APPEL: Just How Far Does Culture Take New Orleans?

In a recent interview I was asked about my thoughts on the future of New Orleans. To clarify my answer, I had to define the parameters that I consider critical in such an answer.

My fundamental belief is that cities exist and prosper only if there is a continuing economic motivation for people to band together into a political structure that we call a city. If its economic raison d’etre becomes obsolete a city will slowly decay and its citizens will abandon it, led by the more educated and ambitious first, until its burned-out core will be highly poverty stricken and government reliant.

We always hear our people rave that New Orleans is a great city because of its culture. I suppose by that they mean things like Mardi Gras, festivals, restaurants, and a general sense of anything goes. To them culture seems all, but in fact culture is but one attribute, one element of many, that defines a city’s success as an institution. It does not in itself define a city’s importance or accomplishment.

Beside culture there are other attributes that must be evaluated. For instance, my list includes educational attainment, poverty level, social ills, business base, and economic opportunity as meaningful descriptors when evaluating a city.

To me the success of a city is a balance of many such attributes. Culture (in the positive sense) is certainly attractive and sought after. I have been in many cities where the people are highly educated, low poverty, and highly prosperous but that are just outright boring. So, on my list of balanced parameters I would say that New Orleans ranks high for culture.

Unfortunately, New Orleans’ positive attribute rankings declines rapidly after culture is considered. Clearly in the areas of education, social ills, poverty, business base, and economic opportunity New Orleans falls into a very low tier when compared to other American cities of comparable size.

As I noted in my interview, this is especially disturbing because as recently as the late 1970’s this was not so, New Orleans was a boom town and the future appeared bright.

Attributes such as I listed are measures of a city’s long-term viability. They define whether there is a reasonable expectation that a city will remain relevant going forward. They can be extrapolated into a measure of whether it is attractive to in-migration of those looking for opportunity, or of out-migration of those fleeing a lack of opportunity.

I am of the belief that due to deep structural problems New Orleans’ potential for positive changes to its attributes in the short term is not good. With the loss of its business base in the 1980’s the City lost its critical mass of economic activity, the full implication of have not be fully appreciated until now, when its economy reached rock bottom with the collapse of tourism due to COVID19. So, my answer to the interviewer was that without major change, the City would continue to decline, to see poverty and social ills increase, for the foreseeable future. Not a very positive response, but one based upon quantitative measures, not based upon an emotional reliance on a love for culture.

But and this was my big “but,” if the City’s leaders, political, civic, and business, recognized the very real implications of doing nothing, then perhaps a different future in the longer term could be had.

To avert the inevitability of decline, the City will have to adopt a pro-growth strategy, not unlike what so many other New South cities over the last few decades have done. That means that it must find a favorable balance between the positive aspects of its culture, while at the same time abandoning the policies that, since the end of its last boom around 1980, have literally destroyed its ability to compete for economic prosperity.

Nothing is written in stone. When people want to change their future they can, but they must have to want to. They must be led by trusted politicians who have an unselfish vision of the opportunities offered by a different way. They must hear the truth, that culture is great, but it does not buy groceries or provide for a nicer home. They must be informed that the changes needed will not provide instant gratification, they will take time. And they must know that change will never happen unless the City starts to make change.

This was my message to the interviewer. That all things are possible but to do the same things over and over and expect a different outcome is absolutely the measure of insanity.

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