ed Rendell, who has now sold out the city to his casino friends as Governor, possessed, at the time, the near-perfect combination of optimistic vision and shrewd political game-playing that was required of anyone hoping to get something done in a machine city. There was a new energy, community-based organizations were smiled upon and some formerly stagnant neighborhoods became popular. The city seemed to reverse the suburban exodus. Maybe there was too much gentrification. As bad as the city needed to restore an upper middle class tax base, I'd argue things got way out of hand in Queen Village, where I was raised. Nonetheless, it's pretty tough to argue that Philadelphia didn't emerge from the 1990s with a positive outlook.

Maybe most of all, then-Mayor Rendell was able to cultivate a tremendous friendship with President Clinton. Perhaps this combined with the recognition that the Philadelphia area held the key to Pennsylvania in state and national politics to allow national money to flow into the city via the Clinton-Gore urban initiatives.

Philadelphia was a round one federal empowerment zone. So too was Camden, New Jersey, right across the Delaware River. This represented a huge influx of federal help in the form of money and expertise. The first round designated empowerment zones in 72 communities in ten urban centers in late 1994. Round two communities, announced in 1999, added another 15 metro areas.

New Orleans, perhaps because it lacked the competent local political leadership that federal officials were looking to work with, was left out of both rounds and did not receive money.

So while other urban communities looked forward to the 21st Century, Orleans Parish watched as its economy became less diverse, as its tax base continued to move across local bodies of water.

Let's revisit the Morial administration. Tell me what happened here in the 1990s. Is the extremely general impression that I give mostly accurate? What are the other reasons New Orleans was left out of the greatest period of prosperity in American history?


jeffrey said...

Jesus, E. I can't even begin to tackle this until we get to some point where we're at least speaking the same language.

In one sense you're correct that the state of the New Orleans economy during the Second Gilded Age was poor relative to that of the rest of the nation... which was bad to begin with. By this time, the long decay of the American industrial economy had resulted in the widest gap between rich and poor since before the depression. I think the fact that this stagnating trend had been in place for an entire generation by the 90s left some observers... (particularly amongst the young... particularly amongst the young who don't know much history... particularly amongst young pro-Clinton partisan hacks who lived comfortably enough to drink the ascendant corporate kool-aid)... unable or unwilling to see things as they were... or still are.

Maybe I'm not being fair, though. Maybe in New Orleans it was easier to see. By the 90s, New Orleans had already become a hollow shell of a city transformed into a vulgar playground for insufferable Yuppies be they conventioning heart surgeons or vacationing Jazzfesters. If you wanted to live and work in NOLA you either went to law school and became one of these people or you kissed their condescending asses for whatever crappy living you were afforded. The NOLA-by-Disney currently being "re-imagined" by the consultantocracy is really only a continuation of what was already happening accelerated by circumstances.

The point is yes there was a 1990s here. And it was... as any time in New Orleans tends to be... far less phony than that time in the rest of the country.

But the fact that you phrase the question assuming that the 1990s were "greatest period of prosperity in American history" is indicative of how far off we are from understanding each other here.

E said...

I should have put the phrase "greatest period of prosperity in american history in quotes" because certainly I recognize that that characterization is a generous interpretation put forth by those that point to the economic boom that did indeed occur as uniformly distributed - which is something that I absolutely reject.

While I have great personal disdain for the cultural erosion caused by gentrification and yuppie-ization, and remember that I come from a Philadelphia neighborhood badly victimized by those phenomenon, it is hard for me to dismiss the disparate economic gains of the 1990s as 100% universally bad or irrelevant for the city of Philadelphia or ordinary people of Philadelphia regardless of race and class. We benefited from those years, the city benefited from those years, even if I have problems with the uneven distribution of those benefits.

New Orleans missed out on a lot of money that could have gone toward useful projects and New Orleans was left out of the 90s economic boom disproportionately to other poor urban communities as a result of the continued industrial decay that had been occurring for decades AND the inability of New Orleans' own local leadership to diversify the economy beyond tourism.

Now if you want to argue that New Orleans local leadership would have spent that money foolishly on the same kind of ridiculous golf course projects currently in the pipeline - I'd be hard pressed to dispute that assumption.

But New Orleans missed out on the money - both from direct federal intervention AND the national economic wave that other cities were able to take SOME advantage of to make SOME positive investments in their eroded urban cores.

