Muddy Water Runs Past Them

Two cities linked by politics, sports, problems -- but not style

The Rams junkies hurtling down I-55 to The Game might have thought they were still getting a St. Louis station after they hit the scan button and got WWL (870 AM), the news-and-sports station for New Orleans. Saturday was the mayoral primary in the Crescent City, and amid the incessant prattle about the Patriots' possibly covering the spread -- oh, how uncertain that sounded then -- were blocks of ads for the 15 foolish candidates running for mayor of New Orleans.

The ads spoke of a "dying city," of how "9,000 people leave the city every year." Then there were the news reports of another drive-by shooting, the confiscation of an AK-47. And if all those familiar urban pathologies weren't enough, hey, the NBA's Charlotte Hornets may move to town. And the Saints want a new stadium.

Long, long ago, Heraclitus observed that no one steps in the same river twice. So the linkage of St. Louis and New Orleans by the Mississippi River is deceptive; the river itself changes downstream, widening enough to allow oceangoing tankers as well as barges. New Orleans is a port and much more open to the world; the two French settlements founded in the 18th century have developed starkly different personalities and dissimilar façades. Soulard is not the French Quarter and the Central West End doesn't have streetcars, yet the two cities are struggling with the same problems and trying some of the same solutions.

Mark Poutenis
Newly elected New Orleans District Assessor Darren Mire
D.J. Wilson
Newly elected New Orleans District Assessor Darren Mire

The population loss is real in New Orleans but not nearly as severe as that in the city of St. Louis. Between 1990 and 2000, New Orleans had a net loss of 12,264 people, or 2.5 percent of its population. In the last decade, St. Louis lost 48,496, or 12.2 percent of its total. For percentage lost, St. Louis was second-highest in the nation for cities of more than 100,000. New Orleans was 32nd. New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Gill sees that as misleading because the thousands of adults who leave because of poor schools, high crime and no jobs are replaced through a high birthrate among the poor.

"Many, many more people leave here than ever move in," says Gill. "We lose a lot through migration, and we fuck enough just to make up for it."

Each town's city limits are congruent with a state jurisdiction -- a rarity in the government-boundary game. St. Louis' 61 square miles is both a city and a county in the state's eyes. The boundaries of New Orleans and Orleans Parish are identical. This has prevented either city from easily annexing surrounding suburban growth and has made them perpetual inner cities with little hope of reprieve.

For New Orleans, some rancid icing is layered on top of that jurisdictional handicap -- the tendency to tolerate, if not lionize, political corruption. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards is appealing a conviction for taking kickbacks during negotiations for a New Orleans casino. The state's last three insurance commissioners have been convicted of crimes committed while in office.

That type of history has a way of popping up again and again. During Saturday's election, Kate Briggs was sitting in a lawn chair at the corner of Race and Camp in the Lower Garden District, holding a sign for Darren Mire, a candidate for one of the city's seven assessor positions. Briggs says there was some hope for the schools when an outsider to the education field, Alphonse Davis, was brought in as superintendent to fix the system. Briggs says Davis made some progress, but it was discovered that Davis' father, a custodian in the city schools, earned $70,000 through a hard-to-believe amount of overtime.

Rekindling the recent heat that forced St. Louis County Assessor Maurice "Mo" Gogarty to resign, Mire was running to replace an incumbent who was seen as unfairly increasing property-tax assessments. Briggs campaigned for Mire because of her dissatisfaction with the incumbent assessor. A state legislative auditor said the former assessor's books were in such disarray that it couldn't be determined whether the office was financially sound.

Later on Saturday night, Mire spoke to his supporters at the Bridge Lounge, a bar at the corner of Magazine and Erato owned by Briggs. Mire, an African-American real-estate broker, said his campaign turned the corner when he received support from residents of the Garden District, an upscale New Orleans neighborhood. Mire later told Short Cuts his opponent had unreasonably burdened downtown and certain residential properties to increase revenues. He promised to be more fair and said his election, along with the results of the mayoral runoff, was a hopeful sign for New Orleans.

"People are tired of the way politics are in this city," says Mire. "They want transparency in government. They want to see what is going on."

In the crowded mayoral election, 13 politicians failed to make the runoff cut. The two survivors have never held political office. Another bit of déjà vu: New Orleans voters gave former police superintendent Richard Pennington 23 percent of the vote, an echo of St. Louis' election of Clarence Harmon in 1997. Pennington placed second behind businessman Ray Nagin, who received 28 percent of the vote. Both Pennington and Nagin are African-American, as was Harmon.

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