A small controversy actually has a big meaning that illustrates the perils of New Orleans strangling the new ethos that has tried to germinate in the moribund city and reverse its declining fortunes.
As part of the city’s biggest redevelopment project ever, the siting of the new Medical Center of Louisiana – New Orleans in Mid City, this claimed a regrettable casualty, the Deutsches Haus, the headquarters for a German cultural organization since the 1920s, which not only, among other things, delivers an outstanding Oktoberfest celebration annually but also proved a haven for beer aesthetes before predilection for that kind of frothy brew expanded among the public in the last couple of decades. It has been in exile the past few years in Metairie but has secured a location (with actually enough parking spaces) somewhat farther north of its old spot along Bayou St. John, and has gotten up the funding and design for a new complex.
However, as required, the design had to be submitted to the City Planning Commission, which tepidly received the request and gave it only provisional approval. Its staff found it problematic because it was too “Germanic,” for which in that area “there’s not really a precedent,” and sent back suggested architectural changes to the organization.
One might guess that a Germanic-themed organization might want a building that fit its weltanschauung. And is it such an insult to the overall surrounding architecture that such a structure be verboten? Surely the very diversity that lends to a more cosmopolitan environment would be desired.
Sadly, this isn’t the only or even close to most important instance of where New Orleans lapses into its unofficial motto of “there’s the right way, the wrong way, and the New Orleans way” that a century ago seemed quaint and to this day remains somewhat charming, but increasingly became a liability after World War II. It was the fly-in-amber quality that led the city to hemorrhage jobs, people, and wealth into the 21st century and multiply in their place crime and poverty; if not for the petroleum industry, the retrenchment might have been on the scale of present-day Detroit.
Then the hurricane disasters of 2005 hit and, for all the destruction and misery this wrought, the silver lining from it all was this disrupted the encased attitudes of city leaders of all avenues – political, social, religious, and business – leaving an opportunity for fresh entrepreneurs with different ideas about how to create organizations, social structures, and economies. With the mentality that a frontier had opened up, younger, idea-oriented people began descending on the city, providing an economic shot in the arm based much more on the ongoing evolution into an information-based economy – and helping it regain its population at a faster rate than otherwise would have happened.
Still, the old attitudes, which had aged into a general governmental heavy-handedness designed to keep these in place, have not evolved away, and this incident is minor compared to recent others that far more profoundly affect daily life and commerce in the city. Rideshare companies such as Uber have met resistance in New Orleans not only because they threaten the car hire industry monopoly, but also because the government-supported structures around cab/limousine service are so thoroughly anti-consumer. For months, a debate has raged around short-term rental services, such as those facilitated byAirbnb, as the city’s hotel industry has mobilized around keeping laws licensing provision of this service that act more as a control of the marketplace than anything else of value.
In a different era, at least a plausible argument could have been waged about allowing barriers to entry to and provider control of supply of these marketplaces. Then, with the buyer having so little information about the quality of service provided and pricing relative to that, substantial regulation was a method that signaled information about these aspects. But with the emergence of extremely inexpensive and voluminous channels by which to deliver this kind of data to consumers, barriers to entry beyond the most minimal make little sense and serve only to privilege those part of the syndicate protected by these rules at the expense of both consumer and non-members who wish to provide the service.
Reassertion of that larger universe of attitudes – that in New Orleans things always have been done a certain way, with government as the enforcer – as exemplified in these instances threatens to stifle cultural evolution that could reverse the city’s increasing irrelevance into museum piece status to which it has been sliding. Lightening government’s touch in regulation of architecture, hire service, and short-term accommodations, among many other areas, to a minimal level would encourage not only new creative forces to improve life in the city but also would reinforce existing areas of value, such as tourism. If Mayor Mitch Landrieu truly believes his present post is his dream job, he can make it dreamier for everyone by using his authority to back government off to usher in the transformation jumpstarted from the wreckage of 2005.