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Day 547: New Orleans – Culture vs. Infrastructure

Mark pointed the NOLA bloggers to da po blog’s take on Andrés Duany’s article on New Orleans in BusinessWeek. (Feel free to read the article and the post/comments before checking back in here). Here are some of Duany’s statements that da po’ boy emphasized:

I realized at that instant that New Orleans is not really an American city, but rather a Caribbean one … then I thought that if New Orleans were to be governed as efficiently as, say, Minneapolis, it would be a different place”and not one that I could care for …

… One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty”but as a way of life.

It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

My first thought on reading this: Tell this to the families of murder victims whose killers walk the streets due to inefficient government, the parents who work two or three jobs and save to keep their kids out of NOPS and the accident victim whose ambulance is delayed by potholes, uncoordinated lights and drivers who don’t have the common bloody courtesy to pull over for an emergency vehicle.

Understand that Duany wrote this article to justify alternatives to current American building standards – “drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections” – that put up blockades to affordable housing, and not the dangerously fine social line between a laissez-faire joie de vivre and abject apathy. His is not an excuse for the high high highs and low low lows that characterize this city. Let’s not confuse cultural accomplishment to date with an effective society, especially when we host a murder a day and some banana republics have it more together than us. If culture were my only criterion for an American city, New Orleans would win hands down, but as (for just one example) my own recent goat rodeo with the City Of No’s parking division* attests, we have miles and miles to go before we rest on any laurels, folks.

Like it or not, we are still the 18th state of the Union and would do better to abide by the standards of infrastructure and effectiveness of other states (no, not the federal government, which couldn’t find its way out of a wet manila envelope) to meet our own state’s motto of union, justice and confidence. As I commented at da po blog, we can have the best of all, it is not an either-or proposition. It’s not America vs. New Orleans or bust. For as another commenter astutely observed, “Culture is how you lay out the roads in your city, infrastructure is how many potholes exist in those roads … I’ve also heard that an ambulance will show up in Minneapolis 4 minutes after you call in an emergency, anywhere in the city. You can have that same sort of response in New Orleans, too. It has nothing to do with culture.”

Res ipsa loquitur. Why can I not have both the most breathtaking amount of festivity and bonhomie and preeminent levels of service, response and conscience on the part of my government and fellow citizens? And I mean all citizens, not just the same ones I read about and meet over and over again in recovery circles. If we put the same amount of soul and determination into rebuilding and demanding the best of this city as we do a Mardi Gras costume, Jazzfest art and a school band, we would then be world class. And don’t ever tell me one person cannot chill when required and then step to it when the occasion demands. Never state that the free spirits that fill this city with its art, music, soul and culture don’t have the gumption and can-do attitude to accomplish things logistical and lasting. Work hard, play hard, demand the best!

Do we have it in ALL of us, each and every one of us from the Iberville projects to the mansions on St. Charles Avenue and beyond? That’s what is required. Or we’re done.

* to be explained in an upcoming post – until then, hold your goats

20 comments… add one
  • Cousin Pat from Georgia February 26, 2007, 10:23 PM

    Well, since coming here in September, I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and I’m barely keeping up with the locals who I work with. Then they all tell me that the work we are doing, currently, is nothing compared to the work that was being done a year ago. I believe that absolutely, but I shudder to think of it in those terms.

    I have not attempted to match these individuals when it comes to playing hard…

    Work ethic isn’t a problem here, from what I’ve been exposed to, at least.

  • EJ February 27, 2007, 1:40 AM

    Here here! After all that people in this city and this country have accomplished, I can’t believe we can’t have the best of both worlds.

  • Editor B February 27, 2007, 9:57 AM

    I wholeheartedly concur. Let’s do it.

  • Maitri February 27, 2007, 10:04 AM

    Cousin Pat,

    Before the flood, my husband worked for City Hall, NOPD, several WalMarts, several Walgreens and various other chains in the capacity of IT contractor. While the workers in the private sector toiled away, most clerical, technical and operations staff at City Hall and NOPD lack any kind of definable work ethic, most frittering away their time on phone calls, video games and naps. Yes, naps on the job. Also, when someone is surprised to find a S&WB employee actually working, it’s not a joke.

    A lot has changed since the storm, but it isn’t enough. Remember that it takes few conscious movers to push a society forward, but here it’s going to take a lot more. Compared to the midwest, the work ethic of the majority of the population is a problem here. Or Warren Riley would have rush-delivered evidence to Eddie Jordan’s office a long time ago and Jordan would actually prosecute someone worthwhile and successfully around here. Work ethic involves giving a damn about self and community.

  • jeffrey February 27, 2007, 12:02 PM

    Fuckabuncha work! Life is too short for it.

  • Maitri February 27, 2007, 12:06 PM

    Jeffrey, I agree completely and suggest you stop collecting your paycheck as of COB tonight.

  • jeffrey February 27, 2007, 1:08 PM

    I’m sorry but this artificial standard you seem to have internalized to such a point that you spout it reflexively does not hold up to scrutiny.

    In order to receive the means to even the most basic of human needs, it has been determined that each person demonstrate his or her usefulness and industry by performing some beneficial task… or so the myth goes.

    In truth we live at the whim of a corrupt and inequitable system wherein the spoils of human production are portioned out with no relation whatsoever to the value of the producers. It can, in fact, be argued that something close to an inverse relationship between production and compensation exists in the aggregate.

