As with any larger-than-life tale, there were highs and lows, intense conflicts and last-minute resolutions. And, of course, there were enough interesting characters to make the plot worth following.
So, don't change that channel " sit back and enjoy Gambit's annual Year in Review.
THE RECOVERY: Y2
All across New Orleans, 2007 was year two of The Recovery. It has often been said that the second year of anything is the hardest because people either move on or are weary after a year's work. By any standards, 2007 was exhausting " but worth it.
The 'cranes in the sky" promised by newly appointed recovery czar Ed Blakely didn't make it this year, but the city did manage to rally behind one rebuilding plan " the Unified New Orleans Plan " and Blakely's 17 recovery 'target zones." At the end of the year, however, overall investment and rebuilding remained much slower than anticipated. The good news is that the city's population climbed to approximately 70 percent of its pre-Katrina level by the end of the year, according to the latest 'New Orleans Index" established by the Brookings Institute.
On a parallel plot line, the all-important Road Home program was a mixed bag. Compared to the mere trickle of money disbursed in 2006, Road Home checks started to reach significant numbers of homeowners this year. Still, the program has a long way to go before completion of its task.
Meanwhile, in the presidential race, New Orleans was courted by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and others. The city's condition got major airplay throughout the year, but in the end we weren't deemed 'ready" for the prime time of a national presidential debate. After hosting two successful Jazz Fests and two years of Mardi Gras " and gearing up for the BCS Championship game and the NBA All-Star game this spring " the rejection of New Orleans' bid by the Commission on Presidential Debates was the biggest insult since some wondered aloud after Katrina if we should even be rebuilt.
Despite that slight, south Louisiana emerged a winner in 2007 as Congress passed several key pieces of federal legislation, including bailout money for the Road Home program and widespread assistance for coastal restoration and flood protection projects. By year's end, the state likewise had approved hundreds of millions of dollars in recovery funds for the New Orleans area.
ROTTEN TO THE CORPS
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continued to cause headlines as well as headaches this year. After internal memos revealed that certain newly installed levee pumps could cause catastrophic failure, the Corps worked to retest the pumps and prove they were safe. That was followed in November by an announcement that the Corps' latest flood plans, which initially assured thousands of returning homeowners that they were significantly safer now, contained a major miscalculation " and that certain areas were not nearly as protected as originally thought. Days later, the Corps recanted, saying the original calculations were indeed correct, but the affair only bolstered calls for better oversight of the Corps.
On a related track, the grassroots group Levees.org continued to push for an 8/29 commission to investigate the floodwall failures of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the group posted a video spoofing the Corps' allegedly cozy relationship with the American Society of Civil Engineers (which the Corps hired to 'investigate" the Corps' own whitewash of the floodwall failures). The society demanded that Levees.org remove the parody from its Web site (www.levees.org). Under threat of litigation, the group initially demurred. Then, in December, Levees.org founder Sandy Rosenthal announced that two law firms stepped up to represent the organization pro bono in the event of any litigation " and the parody returned to the Internet. The ASCE issued a statement saying it considered the matter 'resolved."
BACK TO LIFE
On many fronts, there were signs that New Orleans was slowly coming back to life: the St. Charles Avenue streetcar began running again from downtown to Napoleon Avenue; several classic neighborhood restaurants reopened, along with a few brand-new ones; Hubig's Pies made it back onto shelves and checkout counters; street signs and traffic signals made a bigger comeback than LSU; and City Park resumed efforts to implement its ambitious pre-Katrina master plan after garnering more than $20 million in recovery funds.
On the neighborhood front, the lack of leadership at City Hall created a void that citizen activists filled by continuing to push for local and statewide reforms while leading the way to local recovery. From Mid-City to eastern New Orleans, from Lakeview to the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleanians have not given up on their town. And we're getting record levels of assistance from charitable, faith-based and other institutions " not to mention celebrities like Brad Pitt, who unveiled his 'Make It Right" initiative in the Lower Nine. Pitt's project will lead to at least 150 homes being rebuilt in the hardest-hit part of town and hopefully encourage more Ninth Warders to return. In his 'Pink Project," Pitt blanketed the neighborhood with pink tents in places where houses still need to be built.
All in all, 2007 taught us that recovery is possible, and hopefully inevitable, but it's going to be a long, difficult road back.
