Be grateful for small favors; New Orleans is still with us. But as everyone has reported, a year and a half after Katrina there is still considerable damage, even visible in the area trod by tourists, near my hotel. Parts of the city remain ghost towns with no visible sign of repair, no stores, no nuthin' and some pretty scary vehicles that look battle-ready storming around.
Since arriving yesterday, I've made my usual rounds: lunch at Gallotoire's, still the place for local "alligators and litigators" on Friday, still serving oysters en brochette; gumbo yaya for dinner at Mr. B's; an early walk this morning past, and around, the youngsters, hookers, and crazy folk in the French Quarter for café au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde. (Flecks of powdered sugar have fallen onto my keyboard.) Where else in this country can you return to and order the exact same meal that delighted you twenty-five years ago?
No wonder tourists and the marginally sane love New Orleans. There exists here a kind of aesthetic constancy that prevails in the face of the most disastrous events: the Civil War, Huey Long and Edwin Edwards, floods and hurricanes. But things are hollowing out from the sides: the population of New Orleans Parrish after Katrina fell from 500,000 to 200,000, and while occupancy rates in the Central Business District are high, most of those workers are part of the rebuilding effort, contractors, insurers, etc, and are not part of a long-term, sustainable economy. Even before the hurricane, much if not all of the small, local manufacturing businesses disappeared; Canal Street, once a shopping Mecca for the city and for rich folk from the Delta, began to turn its beautiful emporiums like Maison Blanche over to hotels and tee-shirt shops. Now the best hope for New Orleans is that gas prices will climb again and oil exploration, with the workers and taxes that it produces, will help prop up an economy that otherwise must rely on its Port and its puking tourists.
Being here makes me ask myself: what makes a community thrive? Canadian economist Jane Jacobs, wrote in Cities and the Wealth of Nations that cities are the bedrock of civilization and could thrive only when they made things that the rest of the world wanted. A lot of American cities, not just New Orleans, no longer make things the world wants. We write a lot on this blog about what makes online communities and virtual cities thrive; but what are we making? Does knowledge qualify as Jacob's idea of a manufactured product, and are we producing sufficient quantities to survive? Or are we only creating an aesthetic experience, a tourist trap that will not sustain itself?