On the cover of the New Orleans Times-Picayune on a Tuesday not so very long ago, a headline announced a massive and visionary government plan to replace thousands of dilapidated housing units with newly constructed apartments boasting modern amenities and services such as childcare and community centers. Next to that story was a photograph of the public hospital for the city’s poor and uninsured rising up against the skyline with the winding Mississippi behind it. The headlines announced, respectively, “City Takes Steps to Meet Federal Regulations for Slum Clearance: $8,000,000 to $9,000,000 Expected to Be Spent Here by Federal Agency on New Dwellings” and “Workmen Fashion Girders Into Framework for New Charity Hospital.”
This edition of the paper arrived on doorsteps on Tuesday, February 15, 1938. These were heady days for New Orleans, when the federal and state governments were harnessing their full powers to serve the needs of the people. I am certain that the Times-Picayune readers, having suffered through years of turmoil and depression, were greatly relieved at the prospect of a helping hand.
I wasn’t in New Orleans to read those long-ago stories and feel the glow of support and optimism that radiated from them. The people in charge–Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House and Senator Robert Wagner of New York leading the Senate to pass the Housing Act of 1937 (not to mention populist Governor Huey Long, whose spirit still loomed large in the state Capitol)–were men who believed in the power of the government to transform and better the lives of Americans. (Long also believed in the bullying power of government to pursue his own ends, but that’s another story, equally relevant to Louisiana’s current plight.)
Seventy years later, two years out from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians no longer bother looking for such headlines. Instead, we read “New Orleans Recovery Is Slowed by Closed Hospitals,” “Sewerage and Water Board System Worse Than Ever, But No Money to Fix It” and “Largely Alone, Pioneers Reclaim New Orleans.”
And we are worried. It has become clear that government maladministration–spawned by disinvestment in public goods by successive fiscally conservative administrations hostile to the notion of government–caused the collapse of the levees that were supposed to protect the city. And as passionately as New Orleanians want our city to recover, we are not up to repairing the levees ourselves, or restoring the wetlands, or moving thousands of families from flood-prone land drained by the Army Corps of Engineers at public expense for the benefit of development companies. These matters go far beyond the capacity of the rugged individuals who are New Orleans’s returned citizens.
But what is even more troubling than our government’s failure to address the causes and consequences of the breach of our levees is the cynical government inaction that allowed the horrors that the storm exposed–sickening urban poverty and despair–to entrench themselves in New Orleans.
On this score, even if your town is built safely on the most solid rocks, you should be worried too. Because for all of New Orleans’s exceptionality, Americans don’t need to travel to the city to see its worst aspects. Instead, they can walk out their doors and find the closest neighborhood with failing public schools, staggering levels of violence on the streets, crumbling housing and low life expectancy. They may not hear jazz music or see rows of shotgun houses, but they will have found New Orleans, more or less–or at least the New Orleans that we all must confront if we are to live in a country that even closely approximates our ideals.
In this way, New Orleans is a bellwether for American democracy–a canary in a coal mine–not because of what makes us culturally or geographically unique but because of what makes us exemplary.
Decades ago, President Roosevelt, in a similar time of crisis, recognized the fundamental question that such circumstances invoke in a manner that is just as applicable today, if unuttered by our leaders: “More and more, those who are victims of dislocations and defects of our social and economic life are beginning to ask…why government cannot and should not act to protect its citizens from disaster.” He answered the question with the New Deal, the ideological opposite of the mode of governance that has recently dominated in this country. Down here in New Orleans, we could use some of that old-fashioned visionary and optimistic leadership to begin to address our city’s ills. And like the canary in a coal mine, if the people of this country continue to avert their eyes from our struggle, from our gasping for life, they may well be next.