TURNING THE TABLES
There's no better sign of a neighborhood's vibrancy than its restaurants. Many local dining institutions reopened their doors in 2007, including the beloved Camellia Grill in the Riverbend, Mandina's in Mid-City, Willie Mae's Scotch House in Mid-City, and the Bistro at the Maison de Ville in the French Quarter. In Lakeview, they're lining up once again at Tony Angello's, Rocky & Carlo's is back in business in Chalmette, and Chef Leah Chase's Dooky Chase is serving classic Creole fare again.
Another strong sign of the recovery is the number of new restaurants that have opened. Some of the newcomers include chef John Besh's LÜke in the CBD, and Daisy Bistro and Patois in Uptown. Chefs and partners Slade Rushing and Alison Vines-Rushing closed down their restaurant Longbranch on the Northshore but opened MiLa in the CBD. The icing on the cake comes from new sweet shops like Sucre and gelato spots like La Divina Gelateria, both on Magazine Street. When it comes to recovery, our chefs are bringing New Orleans back, one great meal at a time.
While Jazz Fest is back on track, looking for new ways to grow and including ever more diverse national acts " from country singer Brad Paisley to Steely Dan " some of 2007's most memorable moments were in tribute to local legends. When jazz educator and clarinetist Alvin Batiste passed away on the eve of his performance, Branford Marsalis and Batiste relatives like Stephanie Jordan offered a moving musical elegy to his legacy. Meanwhile, Irma Thomas offered a tribute to Mahalia Jackson in the gospel tent.
The festival's 375,000 attendees were treated to an array of familiar faces and special guests, including David Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer, who sat in with everyone from Marva Wright and the Wild Magnolias to Donald Harrison. Other, more exotic finds ranged from the 11 trombones of Elder Edward Babb and the Madison Bumblebees to Ba Cissoko of the Republic of Guinea. There's even Champagne on the grounds now, so Fest-goers can toast the diverse offerings.
WORTH THE WAIT
After waiting more than two years for the recovery, New Orleanians didn't mind standing in line to wait for Godot. New York artist Paul Chan, Creative Time and the main cast of a 2006 Classical Theatre of Harlem floodwater-set version of Waiting for Godot joined forces to re-imagine the play in forsaken New Orleans. Locals headed in droves to an empty and desolate street corner in the Lower Ninth Ward to see the production, prompting the addition of an extra night's performance. The second weekend's production on the edge of the London Canal in Lakeview used a gutted home as a backdrop. Audiences lined up for more than five hours to get tickets to the final performance. All performances were free.
Godot didn't just show up on stage. Chan taught art classes in local schools for months in advance of the run, and he organized a shadow fund to match dollars spent on production with an equal amount in contributions to rebuilding efforts in the two neighborhoods that hosted the play.
Interest in top quality, challenging theater comes as more good news for Broadway South, the theater tax-credits program modeled after the state's film tax credits. Broadway South legislation was signed into law in July and should help venues across the state to draw investment and theater productions to Louisiana.
New Orleans in 2007 continued to have the highest murder rate in America, with no signs of the violence slowing down anytime soon. Cops and prosecutors began the year focused more on fighting each other than on catching criminals. In January, thousands of citizens marched on City Hall to decry the killings of brass-band drummer and music teacher Dinerral Shavers (of the Hot 8 Brass Band) and independent filmmaker Helen Hill in separate holiday murders. Mayor Ray Nagin promised to make fighting violent crime his top priority, which should have been a red flag that this was going to be a really bad year for murders.
The 'Danziger 7" " cops accused of shooting unarmed citizens during Katrina " were greeted and cheered by hundreds of fellow officers on their way into central lockup, but District Attorney Jordan issued a statement saying, 'We cannot allow our police officers to shoot and kill our citizens without justification like rabid dogs."
Meanwhile, surveys throughout the year showed that people were thinking about leaving the city, with crime consistently cited as the primary concern.
Despite Nagin's promises, Police Chief Warren Riley admitted in an interview with Gambit ('We Have a Long Road Ahead of Us," Jan. 16) that things would probably get worse before they got better. He was right. The murder total by the end of year topped 210, making New Orleans one of the nation's most dangerous cities once again.
