Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Case for New Orleans

“It's not our fault!” In fits of finger pointing and a rhetorical flourish in his first State of the City address since before Hurricane Katrina, Mayor C. Ray Nagin laid bare the guiding principle of his recovery plan for the City.

If only the State and Federal governments would open the spigot and let the money flow, we could rebuild our hopes and dreams. If only there were a boundless ocean of resources, New Orleans’ problems would be solved. Better yet, if only we had a leader with a clue, we could dig ourselves out of this hole.

I don’t pretend that solving the City’s problems is easy, and I give the Mayor credit for his boundless optimism, but there’s a real difference between unbridled wishful thinking and reality-based planning. To be sure, New Orleans needs more money. But recovery must begin with coherent vision and realistic, definable goals before the money will start flowing from Washington (or Baton Rouge).

Mayor Nagin’s “plan” for the City seems nothing more than fixing potholes, sweeping up the trash, and hoping that the City stays afloat long enough for “market forces” to dictate the future. (His self-proclaimed crowning achievement seems to be a grossly over-priced sanitation contract. Yes, the streets are remarkably clean, but the contract seems to have done no more than prove the old adage that you get what you pay for.) In March, the Mayor unveiled a plan to invest more than a billion public dollars into recovery projects in 17 target zones across the City, but nary a word about it in his address leaves one to wonder if this plan is destined for the growing heap of aspirations that never take shape into full-blown plans.

And what is his vision for the City? Naturally, the displaced want to return to the “way things used to be,” but simply rebuilding the same old structures with the same inefficient and inept systems cannot be the answer. That is particularly true when you are trying to attract people old and new who are tired of the old ways. If you want to build a ship, don't gather the people to collect wood and assign them tasks; you have to teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. (Antoine de Saint-Exupery.) We need a vision that is inspired, not tired, and a plan that is workable, not mere pipe dream.

At bottom, Mayor Nagin’s plan is no plan at all, his vision has no imagination. Indeed, other than wistfully aiming to reconstitute the pre-storm City, the Mayor seems utterly incapable of sketching out a realistic vision of a leaner, smaller City in the post-storm world. A real plan undoubtedly requires making difficult decisions – which parts of the City should be rebuilt? – but leadership requires making decisions that cannot please everyone. Unfortunately Mayor Nagin is paralyzed by indecision, perhaps for fear of offending any of his constituents.

It is disappointing that Mayor Nagin would use the State of the City address as a platform for finger-pointing rants – “It’s not our fault” – rather than articulating a coherent vision and viable plan for the City’s recovery, nearly two years after the City was hobbled. Blameless or not, the City still has to make its case that it deserves assistance. Even more it needs to convince the outside world that they should want to help and play a part in the revival of a great American city.

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