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.

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.

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."

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.

Where the images of St. Louis and New Orleans blur is in their interest in the pursuit of the sports dollar. Though New Orleans's only professional sports team is the Saints, the city appears to have beat out St. Louis for the Hornets, the NBA team that was courted by Bill Laurie but has, for now, decided to move to New Orleans. That move is predicated on New Orleans' selling 50 of its 64 luxury suites and 8,000 season tickets. That has to be done my the middle of March, and WWL's Mark Chifici has his doubts.

"After the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras on the 12th there'll be a big media blitz by the Hornets when they have everybody's attention," notes Chifici, who says the Greater New Orleans Chamber of Commerce likely will sell the suites but that the season tickets will be a harder sell.

Chifici also wonders how the team will draw if it doesn't win: "The question is, when they win 20 or 25 games a year, who's going to go see them play the Grizzlies?"

The Hornets' owners decided to go with New Orleans because that river city had a new facility, pushed through by then-Gov. Edwards. Plus, the Big Easy has a fairly noncompetitive sports market. But if the ticket goals are not met, the Hornets could move elsewhere, though St. Louis remains a long shot because Blues owner Laurie wants to own a team, not just be a landlord.

The Saints' situation is comparable to that of the baseball Cardinals -- they want a new stadium, have drawn up plans for one and have selected a site. Unlike the Cardinals, though, the Saints appear to be willing to settle for an upgrade in income and playing quarters at the same geographic location. The state and the Saints have agreed in principle to work that would add more suites and give the NFL team a share in the naming rights of the Superdome. Maybe Louisiana could sell the rights to Barney and call it the Superdedooper Dome. They could paint it purple.

The idea that a 26-year-old dome owned by the state would be renamed and the money given to a football team that has only won one playoff game -- against the Rams, no less -- well, that shows how distant logic and reason are from the world of sports economics. But compared with the millions more it would take to build a brand-new stadium, $170 million over the next 10 years seems like a deal both government and team can tolerate.

As Rams fans return to their workaday routines in their duller, more livable northern river city, they should remember that real life and credit-card bills from the trip go on and on well after a Super Bowl victory or defeat. Hitching your mood swing to what a group of overdeveloped men in tight pants do on a Sunday is fraught with peril. Those who bothered to plunk down at least $400 for a ticket and who-admits-how-much for a hotel room should come back from New Orleans realizing that the fans of 30 other NFL teams didn't have a dog in this fight.

Until 2000, neither did St. Louis. Be thankful. Your credit card is.

Despite its sin-drenched charms and caloric excesses, in most real-life respects New Orleans is far worse off than St. Louis. Yes, that falls under the category of faint praise. Aside from that, those lucky or rich enough to have made the trek should realize that bringing back a little of the looseness and joie de vivre from their southern cousin would be a plus.

And there was an idea or two in that mayoral campaign. Nagin wants the city to sell the airport, reduce the number of patronage jobs and run city government more like an efficient business. Not bad -- maybe we could try it here.

But one thing St. Louis doesn't need to borrow from its cousin down south: We already tried that ex-police-chief-as-mayor thing.

It didn't work.

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