As the murders continued, attention shifted to the performance " or lack thereof " of District Attorney Eddie Jordan. The city's first black DA resigned amid a public firestorm over his office's dismal performance and his failure to pay a $3.7 million federal judgment. Jordan brought the judgment upon his office by firing dozens of white clerical workers and replacing them with black workers soon after he took office. Jordan's resignation was preceded by a tumultuous string of mishaps, including the frequent release of murder suspects in what became known in criminal circles as 'misdemeanor murders," public spats with Chief Riley ('Can Anybody Fix This?" Feb. 27), two high-profile murder cases that revealed grave oversights by Jordan and his office, and most bizarre of all, an armed robbery suspect seeking refuge in the DA's house minutes after the robbery took place. When Jordan's failure to pay the federal judgment threatened to shut down the DA's office, he was pressured to step down.
Going into 2008, crime remains a major problem. Despite having the Louisiana National Guard and additional FBI, ATF, and DEA officers and agents supporting the NOPD for most of the year, New Orleans remains a violent city. Somehow, though, Jordan's departure has fostered hopes that next year will be better.
LOOK WHO'S TALKING!
Crime and political corruption have long been sources of anger and frustration, but this year our politicos irritated the public almost as much as did the criminals. Louisiana Death Row inmate Donald Lee Leger Jr. apparently sensed the sea change. The convicted killer blasted the 'self-indulgent" practices of the Louisiana Legislature from his cell at Angola state prison in a letter published in the January/February edition of The Angolite prison news magazine. Leger singled out lawmakers' refusal (the previous year) to abolish official perks 'such as sports tickets!" As 2007 drew to a close, thousands of LSU fans scrambled to find tickets for the Fighting Tigers' match-up against Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7 " but LSU offered all 143 members of the outgoing Legislature the option to buy tickets to the sold-out game at face value, a perk not available to the public. Angola officials, meanwhile, announced a Jan. 16 execution date for one of Leger's 81 fellow inmates on Death Row.
You can't talk about 2007 without mentioning Mayor Ray Nagin. Following his public gaffes of 2006 (his comments on the 9/11 site and 'Chocolate City"), the mayor's performance (if you can call it that) and pronouncements took a turn toward farce in 2007. He was so noticeably absent from the public eye for significant periods of time this year " skipping several major City Council meetings, such as the adoption of the 2008 budget " that the catch phrase 'Where's C. Ray?" that once echoed across the city began to be replaced by another not-so-rhetorical query: 'Who cares?" Nagin fueled speculation that his frequent out-of-town trips were more for self-interest and/or selfish political aspirations ('History and Ray Nagin," April 10) than for helping the city. He even had to fess up that he had bought a home in Dallas.
Nagin's state-of-the-city speech in June blamed the federal government and the state for the slow pace of the city's recovery. He was partly correct, but his all-too-familiar rant rang hollow when he failed to acknowledge his own glaring failures.
Also this year, Nagin made arguably his worst gaffe to date when he referred to the city's sky-high murder rate as a 'two-edged sword" because it 'keeps the New Orleans brand out there."
Nagin's year ended in typically outrageous " even delusional " fashion when it was revealed that he didn't vote in the Oct. 20 statewide primary. That didn't stop him from exhorting voters on Nov. 1 to get out and vote in the runoff " and claiming that he is 'busting my butt every day" to make life better. Yeah, right. Two weeks later, after ducking reporters and citizens alike on the issue, he gave a lame denial on WWL-TV ('All About C. Ray," Dec. 11).
Nagin has more than two years left as mayor, but more and more people are concluding that he just doesn't matter.
TAKING THE COW
Various federal investigations rocked the city once again in 2007. USA Today reported that some 141 people had been indicted on public corruption charges in the New Orleans metropolitan area this year, but federal investigators assigned to New Orleans said that was actually good news " it means we are cleaning up our mess. Some of those cases reflected crooks taking advantage of post-Katrina 'opportunities," but most of the high-profile cases underscored Louisiana's notorious legacy of corruption ('What's That Smell?" June 19). FBI Special Agent in Charge James Bernazzani summed it up in a memorable quote: 'In Louisiana, they skim the cream, steal the milk, hijack the bottle and look for the cow."
The jumping-off point once again this year was the ongoing probe into former Mayor Marc Morial's administration. Two top Morial associates, Kerry Decay and Stan 'Pampy" Barre, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in January, making for a total of 16 convictions thus far. Decay refused to apologize in court and got sentenced to nine years. Barre, upon seeing Decay's fate, quickly adopted a more contrite " and cooperative " demeanor. Barre shook City Hall to its core when he told the feds that Councilman at-Large Oliver Thomas took $20,000 in bribes in 2002. Thomas' downfall was swift and certain, but he chose not to 'rat" on others. Consequently, he got the maximum sentence under the federal guidelines (37 months). Barre has not yet been sentenced and may still be cooperating.
