Every Katrina-related conversation, which is most conversations in New Orleans these days, winds up focusing on the question of whether New Orleans will be a better city in the future. Sure there are a lot of people who express concern and seem (at least superficially) pessimistic. But absolutely everyone I’ve talked to is fundamentally optimistic, although they express it in different ways.
We all agree that, before Katrina hit, New Orleans had all kinds of insidious and endemic problems that we had almost no chance of solving. The Orleans Parish public school system is one glaring example. Fixing the public school system was, in most people’s view, something that was only theoretically possible. After Katrina there are still problems, but everyone seems to believe that it is actually possible to fix them, mostly by increasing the number of charter schools and by passing authority from the local school board to the State of Louisiana. Outside entities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have supposedly expressed an interest in operating one or more charter schools. Fixing schools is only part of the enormous task. But, despite the enormity of the task, most people believe that ten years from now New Orleans will be a better community in which to live and work.
A lawyer friend of mine expressed his optimism by saying that "Katrina was the worst thing to happen to New Orleans and the best thing, at the same time." Katrina’s devastation is like a forest fire that clears out brush to make it possible for the forest to continue to grow. The devastation has, in various ways, cleared a path for change. The population of the city is a lot smaller so, in that sense alone, some of the problems are now more manageable. One example: there hasn’t been a murder in the city since right before Katrina (apparently the reports of murders in the Superdome after Katrina were erroneous).
So, people are mostly optimistic about prospects for change. Except for one thing. Almost everyone who says "things actually have a chance of getting better" invariably adds "unless the politicians screw it up."
Isn’t that interesting? People have confidence that a city mired in entrenched problems–that were unsolvable before a hurricane came and decimated entire communities–can actually recover and become a better place in ten years. Yet they see career politicians and ‘their familiar cronies’ as being the roadblock.
If I were an incumbent politician who wanted to keep my job I’d be very worried. My informal survey of people reveals that almost no one has much faith in Governor Blanco (they think she’s not too bright and not able to act decisively). Almost everyone wishes that Bobby Jindal had won the gubernatorial election, and many people are pleased with the job he is doing as a U.S. Representative. A lot of people still like Mayor Nagin, but even some people who like him and think he did a pretty good job are hoping someone else will run for mayor. No one I’ve talked to wants any of the current council members run for mayor.
We all know that, if we want our city to be a better city in ten years, we have to make a lot of smart moves right now. I’d love to see a poll that asks people what they want rebuilt first: the levee system, the school system or the political system? We can bring in outsiders to help us fix our levees and our schools, but only the people who live here can fix their political system. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see a lot of new faces running for political offices in the city in the next few years. And maybe that’s just exactly what we need.