New Orleans Culture at a Tipping Point Part 3

New Orleans' Tourism Industry: Cleaning Up in Katrina's Wake

While the corruption-and-reform message that would dominate post-Katrina rebuilding was being crafted in the arena of national politics—delivered through the combined strategies of federal inaction and rabid crime enforcement—the tourism industry in New Orleans emerged as the second gatekeeper of post-Katrina message delivery, energized by a void of local political leadership.

While the fed handled the political spin, tourism leaders figured, we might as well take charge of the social spin. Barely had emergency work crews completed draining up to 12 feet of water from 80 percent of the city's residential neighborhoods, for example, than tourism officials than decided what the industry would need to get itself back in business those first few months after the storm was a major facelift.

And so, a $210-million transformation of the Superdome and $60 million in Convention Center renovations were both commissioned, undertaken largely to erase the taint of misery and squalor left by all those distasteful TV images of poor New Orleans residents fleeing Katrina's floodwaters, broadcast, unfortunately, smack dab in the middle of America's Labor Day weekend.

And just to make sure things stayed looking (and smelling) bright, spanking new, a trash contractor was hired post-Katrina to assure more-frequent French Quarter trash pick ups, dust-pan removal of French Quarter sidewalk litter, and regular washing of French Quarter streets with a sweet-smelling, anti-microbial foam.

Next thing you know the young, handsome trash-company owner—a devil-may-care sort who also happens to be an area native—becomes something of a local folk hero.
At the same time, in fairly short order, tourism officials designed a cleverly conceived double-tiered message to be carried by all ambassadors of the city's interests to all sympathetic parties throughout the world.

The first, and dominant, part of the message —New Orleans Is Back in Business—was intended to counteract perceptions of crippling damage, lack of responsiveness in rebuilding, or conditions unsuitable for investment in New Orleans' future.

The second, and subordinate, part of the message—New Orleans Still Needs Your Help—was designed primarily to encourage convention-booking as a goodwill gesture, meanwhile encouraging a whole new category of good-works tourism that might attract church groups, vacationing college kids, and corporate meetings-plus-community-assistance-projects.

To help keep things on track, the tourism industry also designated itself enforcer of message management, weighing in whenever a major player wandered off course.

One of their toughest assignments, naturally enough, was the city's mayor, a political novice who thought that achieving a certain level of success climbing the corporate ladder of the cable TV industry naturally qualified him for success on a more visible and more influential level. But not only was he instinctively inept in understanding the role of a public official, he kept losing hold of his political base.

After Katrina, the uptown business and social interests who'd supported his first election basically abandoned the sitting mayor, proposing instead a candidate of the very own whose campaign placards adorned the front yard of virtually every uptown and Garden District mansion and who his supporters believed would be a more effective administrator while protecting their interests.

As a result, Mayor Ray Nagin found himself thrashing around for support and forced to return, hat in hand, to the New Orleans black community he'd so obviously disrespected in his first campaign.

Hence, the now-infamous 'Chocolate City' speech delivered to a black New Orleans audience the same Martin Luther King Day weekend the massive 'welcome home' parade was shut down by the overzealous New Orleans police department.

Nagin also made a host of remarks indicting federal inaction, spotlighting the city's devastation ahead of the prescribed business message, and a general tone that communicated mainly frustration, outrage, and disgust.

Eventually, though, the tourism industry got Ray Nagin to understand the importance of 'single-message management,' even if he was still a little slow in mastering the nuances of message delivery.

In an interview he gave to the Associated Press in August 2007, for example, Mayor Ray Nagin was asked about epidemic crime still plaguing much-devastated neighborhoods.

In what ultimately became a front-page story, Nagin said he worried 'that slayings in the city might make it seem dangerous, but news of such crimes also 'keeps the New Orleans brand out there.'' Just not exactly in the way tourism leaders intended.

'There's Just so Much Interest in Human Interest Right Now'

Nevertheless, and despite lower convention and leisure-tourism bookings generally, the tourism industry's substantial investment in physical makeovers, message calculation, and hard-sell advertising campaigns has not gone unrewarded.

In the past year, New Orleans has starred in what seemed like a never-ending cavalcade of TV makeover shows, high-end travel spreads, and fashion backdrops that began with articles in National Geographic and Travel + Leisure, continued with exposure on 'This Old House' and HGTV, and concluded with a much-heralded 60-page scrapbook spread this spring in the top-shelf fashion magazine W.

