Monday, April 03, 2006

Back from New Orleans 

My thanks to Jim for filling in for me last week. Part of my absence was due to a conference in New Orleans I attended over the weekend with #1 son, who turned 21 and I thought would like to see the Quarter. I'm glad I took him, because the Quarter was about the only thing running normally there.

I won't give you a long post on what's wrong with New Orleans, because one weekend in town doesn't make you an expert. My usual method of investigation is a lot of cab rides: cabbies know things and will be happy to tell you. Also, talk to bartenders and hotel staff. In New Orleans, you can also spend a good bit of time investigating the city by visiting the French Market. It's where I go to get the usual thing or two you have to bring back for the family.

Elections are going on in New Orleans, and the one thing you hear is that the current mayor, Ray Nagin, isn't coming back. The signs for him say "Our Mayor" with a huge, disembodied head of the incumbent. It's really freakish. Meanwhile, t-shirts are having great fun of his "Chocolate City" remarks, with a recurring theme of "Nagin and the Chocolate Factory", or a more troubling chocolate bar labeled Chocolate City and in small print below, "with French vanilla flavoring." I don't think race relations are going very well there.

You see this as well in the thing everyone talks about, which is the housing shortage. I asked about this -- we economists love to talk about shortages, because for us they're to be fixed by prices rising -- and the story always came back to Section 8, low income housing projects. One bartender put it this way: The government pays $800 per unit, and the landlord gets an additional $100 a month or so from the resident. The $800 comes whether or not the unit is filled. So there's no incentive for upkeep. The houses that came down, particularly in the lower Ninth Ward of NO, were these low income units. The bartender cited a statistic (a female bartender that can cite statistics and fix White Russians that are heavy on the Russian -- where was she 25 years ago!?!) that 52% of the housing in New Orleans was rental, and only 20 of the 52 were private rental units. So when the article linked above says 184,000 units in Louisiana were knocked down by Katrina, what you have to wonder is how many of them were in disrepair? And now the landlords are being invited to use federal money to make up for investments they did not make, and then to return the units to Section 8, to go through this again? The residents there now think those who are away are just waiting for the subsidized housing to re-appear, and they're not wanted. One said "that's why Nagin wants the absentee ballots because those people are his voters."

This is driving the politics of the locals I spoke to there. Many restaurants and bars are closed; attendance at the conference I was at was down at least a third, maybe more. We walked yesterday into Cafe du Monde at noon (on a Sunday!) and found empty tables; we walked into a popular restaurant without reservations at 7:30 on a Friday night and were seated in a room with only two other tables taken. The naughty shops on Bourbon Street had dropped cover charges just to get what few tourists there were in the door. It's a hard time still. Yet we could find a busker at midnight at Jackson Square playing a water glass xylophone (I've seen him before, and he was as entertaining as ever) and street musicians generally were still playing and having fun. My son found that the best part of the trip.

At one time on the radio I said that I thought NO would come back because too much infrastructure had built up around its existence as a port. Container traffic that I saw was still present, and I still think regeneration will happen. But the city has less than half of the people it had before Katrina, and I wondered with some friends whether a tipping point had been reached for New Orleans. Not yet, I would guess, but it wouldn't take a whole lot more.