Sunday, January 06, 2008

What to do about NOLA?

I just got back from "The Meetings" in New Orleans. The areas around the convention center, the French Quarter and the Warehouse District remain much as before: derelict and charming, with a concentration of heavenly food, music and architecture unlike any other in the world (not even Florence has the music). Retailing is not as it once was, but there are still some nice, local shops in which to browse. Other than the jazz bars, I could live without Bourbon Street--it is just too crowded for my taste, particularly near the eve of the BCS Championship. And I take no pleasure in seeing large numbers of people being stone drunk before 8 in the evening. But this has always been true.

The broader point, though, is I think that those urban economists--and you know who you are--who think that the best policy would be to give people a cash payment to compensate for relocating to other places are missing something important--NOLA is the rare case of a city that is so special, we almost certainly want to keep it for cultural reasons. As Chris Redfearn said to me when we sat down to eat lunch, in New Orleans you know the city where you are sitting by just looking at the food--gumbo looks different there, and boy does it taste different.

But as an economic place, New Orleans is not a going concern, and wasn't so before the flood. While the ineptness of the government in dealing with the flood certainly made things worse, they were bad enough before: income, education, crime, employment and government services in general have long been at substandard levels, and businesses have long been fleeing Louisiana.

Let's be honest, though, other cities were in similarly dire straights before Katrina: Buffalo, St. Louis, Syracuse, Troy, some of the cities along the Rio Grande, and Charleston, W.VA. come to mind. And yet it would be difficult to make the case that these cities have made the important cultural contribution of a city that gave us our native music, and also gave us an indigenous food, for cajun and creole foods are American creations. So I, as a taxpayer, am willing to pay to restore the city--sooner, rather than later. My problem is that I am not willing to bail out the other cities listed; they have long been dieing, and outside of St. Louis' remarkable literary tradition, they have not made lasting cultural contributions to the country. So how do we write down a program that rebuilds the rare special place but leaves people in other places the resources to fend for themselves, and no more. This is a tough political economy question.

1 comment:

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