I missed these pieces when they first came out, but they’re worth taking together. First, there’s Michael Barone’s reflection on what’s (economically) worth rebuilding in New Orleans. Then there’s Barone’s comparison of population growth in New Orleans, Houston, and Dallas. The short of it is that while the metro areas were once roughly comparable, for the past 25 years NOLA’s population has stagnated, while Houston and Dallas have each added northward of 2 million people. Barone points us to two pieces by Joel Kotkin. Here’s the conclusion of the first piece:
Instead of serving as a major commercial and entrepreneurial center, New Orleans’ dominant industry lies not in creating its future but selling its past, much of which now sits underwater. Tourism defines contemporary New Orleans’ economy more than its still-large port, or its remaining industry, or its energy production. Although there is nothing wrong, per se, in being a tourist town, it is not an industry that attracts high-wage jobs; and tends to create a highly bifurcated social structure. This can be seen in New Orleans’ perennially high rates of underemployment, crime and poverty. The murder rate is 10 times the national average.
Perhaps worse, there seems to be some basic hostility in New Orleans to the very idea of an economic renaissance and growth. When I published rankings of the best cities for business for Inc. Magazine last year, New Orleans’ middling performance created consternation at one local daily newspaper -- for not being bad enough. Such negative attitudes may pose the biggest problem as the city begins to rebuild. Rather than imagine anything better, the temptation among some may well be to take the path of least resistance, restoring or reconstructing past icons in order to salvage the tourism-based economy.
A different, and more promising, approach might be to consider an "attitude adjustment." Instead of settling into its old role as a destination for conventioneers, masqueraders and weekend revelers, perhaps the city’s leaders can think about reviving the entrepreneurial spirit that made New Orleans a lure to the ambitious in its most glorious past.
Here are the central paragraphs of the second:
the tourism/entertainment industry is constantly under pressure from competitors. Once, being the Big Easy in the Bible Belt gave New Orleans a trademark advantage. But the spread of gambling along the Gulf has eroded that semi-sinful allure. Mississippi’s flattened casinos, with their massive private investment, will almost certainly rise years ahead of New Orleans’ touristic icons.
For all these reasons, New Orleans should take its destruction as an opportunity to change course. There is no law that says a Southern city must be forever undereducated, impoverished, corrupt and regressive. Instead of trying to refashion what wasn’t working, New Orleans should craft a future for itself as a better, more progressive metropolis.
Look a few hundred miles to the west, at Houston ¯ a well-run city with a widely diversified economy. Without much in the way of old culture, charm or tradition, it has far outshone New Orleans as a beacon for enterprising migrants from other countries as well as other parts of the United States ¯ including New Orleans.
Houston has succeeded by sticking to the basics, by focusing on the practical aspects of urbanism rather than the glamorous. Under the inspired leadership of former Mayor Bob Lanier and the current chief executive, Bill White, the city has invested heavily in port facilities, drainage, sanitation, freeways and other infrastructure.
Obviously, economic and population growth aren’t everything; Kotkin and Barone are as aware of that as the next guys. And no one says you have to trade Bourbon Street for what Joel Garreau once called the "blade runner landscape" of Houston. But much of New Orleans’ misery didn’t begin with the flood, and is intimately connected with a lack of attention to economic dynamism, as
this piece by Michael Novak suggests.
I don’t want to incur Quin Hillyer’s ire, but a reborn New Orleans ought to look forward while making every effort to preserve those elements of its past that can be preserved. Otherwise, its downward (I almost wrote "death") spiral will continue, with vulnerable people in a vulnerable city simply hoping that the next big hurricane never comes.
Update: Michael DeBow, wholl be at Oglethorpe on Monday, has more links on which to chew.