    Rather than be controlled by the myth of the protestant work ethic, it is far preferable to enjoy what good one can in this world with the full knowledge that we like it will eventually return to ashes.

  • Maitri February 27, 2007, 1:10 PM

    You must not enjoy your work at all. How sad. And if you really feel that way, stop working. Seriously.

    That said, a personal work ethic (regardless of compensation) also includes a conscience regarding self and society. Without that, any society will disintegrate to ash long before others.

    And we all know that this conversation will end with you saying you were joking or were just pushing buttons or some such. So just drop it, Jeffrey. I have nothing more to discuss with you on this topic, not when the man’s keeping you down so you’re going to sit on your hands waah waah. It will lead nowhere.

  • jeffrey February 27, 2007, 1:28 PM

    I’m just saying it’s not as simple as you would like to to be.

  • jeffrey February 27, 2007, 1:32 PM

    And I do enjoy my job very much. The conditions are tolerable and the hours aren’t bad. The money is far below what a respectable person makes in the work ethic paradigm but I never claimed to be a respectable person in that regard. It’s nice work just not the all-consuming fact of my existence. And there’s nothing wrong with that and that’s my point. Not trying to “push buttons” or “disintegrate society” are anything so grandiose.

  • Maitri February 27, 2007, 1:33 PM

    Start with the work for its own sake and not compensation, especially given that the reward we stand to gain here is a much better city for all AND one.

  • jeffrey February 27, 2007, 1:35 PM

    I also freely admit to being a borderline illiterate when posting quickly so I trust you can weed through my spelling and grammar.

  • Maitri February 28, 2007, 9:58 AM

    And, once again, a thread that I really care about is successfully derailed.

  • jeffrey February 28, 2007, 11:38 AM


  • Ray M February 28, 2007, 2:08 PM

    Minneapolis had one of the top two or three murder rates in the country in the ’80s, and still has a fairly high one–double that of St. Paul. And Minnesota ranks 8th in the number of black crime victims. Just to let you know.

  • Cousin Pat from Georgia February 28, 2007, 11:06 PM

    “While the workers in the private sector toiled away, most clerical, technical and operations staff at City Hall and NOPD lack any kind of definable work ethic, most frittering away their time on phone calls, video games and naps. Yes, naps on the job.”

    Hmmm. Now, that is something I have not had experience with, at all. I’m sheilded from that in NOLA by having been thoroughly enmeshed in the private sector since I got here. But from what you say (and it just adds to the pile of complaints I have heard), that ain’t good.

    Luckily, behavior such as you describe in the public sector is remedied far quicker if the private citizens share a work ethic and a desire to enact change…sort of the “conscious movers” you speak of.

    NOLA has both in her private citizens: work ethic and desire to enact change. At least, she does in the majority of folks I have been introduced to while here. I don’t know anyone who does not work, at something, full time. They may not get paid for that thing, but in this town, the hobbies are like secondary and tertiary employment – as far as effort is concerned.

    That is part of the city’s culture, and its greatest strength – though I say that from the outside looking in.

    The idea is to focus just a little bit of that enormous pool of energy, creativity and power of the people into changing the way business is done in the halls of government, locally, statewide and nationally.

    First of all, there must be a break between the idea that culture dictates how effective your government services are. If there is a myth propogated by the system, that’s the one, and it threatens more than any other thing the survival of New Orleans.

    Let the culture dictate what the police enforce, not how well they enforce it. (Less emphasis on say, simple possession and far more emphasis on evidence handling and delivery.) Let the culture dictate where the pumping stations are, not how well they pump water. Let the culture allow for 30 hour work weeks, but demand that when folks are on the clock, they are on the damn clock.

    Once that break is acheived, citizens here will understand that it is OK to demand better, and it doesn’t sell out the beloved culture of this City to do so. Matter of fact, that sort of thing can replenish and build onto your already strong cultural institutions.

  • Cousin Pat from Georgia February 28, 2007, 11:10 PM

    As far as Minneapolis is concerned, I can only repeat what I’ve heard, I ain’t callin’ it utopia. But if they can get an ambulance anywhere in that city in four minutes, any other city anywhere should at least take a look at how that is possible.

    Kinda like the way the Netherlands can keep their whole damn below-sea-level nation reasonably dry and economically viable…

  • Ray M February 28, 2007, 11:44 PM

    The Dutch have a problem with subidience, however–a big problem. I’ve just been reading a book on disaster response post-Katrina that includes an excellent overview of the Dutch failures and successes, and alternatives (not a copycat model–which wouldn’t be advisable nor at all practical) for NOLA based on that nation’s experience.

    I mentioned the murder rate in Minn. due to its being brought up as the No. 1 problem for New Orleans so much recently, and the reason most folks who leave say they are. Increasing crime is also the No. 1 issue in Minneapolis, according to what I was reading earlier today about a survey administered there recently. There really isn’t a Utopia (which of course means “no place”) but places to learn from. And Minneapolis isn’t the polar opposite of New Orleans, necessarily, despite the dramatic weather differences. The cities could learn from each other, really.

    (Also, Prince is damned funky, for example, and he came from there. Wouldn’t NOLA love to claim someone like him, even on his weirdest days/months/years?)

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