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Setting the Tempo: TOM PIAZZA

SS: The city will take years to recover, on many levels, but do you think race relations will improve in the long term? And is Ray Nagin going to weather the rebirth of a city with a long history of political corruption?

TP: Race is an extremely charged issue here, as it is throughout the South — and the North, for that matter. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a lot of the weight has fallen disproportionately on poor and African-American people in the city. A hugely disproportionate number of the people who are still in exile from New Orleans are African-Americans without a hell of a lot of resources. In other words, they’ve landed someplace else and they’ve had to figure out some way to make a go of it where they are. Their home in New Orleans is wrecked. If they have kids, they’ve had to put them in school someplace else. So how do they get home? Many of these people were living in public housing in New Orleans. There’s been a lot of maneuvering to close most of the public housing in New Orleans — perfectly good housing projects. Many people hear “housing project” and think of some kind of monstrosity. But some of the projects in New Orleans were completely viable places to live.

Nagin and his main constituency, which consists of business leaders and real estate interests, closed a lot of public housing, and they have no intention of reopening it, effectively kicking out the people who live there. There are a lot of powerful and wealthy people in New Orleans who don’t particularly want to see large numbers of poor black people ever moving back into the city. It doesn’t matter that they’re working poor, which is what most of these people were. I don’t think Nagin is any friend to the less-advantaged black population of New Orleans. He is essentially a middle-management type. He comes out of business, not out of politics, and certainly not out of any kind of civil rights or activist background. He’s not a crook as far as anybody can tell. But he’s unimaginative, and he’s in way over his head.

Initially, he wasn’t particularly popular in the black community. They didn’t put him in office the first time around. But after Hurricane Katrina, in my view, he has manipulated that community — or communities, really — very cynically. For public consumption he’ll say things like, “We want poor people back; we’re going to be a chocolate city.” I think there is so much paranoia — largely justified paranoia, as far as I’m concerned — among black voters, paranoia that they are going to be forced out of the process. They want to hear this and will vote for almost anyone who says it. But the actual policies that he pursues are almost exactly the opposite of what he’s saying.

There are a lot of people right now saying, “Shrink the footprint of the city. Get rid of the Ninth Ward. Get rid of New Orleans East. Don’t worry about those places.” I get lots of emails because of the book, and last week someone wrote me saying he thought New Orleans should be “a little museum city with some great architecture in the French Quarter, the Garden District and Uptown, a world-class university” — he was talking about Tulane — “and not a whole lot else — like Savannah or Charleston or Jamestown. What would be so bad about that?” Well, the main thing is that it wouldn’t be New Orleans anymore.


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