As Cottage Living Editor Eleanor Griffin explained, commenting on the fact that her Katrina-themed issue had been the most popular of the year, 'There's just so much interest in human interest right now.' Boy, ain't that the truth?

And then Travel Channel host Samantha Brown, just back from her first trip to the Big Easy since that nasty old storm, couldn't stop crooning about what she'd found. 'The areas that travelers go,' she told a local reporter, 'meaning the French Quarter and the Garden District and the Warehouse District, they all seem to be untouched.

'I wouldn't have even known that Katrina happened just by walking down the street. I actually thought it was better than ever.'

Well, now, that ain't that just whistlin' Dixie! And even the city's generally acerbic mayor seems to have now turned upbeat.

Having delivered his 2007 State of the City address at the National World War II Museum, the city's fastest-growing cultural institution and a splendid monument to backward-looking nostalgia of the most conventional variety, Mayor Nagin decided to deliver this year's address in May at the Port of New Orleans Cruise Terminal, an iconic representation of big-industry tourism and New Orleans' big-industry tourism-to-be.

'Could you have imagined two-and-a-half years ago when this city was dark and empty, the only sounds the rhythms of helicopters and National Guard trucks rolling past in the night,' the mayor asked his 500 assembled guests, 'that in a single year we would have hosted the Sugar Bowl, the BCS Championship, the NBA All-Star Game, another Mardi Gras, and the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival? 'Could you have imagined we'd be on track this year to approach our pre-Katrina tourism record with close to five billion tourist dollars spent?' Never, not in a million years.

FBI Statistics Roll Out Red Carpet for High-profile 'Perp Walk'

Despite an outward appearance of disorder and malfunction, the post-Katrina transformation of the city of New Orleans has actually followed a surprisingly orderly and efficient course of events. And once again, the seeds of the events that followed were clearly sown in the years immediately preceding the onslaught of Katrina.

In this case, the Republican-driven pursuit of corrupt Democratic politicians kicked off with an investigation that nabbed U.S. Representative William Jefferson storing away $90,000 (one hesitates to say 'in cold cash') in his freezer.

With the chase mechanism already in place—led by the Batman-and-Robin team of Jim Letten, U.S. Attorney, and James Bernazzani, FBI special agent—ramping up a full frontal assault on local corruption post-Katrina was relatively easy.
And pretty soon, state senators, school board members, local business owners, and even a couple of FEMA employees began to fall like unsteady bowling pins.

A primary focus of this aggressive Republican purge—besides the extended family of Representative Jefferson, who earned his local nickname, 'Dollar Bill,' spreading around cash and jobs to extend his sphere of influence—was the administration of former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, currently serving as executive director of the National Urban League, a New York City-based advocacy group.
Morial's father, Ernest 'Dutch' Morial, had become the city's first black mayor in 1978, serving until 1986, and his son's back-to-back terms in the 1990s and early 2000s featured a much-publicized assault on crime that coincided with the construction of 14 downtown hotels.

Throughout that time, however, it was generally believed that Morial family members and camp followers were getting rich on massive kickbacks from fat city contracts and, it turns out, some were.

So by the time October 2007 rolled around, Letten and Bernazzani believed their crusading efforts had achieved sufficiently impressive results that they deserved a bit of national attention. They subsequently issued a press release extolling their own virtues, and USA Today immediately took the bait.

'The FBI's New Orleans office has tracked a 452% jump in corruption indictments over the past five years,' the paper dutifully reported. 'Corrupt convictions in eastern Louisiana climbed 33% during the same period, making it one of the top spots in the country for such convictions, according to Justice Department statistics.'

The grand total of this stat-analysis 'perp walk'? Twenty-three Orleans Parish school officials, 16 City Hall workers, and 14 traffic court employees, along with assorted judges and other publicly elected officials, according to Letten and Bernazzani.

The dynamic duo even got so caught up in the promotion of their efforts that Bernazzani started circulating pre-recorded public service announcements to local radio stations reflecting his posture of moral righteousness, deploying what USA Today objectively described as 'the tone of a high school principle.'

'Public service is not about stealing from the people,' Bernazzani reminded his listeners, the paper reported. 'It's about giving to the people.'

