Muddy Water Runs Past Them

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

Harmon was seen as someone who would run a clean City Hall, but he ended up a one-termer, considered ineffective and indecisive in office. His vote total dropped from 57 percent to 5 percent in four years. Though Harmon was a popular police chief, he never faced the corruption problems Pennington did in New Orleans. Pennington was the early leader in the polls on the basis of his sandblasting job on police corruption, but he couldn't match the campaign spending of front-runner Nagin.

Pennington's cleanup tally includes two New Orleans cops on Death Row and others serving time for rape and armed robbery. But memories of those days of corruption and brutality don't die easily.

"When Pennington came to town, we had the worst police department in the universe," says Gill. "You were scared to call the cops. Crime rates were highest within the department. I was in court one day and the attorney said, 'Who are you going to believe, this criminal or this New Orleans police officer?' The jury just laughed. They just laughed in court. 'Are you going to doubt the word of this police officer?' Well, of course they are."

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

Whatever message New Orleans voters intended to send on Saturday, there's no guarantee that Nagin the businessman or Pennington the former police chief will do any more good for that city than Harmon did in St. Louis. Being the head of a paramilitary organization is, at best, only partial preparation for the byzantine ways of City Hall. And though Nagin is a self-made man, born in the city's Charity Hospital and now running the city's largest cable-television company, sound business skills don't necessarily translate into a deft political touch.

"There's absolutely no guarantee that a guy who can run a police department can run a city," says Gill. "On the other hand, there's no guarantee that a guy who can run Cox Cable can run the city, either."

For most New Orleanians, the Super Bowl came in third as public spectacle, behind the mayoral election and Mardi Gras. But for the flock of out-of-town reporters and TV personalities, the stumbling drunks of Bourbon Street starred in the prevailing party image that hit the airwaves and the public print.

"People come to New Orleans to do everything rude here," says 46-year-old Bernice Kaufman, who moved to New Orleans from Chicago 13 years ago. "I hear all that press about everything in New Orleans. Well, there's a little place where people go to do disgusting things and people can do it there, but that's not what everybody does all the time here."

In New Orleans, the Palace of Disgusting Things isn't City Hall. It would be in St. Louis -- or, maybe, the County Council offices in Clayton. Perhaps a cab stand at Lambert Field.

But no, Bernice is talking about the French Quarter and its main drag, Bourbon Street. Maybe we should say "main strip" instead. Traditionally, the French Quarter is a place impossible to confuse with any other district in any other American city. In large part, this remains so. But as the years pass and the lowest common denominator becomes lower and more common, the Quarter and its surrounding turf are becoming more like an adult theme park.

For every surviving Napoleon House, there is a now a bar called Coyote Ugly or the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. -- Short Cuts finds this a bit too Manchester Road for New Orleans nightlife. A roving tourist half expects to see a Harry Potter Bar for underage drinkers. The Moonwalk along the river, named for former Mayor Moon Landrieu, was fenced off, with rats the size of chinchillas dashing to the river. Nearby, the glass-and-steel-encased Riverwalk, a mall, was crowded with touristas.

There is no secret to what New Orleans is trying to do. Its chips are placed on tourism and anything to get conventions and out-of-town suckers to show up and deposit their expense accounts or vacation savings. The problem with that one-trick pony is that it leads to beaucoup low-end wage jobs for chambermaids, porters, bussers and blackjack dealers.

Another part of this devil's deal: a certain amount of controlled debauchery and decadence must be allowed, if not outright encouraged. In a way, such winking is no different than encouraging the upstanding businessmen of Dodge City or Abilene to fleece with whores, cards, whiskey and opium every cowboy who rode in at the end of a cattle drive.

On Saturday night, on the balconies of Bourbon Street, women did bare their breasts repeatedly, and a number of New Orleans cops bore benign witness to this fleshy display. In truth, it's hard to find a good reason to stop such amateur flashing when it's taking place on the same street as more profession pulchritude -- the "topless and bottomless" bars, the Unisexx Club's "World Famous Love Acts" or "Papa Joe"'s show of female impersonators.

Brazen activity such as this wouldn't be tolerated on the Missouri side of the river city to the north, St. Louis. For naked women and lap dances, you have to head east, to the Illinois pleasure hamlets of Brooklyn, Sauget and Centreville. But in New Orleans, the attempts to ghettoize these pursuits in one specific area symbolizes the city's sin-friendly demeanor even as it limits the area of impact. And when you think about it, a little sleaze on Bourbon Street is a pretty close cousin to political kickbacks and patronage payola at City Hall.

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