Another ongoing federal probe, that of the Orleans Parish School Board, garnered a guilty plea from former board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms. Having already racked up 23 federal guilty pleas, the investigation revealed that Brooks-Simms accepted more than $100,000 in bribes " allegedly from Congressman Bill Jefferson's brother Mose Jefferson. There was no shortage of irony in Brooks-Simms guilty plea, since she campaigned as a reformer against corruption during her tenure and welcomed the FBI to set up shop in the school district's central office. Her conviction also squelched all talk of reinstating Orleans Parish School Board control over the bulk of public schools following the state's post-Katrina takeover.
DOLLAR BILL'S DECLINE
As dramatic as those developments were, they paled in comparison to the corruption case of Congressman Bill Jefferson, who was indicted on 16 counts relating to racketeering, bribery and obstruction of justice after FBI agents raided his home and offices in 2005. Jefferson has taken a lawyerly tack in his defense, arguing that the thousands he took in payments and stock were part of his private business dealings and that his actions in furtherance of high-tech companies seeking his aid were not 'official acts" under federal criminal statutes.
Earlier this month, Jefferson's lawyers won a six-week delay in the start of his trial, which now will commence Feb. 25. The Jefferson case also raised federal constitutional issues because federal agents raided the congressman's office. Back home, fallout from the case caused Jefferson to lose his iron grip on city politics ('The Rise and Fall of Bill Jefferson," Dec. 11).
The Jefferson probe was launched and handled out of the D.C. area, but it took on a local flavor as news broke that U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and the FBI were also investigating state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero for alleged money laundering " possibly in connection with his onetime support of Jefferson's re-election in 2006. Shepherd lashed out at a press conference and said that the feds tried to bully him. He dropped the names Jefferson, state Rep. Karen Carter and Mayor Ray Nagin as persons of interest. All either refused to comment or blasted Shepherd for dragging their names through the mud. The feds say they are moving forward with their investigation into Shepherd, who had just won re-election.
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
New Orleans can take some solace in the hiring and full funding of the city's new Inspector General, Robert Cerasoli, who appears to be on track to have the support he needs to get his office up and running ('The Ethics Mandate," Nov. 27). The City Charter authorized the OIG more than a decade ago, but it took this long for the City Council and the mayor to get off their duffs and make it happen. Cerasoli was appointed by a blue-ribbon Ethics Review Board (also mandated by the charter but only recently appointed), and he promises that the $3.2 million that council members put into his 2008 budget will be money well spent.
The rising star of Louisiana's top Republican, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, came crashing down after he confessed to 'a very serious sin" in connection with his phone number appearing on a list of callers to the so-called D.C. Madam. Deborah Jeane Palfrey faces federal racketeering charges for providing 'escorts" to the likes of Vitter, but he apparently will face no charges for his part in the alleged prostitution ring. The Senator, once a vocal champion of 'family values," issued a terse statement and eventually held a tight-lipped press conference " during which he answered no questions " at the exact moment that Bobby Jindal was announcing his candidacy for governor in New Orleans.
Soon thereafter, the so-called Canal Street madam and a former New Orleans prostitute separately came forward to say that Vitter had been a client of theirs in the past, stirring old rumors about him. Again, he answered no questions and he continues to duck citizens as well as reporters ('The Vitter End," July 17, and 'Questions for Senator Vitter," July 24). Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, who triggered the discovery of Vitter's number on the D.C. Madam's call list, appeared on CNN and held national press conferences blasting Vitter as a hypocrite " and adding a circus-like tone to the whole affair.
When another family values Republican, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, was arrested in a bathroom sex sting targeting homosexuals in a Minneapolis airport, Vitter was thrust back into the national spotlight, this time amid comparisons of the disparate treatment the two senators received from their own party over their respective scandals.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Amazingly, Louisiana saw some changes in leadership that didn't involve corruption or scandal. Gov. Kathleen Blanco's uninspired performance during the darkest days of Hurricane Katrina and the even poorer performance of her Road Home program proved to be her final undoing as she chose not to run for re-election ('She's Come Undone," March 13). The final chapter for Blanco was a tough uphill fight for a political career that seemed to have so much promise when she beat Bobby Jindal in 2003. Jindal's young age (he's 36) and his Indian heritage drew national attention when he won the election to succeed Blanco, beating three major opponents in the primary.
