The vast grid of streets here in New Orleans, laid out long ago on grassy bottomland near a waterway, remains eerily devoid of houses. Modest bungalows were ripped from their moorings by the foul, murderous floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina three and a half years ago. Eventually, the storm-tossed homes were torn down and carted away. Today, cinderblock foundations dot brush-covered lots like archeological remains. Live oaks line sidewalks upon which no one walks to school, or rides a bike, or runs to the corner store.
This is what you see when you drive east out Claiborne Avenue from downtown New Orleans, out past ramshackle streets named Piety and Desire (the streetcar tracks were paved over long ago), across the Industrial Canal bridge and down into the famously beleaguered and still largely abandoned Lower Ninth Ward.
Yes, there is progress: new homes, on taller concrete stilts and therefore eligible for flood insurance, sprout here and there, like dandelions on a lawn. (A few are gaudy, geometric showpieces with huge solar panels. The locals call them "Brad Pitt Houses," since they were built with the actor's support.) The library is open, as is a citizens' service center and a very few shops.
Still, if President Obama wants a vivid place in which to dramatize American economic plight as he sells his recovery package, he should come here, to this still-struggling city, and to the Lower Ninth. The president is on the road, visiting hard-hit towns in traditionally Red States. It's a dramatic way to sell his plan—and to remind congressional Republicans that they oppose him at their peril. Well, Louisiana is such a Red state, where Obama had hoped to win last year.
And even though New Orleans is a special case, it is a case that must not be forgotten. Indeed, in the campaign, Obama promised he'd remember. Let's see how well he upholds that vow. And Obama should not forget that George Bush's glaring failure of leadership in the aftermath of Katrina is a chief reason why Obama, who sought to embody calm competence and attention to detail, is president.
Scott Cowen, the dynamic president of Tulane University here, is watching congressional action on the stimulus package closely. Even before Katrina, he had been drawn into various civic concerns, notably public elementary and secondary education. He championed charter schools for the city system, and the changes are making a difference. But the perpetually cash-short city desperately needs what Obama wants—federal money to rebuild crumbling local schools. The Senate cut the measure out. Cowen wants it back in.
As for the city as a whole, Cowen—who has a management background and a degree in economics—says that New Orleans is about "70 percent back." More affluent and higher-ground areas are doing decently; but 30 percent of the "land mass" of the city and parish remain in dire need. Roughly 30 percent of the pre-Katrina population has not come back, he adds. "We still have a long way to go."
If Katrina had an upside, Cowen says, it was this: after decades, if not centuries, of civic lassitude—a sense that nothing in the beleaguered and often mismanaged tropical city could change, or even should change—Katrina forced the locals to hit the reset button. "It forced us to realize that we've got to change to survive," Cowen says.
Convention and tourism traffic, the heart of the local economy, has come back somewhat, though planners of mega-meetings remain leery of another storm, and the conventioneers who do come are not always as upscale as in the past. Now, just as the city claws back, it is feeling the effects of another hurricane—the global credit crunch and recession. A sure sign: there is widespread talk of fewer krewes at Mardi Gras this year.
And yet, like the live oaks that survived the flood, people here are a hearty breed. If the city comes all the way back, it will be because of people such as the writer Julia Reed (a NEWSWEEK contributing editor), and her husband, lawyer John Pearce. Their renovated book-lined home in the Garden District (she wrote a hilarious book about the re-do) is a testament to the New Orleans ideal of graciousness and artistic achievement; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which she helps to run, is becoming a major stop of the national gallery circuit.
And if the Ninth Ward makes it back, it will be because of the will and heart of people who managed to avoid being flooded out, or who have now returned, or who are becoming urban pioneers. I am thinking in particular of one survivor I met named Harold. Standing in the side yard of his brick bungalow on an otherwise empty block of Tupelo Street, he is 69 years old, with blue eyes and skin the color of weathered copper. He wore a bright red bandana shaped in the form of a bishop's miter, and the look of a man who had seen everything in life. He had been a longshoreman, and a union man, and had reared a family in the home that he had built the home himself in 1962, at what he assumed was the dawn of a new era, not only in Louisiana, but also in America. The Kennedys were in power; the ideas of Harold's hero—Franklin Delano Roosevelt—were still fresh and largely unchallenged. "The idea was that government could do things for working people," he says. The neighborhood was proud and alive and a generation of men and women reared children with a sense of hope.
His home had survived, he explains, because the brick structure had been "pinned to the slab" when it was built. The lives of working families need similar anchoring, Harold says, of the kind that only government can provide. "The big corporations aren't going to do it," he says. "The foreign countries are taking our jobs away. They're not to going to pay into our Social Security!
"What we need here in this neighborhood is more government help. The bankers up in New York take care of themselves—and they are doing it at my expense! If they get loans, why can't we?"
Good question, and the "stimulus package" doesn't answer it.