Several stories appeared in the news last week about New Orleans and its abysmal violent crime rate. In the first eight days of 2007, there were nine murders in New Orleans. In the first week of 2007, there was one day on which six people were murdered.
These murders are not all gang related affairs either. Dr. Paul Gailiunas’ runs a health clinic that serves some of the poorest residents of New Orleans. Last week, intruders broke into his home, shot and killed his wife and shot him three times while he was holding their baby (read about the tragic story here). This murder and all the others have occurred despite the presence of over 300 national guardsmen patroling the streets of New Orleans.
Needless to say, the violence in the city has gotten out of hand, so much so that thousands marched on New Orleans’ city hall last Thursday to protest the violence that has claimed the lives of so many already this year (see story). Dr. Howard Osofsky, chairman of psychiatry at the LSU Health Sciences Center, suggests that to some extent Hurricane Katrina is to blame for the recent spike in killings. He says,
â€œThe normal support structures for many parts of the community are gone. The churches, the community centers, the families and people in neighborhoods that all have a governing affect on residents are gone in many cases.â€
In other words, the conscience of the community is gone. And this kind of analysis of the situation is extremely rare. It’s not just that the infrastructure still needs rebuilding. It’s not just that the city’s economy is taking a hit because of lagging tourism (on which it’s economy is built). There is a crisis of character among some of the population, and this is the root cause of the crime wave.
But this crisis did not result from Hurricane Katrina. The city was struggling well before the hurricane. As Nicole Gelinas presciently observed over a year and a half ago:
“The truth is that even on a normal day, New Orleans is a sad city. Sure, tourists think New Orleans is fun: you can drink and hop from strip club to strip club all night on Bourbon Street, and gamble all your money away at Harrahâ€™s. But the cityâ€™s decline over the past three decades has left it impoverished and lacking the resources to build its economy from within…
“The cityâ€™s government has long suffered from incompetence and corruption. Just weeks before Katrina, federal officials indicted associates of the former mayor, Marc Morial, for alleged kickbacks and contract fraud. Morial did nothing to attract diversified private investment to his impoverished city during the greatest economic boom of the modern era…
“New Orleans teems with crime, and the NOPD canâ€™t keep order on a good day. Former commissioner Richard Pennington brought New Orleansâ€™ crime rate down from its peak during the mid-1990s. But since Penningtonâ€™s departure, crime rates have soared, to ten times the national average. The NOPD might have hundreds of decent officers, but it has a well-deserved institutional image as corrupt, brutal, and incompetent.
“How will New Orleansâ€™ economy recover from Katrina? Apart from some pass-through oil infrastructure, the cityâ€™s economy is utterly dependent on tourism. After the cityâ€™s mainstay oil industry decamped to Texas nearly a generation ago, New Orleans didnâ€™t do the difficult work of cutting crime, educating illiterate citizens, and attracting new industries to the city. New Orleans became merely a convention and tourism economy, selling itself to visitors to survive, and over time it has only increased its economic dependence on outsiders. The fateful error of that strategy will become clearer in the next few months…
“New Orleans has experienced a steady brain drain and fiscal drain for decades, as affluent corporations and individuals have fled, leaving behind a large population of people dependent on the government. Socially, New Orleans is one of Americaâ€™s last helpless citiesâ€”just at the moment when it must do all it can to help itself survive.”
I am a native Louisianian. My parents and many of my dear friends still live there. So I have a personal interest in the fortunes of what used to be our states’ leading city. Mayor Ray Nagin seems to believe that if New Orleans could become the “party town” destination for tourists that it used to be, then everything would be alright in New Orleans. I disagree.
The decadence of the “party town” mentality is precisely why the city is struggling now to survive. You can build a tourist destination with such a mindset, but you can’t build a healthy city. I hope for better things for New Orleans because right now the city is anything but the “Big Easy.”