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Old Orleans

17 months after Katrina, the Times is at last conceding what's been clear for some time—the city ain't what it was, and likely won't ever be:

Hurricane Katrina may have brutally recalibrated the city’s demographics, setting New Orleans firmly on the path its underlying characteristics had already been leading it down: a city losing people at the rate of perhaps 1.5 percent a year before Hurricane Katrina, with a stagnant economy, more than a quarter of the population living in poverty, and a staggeringly high rate of unemployment, in which as many as one in five were jobless or not seeking work.

Why the belated admission? Part of it to be sure was that in the shock following Katrina's devastation, there was a palpable sense of mission and moral purpose in some ways like the call to rebuild the Twin Towers as they stood in New York City. And of course the paper of record was so keyed in on the Republican administration's many failings that they barely noticed one of the biggest differences between New York and New Orleans at the time of and after their separate tragedies—Gotham had competent and even strong local leadership, and the Big Easy has not.

And part of the delayed reaction had to do with what the media missed during the hurricane itself, and the weeks thereafter.

Even after an act of God made worse by the failings of men, little in New Orleans changed, and the mayoral race, I think, gave national reminded policy-minded people of what the city was and still is, and how that limits what it now can be. The race, after all, pitted a proven failure in Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin, who bears much of the blame for the city's very flawed response to a predictable tragedy, against fellow Democrat and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, a symbol of Governor Katherine Blanco's equally inept response to Katrina.

And the election of course, was decided on the same old racial math, as Nagin carried the day based on his appeal for New Orleans to remain "a Chocolate City." What has changed, as Nicole Gelinas has explained, is that the city's large, diverse and prosperous black middle class has not returned, and the structural services they provided—doctors, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs and the like—have not returned, and the new speculators who have driven up property values have done little to replace the role they filled. Suddenly, the city's remaining black population is in fact much more in line with what outsiders who have swung in for a few days in a sin town have long seen it as—mostly poor, dependent, and living in very dangerous quarters.

That the Times' dispatch, on the same day that the Saints, who became the symbol of the city's supposed revival, were eliminated from the NFL playoffs, was no doubt a coincidence, but a telling one. ESPN and others have played this symbolism for all it's worth, almost always with the construction "No team can save a city, but…" Evan Weiner's dispatch from last week's Sun on why New Orleans has no future with professional sports teams—and likely didn't even before the storm—is a refreshing antidote to such pap.

Pratt is hosting a symposium next Tuesday entitled Is New Orleans a Shrinking City?—A Confrontation between Ecology and Politics that should be interesting, and we'll have more on New Orleans then, if not before.