Is New Orleans the new Detroit?

Sep 6, 2006 at 12:00 am

At one edge of this city's future are the extravagant visions of its boosters. Awash in federal cash, the New Orleans they dream of will be an arts-infused mecca for youthful risk-takers, a boomtown where entrepreneurs can repair to cool French Quarter bars in ancient buildings after a hard day of deal making.

At the other extreme are the gloomy predictions of the pessimists. New Orleans will be Detroit, they say, a sickly urban wasteland abandoned by the middle class. A moldering core will be surrounded by miles of vacant houses, with wide-open neighborhoods roamed by drug dealers and other criminals.The New York Times, Aug. 26, 2006


I've been warned.

By now you are so saturated with Hurricane Katrina coverage that you don't want to hear another word about it. Not one. After nearly two weeks of special reports, Spike Lee, pundits, etc., there's a good chance you've OD'd on it a year after the fact. The well of tears has run dry, you're sick and tired of being frustrated, and you want to move on to the next Big Story. Hell, there's nothing you can do about it anyway.

Like I said, I've been warned. And I do understand. We media folks have long had tendencies to do the Big Story to death in an attempt to outdo the next guy. But we must remember that this is not just another Big Story. It's one from which to learn.

If the issues raised by Katrina and its aftermath are not fully understood and addressed by our political and community leaders, and those of us who elect and follow them, then the national cost of such willful ignorance will be the widening of a dangerous and potentially irreparable fault — the one that already exists between rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban. I'm not sure if we've ever truly been the United States of America, but there was a time when we were at least giving the appearance of coming together, the appearance of understanding one another.

It seems those days are gone, which brings me to the Times quote above. Despite this so-called renaissance Detroit is enjoying with new downtown development, housing construction, etc., our city is still synonymous with urban decay and failure. And if it appears in The New York Times well, then, it must be true. We'd be fooling ourselves if we thought the quote only represented the opinion of one writer. Hell, you don't have to go to New York to hear opinions like that. I've heard similar comments from folks who live in the suburbs and in the D. Still, those of us who live and work in Detroit know it's much more than death, hopelessness and destruction. But, like they say, perception is reality.

It's nothing new to hear people trash Detroit. It's been our cross to bear for decades. What bothers me about the Times statement is how we're getting compared to a city stomped by the worst natural disaster since the hurricane that tore apart Okeechobee, Fla., in 1928. Hurricane Katrina killed 1,577 people — not just in New Orleans but throughout the entire Gulf Coast region — and wrecked 493,000 structures, as reported recently in The Christian Science Monitor. According to the Congressional Research Service, "Of the 700,000 people most affected by the hurricane, 2 in 5 were black, 1 in 5 was poor, and better than 1 in 10 was elderly."

Barely half of the city's 455,000 residents have returned since the hurricane. Recent stories have focused heavily on the amount of crime in the area and how that might dissuade displaced residents from coming home.

What's of greater concern than whether or not a bunch of poor folks ever return is how this image of violence will affect its tourism industry. And what about the wealthier residents who are needed to pay the significantly increased home prices and rents?

Detroit, you'll note, hasn't been attacked by any natural disasters recently. In many ways the city looks considerably better than it did a decade ago, at least in some areas. But none of this registers with the Times. As mentioned earlier, we are accustomed to reading and hearing ugly statements about ourselves. Happens all the time and sometimes we deserve it. But here's the thing about Detroit: For decades it has been viewed and written off as a poor, grubby, black city full of poor, grubby (and violent) black people who managed to destroy a once-thriving metropolis by doing the things that poor, grubby black people do. Once Detroit became a black city, it became a place to avoid at all costs.

When you say "Detroit" to a non-Detroiter, they'll most likely think of Motown records, cars, black folks, crime and murder. Motown is gone, and the auto industry is fading, so what does that leave?

Prior to Katrina, if you'd asked someone from, say, a small Utah town what they knew about New Orleans, chances are they'd say "Mardi Gras" or "French Quarter."

Until my first New Orleans visit more than a decade ago, I have to admit that I was one of those who'd bought into that polished and marketed image of the city. Those I knew who had visited the city talked only about how much fun they had at the clubs, how good the food was, and those who hit the Mardi Gras raved about its wild, crazy and endearingly strange atmosphere. Nobody ever uttered a word about the city's depth of poverty or that so many black people were living in wretched conditions. Even the black folks I knew who visited never mentioned it. I pictured New Orleans as one big French Quarter full of lively, interesting people and exotic experiences that you couldn't get anywhere else. But once I drove down there and made a few wrong turns on the city streets trying to find a buddy's house, the truth began to unravel rather quickly. New Orleans is primarily a poor, black city. It's like Detroit.

It was once thought of for its jazz, free-for-all parties, good times and great food, an exotic and alluring cultural stew. Used to be when you thought about New Orleans it made you smile.

Today? After Katrina? The truth of New Orleans has been unmasked for all to see. New Orleans is Detroit is New Orleans is Detroit. Perception is everything.


Civil wrongs: Yes, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative will be on the November ballot even though many of those who collected signatures to make sure it got on the ballot had no problem employing voter fraud to do so. I hate to say it, but based on what I read from U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow's ruling, which was issued last Tuesday, Aug. 29, he had no choice but to let the initiative be put to a public vote. What's great nevertheless is that he openly called out the MCRI folks for the scum they are. Tarnow put it on the record in no uncertain terms that although what they did was not in direct violation of the Voting Rights Act (voter fraud does not prevent disenfranchised communities from making their voices heard at the polls in November), they are still a bunch of bottom-feeding viruses and their breath stinks.

OK, maybe he didn't say it quite like that, but now that we know what manner of infection we're dealing with (for those of you who may not have known before) perhaps we can come up with the proper vaccination come November.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer and musician. Send comments to [email protected]