Conservative commentators have had a high old time pointing at the city of New Orleans’s government’s bumbling performance during the Katrina catastrophe. Mark Steyn, in describing the city’s black population as being a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party,” might as well have described every institution in Louisiana. Rush Limbaugh has said, many times, many ways, “This is what you get with decades of liberal rule.”
But, for a whole lot of people, and I would have been one of them at one time in my life, New Orleans represented everything a city ought to be. Leave aside for the moment how it got that way. Lots of cities — and I will mention more than a few — offer the same advantages.
In New Orleans, it was safe to be poor. You could live without stigma without striving. And lots of people liked that just fine.
I SEARCHED REALTOR.COM for “New Orleans.” The listings appear not to have been updated since before the storm. There are 1,430 residences for sale under $200,000, and 330 rental units for under $1,000 — many much cheaper than that.
I’ve done a lot of Internet real estate searching. For the usual city in the U.S., putting in those two top prices would yield close to no result at all. In New Orleans, many of those residences are shacks. Many, as well, are probably in high-crime enclaves. But you accept all that, if you want to take it easy, the bathtub in the kitchen, the cracks in the floors, the need for security gates. You don’t own much, in any case.
A comfy poor city offers lots of employment of a certain kind — the kind that doesn’t pay much attention to what are called “resume enhancements.” The kind that doesn’t require a resume at all, just a certain brass and confidence. Restaurants, hotels, entertainment and the arts, tourist services, gambling, small family businesses. New Orleans had those aplenty. And it offered, as well, a lively commerce in the soft crimes, the ones police don’t come down on so hard, marijuana and prostitution, notably. And you were unlikely to get busted for hanging out with no visible means of support.
For those not inclined to work, or not to work much, an easy city should offer a relaxed welfare establishment and unemployment office. You shouldn’t need a car, or, if you do, there should be a plentiful local supply of warm weather junkers, along with a relaxed insurance and registration regime.
Add to all that a lively local arts scene and fabulous food, and you’ve got poor heaven.
IT IS ALMOST LAUGHABLE to put it down that way. But there are such cities. Sections of many cities have always been that way. Writers and artists have romanticized and memorialized them. Edward Hopper painted “Night Hawks.” George Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac limned Venice Beach in Los Angeles and North Beach in San Francisco. Paul Simon, in “The Boxer,” wrote, “…searchin’ out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go, lookin’ for the places only they would know.” When I worked in a hotel band in Anchorage, I found a vast population of folk who drifted around a big triangle, Seattle to Anchorage to Honolulu, working in hotels and bars and restaurants. “Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man.”
You need one thing above all to maintain the at-ease poor lifestyle. The grown-ups, the straight people, have to be in charge. When you turn on the water or the light switch, you want them to work. If you get hit by a bus, you would hope the emergency services wouldn’t simply leave you lying there.
If you elect drifters and grifters to positions of leadership, sooner or later you’ll get in big trouble. Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin might have made perfectly good waiters or saxophone players.
And of course, in describing the easeful poor lifestyle, I have left out one thing: It is an economy. Economies work with other economies (Wall Street with Greenwich Village). Economies change. Boston’s North End gentrifies. Paris sprouts miles of blasted high-rise suburban slums filled with angry Muslim youth. The Big Easy didn’t have much of any other economy than the lazy. And it was not enough by itself.
Poor New Orleans. It was nice while it lasted.
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.
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