You're right to call me out on that one phrase, it serves my points better if its in quotes. I would however, argue that the "second gilded age" better describes the Bush years than the Clinton years, because at least during the Clinton years, real middle class incomes rose relative to inflation.

Puddinhead said...

If those damned yuppies and middle-class types would just mail their money back into the city instead of going and choosing depressed neighborhoods and actually moving into the city....well, then we could all be poor, culturally pure, and well-fed. Without those annoying non-ethnic types living around us.

Leigh C. said...

If you're talking about the oil industry here, that moved out of this area around the 1980's. As somebody who moved here in the later part of the '90's and got married to somebody who moved here a year later, this place was, and still is, stone cold solid tourist dollar town. The 90's here was when that really solidified and seriously influenced EVERY decision made in city government.

In the end, 9-11 had more of an effect on this town initially than the bursting of the dot.com bubble because it affected what makes this town tick. Period.

oyster said...

"particularly amongst young pro-Clinton partisan hacks who lived comfortably enough to drink the ascendant corporate kool-aid"

I guess I fit that bill, pretty much, although I came here in 96 and lived for a year without power (which sux, I don't advise) so I don't know how "comfortable" I was living then. But even when I was sweating in the dark that summer, I realized that creating 23 million jobs during the Clinton term was nothing to sneeze at, and that we'd never see the "return" of some imaginary golden age of industrial production-- especially in a place like N.O., that never knew it-- protectionist tariffs or not. It's not sipping the kool-aid to prefer Rubinomics to Supply Side fantacists and GOP greedheads. I'm not saying the political game offers much choice, but if you see no difference between Clinton and Bush-- I can't help you.

The Morial administration was corrupt, and took its cut, and everyone either took part or played along. The biggest thing in New Orleans was the drop in violent crime-- it went from apocalyptic (early 90's), to merely pretty damn bad. Correspondingly, in Uptown, real estate prices began rising after the market cratered in early 92 or so. Magazine became more "boutiquer" and Jacque-Imo's set up shop on Oak and led the Magazinification of that street.

But as far as "a new energy" or "community-based organizations being smiled upon" or "stagnant neighborhoods" becoming popular or the "suburban exodus" being reversed... there was only rare glimmers of such things. After the political and economic nadir of the late eighties and early nineties, I suppose it seemed better here, but while New Orleans was only getting "less bad" in these areas, towns like Atlanta and Houston were flourishing, economically.

As a general point, I've found it unhelpful to view Louisiana in terms of "decades", or compare it to other city's timelines. Economically, LA's "boom/bust" cycle is not coordinated well with the rest of the country. Politically, it's very much the same condition-- we're the perpetual contrarian, down here.

Jeffrey sometimes seems to think LA is, politically, ahead of the national curve in some ways, whereas I think it's far behind it. Either way, it's so far askew that you're dealing with a different kettle of fish. There's no easy comparison models to the Big (not so) Easy.

E said...

And I guess that was my point, while other cities were really flourishing in a noticeable and measurable sense, New Orleans was "slightly less bad."

The big drop in crime could easily be attributable to the national decline that gave some breathing room to cities like New York and Philadelphia.

I should qualify my statement that Philadelphia reversed the suburban exodus in the 90s. I think statistically this didn't begin to occur until the last part of the decade - but it continues to this day. Condo construction is a very noticeable economy that exists as a result of the Rendell/Clinton momentum - certainly that was a RELATIVELY minor movement in New Orleans before the storm.

(and Jeffrey, I HATE that there are condos going up in Center City Philadelphia, but there is a lot of money coming back into the city that is doing some good things as well)

I'd have to agree with Oyster's point about the usefulness of breaking down NOLA into decades. I think it is not all that useful to break down any history in that arbitrary fashion. I was only hoping to discuss how New Orleans "took advantage" of the Clinton economy relative to other cities.

Where New Orleans lost its oil in the 80s, Northern cities were losing the remnants of their manufacturing economies. The difference was that NOLA got a boom out of oil in the 70s that was not matched by a similar manufacturing temporary turnaround up north.

Leigh, that's a great point about 9/11.

In the end, however, I think comparing New Orleans to other cities is something we should do more often, not less often. Even cities as unique as New Orleans have a lot in common with cities like New York and Philadelphia and Detroit. Discussing how other cities have dealt with economic development and social challenges can only be helpful.