The Sudden Fall of the Next Black Mayor-to-be

Meanwhile, the historic racial transformation—or social reformation, if you like—of the New Orleans City Council began innocently enough in the months immediately following Katrina with the election of four new, reform-minded candidates, three of whom were white. That meant a new attitude had clearly been injected, but the racial majority had been maintained.

Then, right smack dab in the middle of the dog days of August, the Council's sitting president and popular councilman-at-large, Oliver Thomas, was charged with, and confessed to, taking a bribe. Almost as quickly, he was removed from office and sentenced to three years in prison.

It's the backstory, though, that makes this event truly interesting. Without shallow grandstanding or blatantly maneuvering for political position, Thomas had slowly, quietly, become widely regarded as the most likely candidate to become the city's next mayor. Even among detractors, he was almost universally regarded as an honest and straightforward politician.

Privately, he was also seen as basically a decent guy, a frequent participant in community theater productions, and a friend of the world of second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indians.

And on a grand scale of civic wrongdoing, his crime had been relatively minor. He'd basically gotten caught up in a larger investigation, an effort that revealed $1.1 million in paybacks to prominent Marc Morial cronies, kickbacks related to an energy contract let under the former mayor's administration.

Four major players were subsequently charged, and the kingpin, Stan 'Pampy' Barr', a colorful, local restaurant owner, immediately saw the advantage in 'cooperating' with the FBI, so he confessed he'd given Thomas less than $17,000 nearly a decade before, basically to insure a city-sponsored parking-lot contract.

In a TV interview not long after being charged, Thomas said he felt so bad about the whole thing—taking the money, now being charged for taking it—he'd been contemplating suicide. Then he told the FBI he had no goods on anyone else, and the feds, who said he was refusing to 'cooperate,' recommended the harshest sentencing possible.

The D.A. Wears a Derby Hat, But Not for Long

Then, a couple months later, the city' first black district attorney resigned. And this, too, entailed an interesting backstory. Before being elected to the district attorney's office in 2002, native Eddie Jordan had been a prominent and colorful U.S. Attorney known for successfully prosecuting former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards—a rascally sort of white, Cajun celebrity—prosecuted for receiving kickbacks related to state gambling licenses.

But a certain amount of celebrity was also attached to Jordan's reputation, mainly due to his frequent appearances on the steps of the Greek-revival federal courts building for TV press statements neatly attired in decidedly stylish threads, always topped off by a neatly trimmed mustache and his trademark derby hat.

Even more interesting: as District Attorney, he succeeded Harry Connick, Sr. —father of entertainer Harry Connick, Jr. and a fairly celebrated figure himself. And Harry Connick, Sr. had, in turn, succeeded Jim Garrison, the loose-cannon Kennedy conspiracist lionized in Oliver Stone's controversial movie 'JFK'
A fairly impressive dynastic lineage. But here's the thing: Connick had held the District Attorney's office for nearly 30 years, which meant that Connick remained a powerful presence in New Orleans city politics—upholding the various causes of law and order throughout New Orleans' entire tenure as a black-majority, black-run Southern city.

Which also meant that the racial make-up of the District Attorney's office looked a lot more like the old New Orleans than the city of the past 30 years.

So, naturally, the first thing D.A. Eddie Jordan does is fire a lot of the white folks and hire a bunch of black folks. And, naturally, the next thing the white folks do is go to court to sue for reparations.

Now, fast forward to this past fall. Eddie Jordan loses his final appeal in court, and the New Orleans D.A.'s office is in hock to its former white employees for a total amount somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.

In the meantime, it turns out, Eddie Jordan may not be the most effective administrator on the planet (word has it that his staff did most of the grunt work when he was U.S. Attorney) and the D.A.'s office is now in a pretty advanced state of disarray.

It becomes clear, therefore, that Eddie Jordan has got to go. And so, a backstage group of white businessmen jumps in to find him a nice, cushy job in the private sector, with the small matter of the $2.5 million in disgruntled former-staff payments to be resolved somewhere down the road.

Which throws the D.A.'s office open for election this fall.
Which means the city of New Orleans, until Katrina a two-thirds majority black city, could soon have—along with a white-majority City Council—a white mayor, and a white U.S. Representative, a white District Attorney, something unseen since the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, and the waning days of Jim Crow.

End of Part 3