On the local level, legendary Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee lost his long battle against leukemia during his campaign for re-election. Lee's handpicked successor, his longtime right-hand man Newell Normand, then qualified to succeed his boss and did something Lee never achieved in his 28 years as sheriff: he won in the primary with more than 90 percent of the vote.
Public education in Louisiana saw more big changes this year. State Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek was hired in March and helped secure much-needed building capacity for the nascent Recovery School District ('Going Modular," June 26). Pastorek also brought in current RSD chief Paul Vallas, a highly touted name in public education. Vallas received early praise for increasing the availability of teachers, the timely delivery of books and putting technology in the classrooms. He faces more challenges going forward " staying on budget, uniting the district and meeting the demands of a burgeoning student population.
In New Orleans, the continued march of the post-Katrina charter school movement remained the year's big story. More than half of New Orleans' public school children attend one of the 40 charter schools in the district " and by year's end, the state approved even more charter schools for the city. Local charter schools have shown some encouraging first-year results, but New Orleans school children remain, on average, at least one grade level behind their contemporaries.
KATRINA ON TRIAL
Hurricane Katrina itself finally got its day in court in 2007, in a manner of speaking. The so-called Memorial Hospital case saw no charges brought against Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses after state Attorney General Charles Foti arrested them for murder. Foti accused Pou and the nurses of injecting patients with a 'lethal cocktail" during the desperate days following Katrina. In another high-profile case brought by Foti, the emotionally charged St. Rita's Nursing Home trial ended in the acquittal of owners Sal and Mabel Mangano. Foti blamed them " criminally " for the deaths of 35 elderly residents after they refused to evacuate before the storm. The Manganos' attorneys put Gov. Kathleen Blanco, LSU storm expert Ivor van Heerden, St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez and the government itself on trial " arguing that the magnitude of the storm was the real culprit, not the Manganos.
The final resolution in both cases was that man was no match for Katrina.
CIVIL RIGHTS STRUGGLING
The Jena Six case in rural LaSalle Parish made international headlines and stirred debates on race relations across the country, but there were plenty of civil rights issues to be settled right here in New Orleans this year.
Despite protests from local black leaders as well as Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Gretna police were cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with their actions to prevent a group of mostly African-American evacuees from crossing to the West Bank on the Crescent City Connection during Katrina.
HOMELESS FOR THE HOLIDAYS
The city's homeless population has doubled since Katrina (at least by some counts) to roughly 12,000 people ('Out in the Cold," Jan. 2). The growing encampment of homeless at Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall, became a constant reminder that many people are still struggling at the most basic levels of survival more than two years after the storm.
The issue of homelessness was compounded by the mental health crisis that continued during 2007 ('Psyched Out," Mar. 6). Lack of basic services and appropriate facilities produced some tragic results that could have been avoided ('Ticking Time Bombs," June 19). Health studies toward the end of the year were nevertheless shocking when they said that the overall mental health readings of the city still read like a natural disaster trauma zone. Doctors had expected a much different result two years post-K.
In several parts of town, federal attempts to demolish the city's housing projects marked the culmination of a longstanding conflict between some project residents and HUD ('Like a Ton of Bricks," Oct. 24). Some applauded the demolitions as a cure for concentrations of poverty and crime, while others accused HUD (under GOP control) of trying to keep the city's poor and largely African-American population from returning to New Orleans ('Merry Christmas From HUD," Dec. 11) after the storm. A small group of demolition opponents managed to delay some of the destruction through a series of publicized protests at the project sites as well as through lawsuits and sympathetic allies in Congress.
The issue has once again triggered a fiery debate over how New Orleanians envision the rebuilding of their city.
LET US ENTERTAIN YOU
Despite New Orleans' post-Katrina woes, the hospitality industry rebounded strongly this year. It was helped along by the return of staple events like the Bayou Classic, the Essence Festival and Southern Decadence. Additionally, Mardi Gras continued to make a strong comeback with hotel occupancy reaching 95 percent of its pre-Katrina levels.
Jazz Fest had its best year since 2003, with overall attendance at 375,000 while securing the return of the Neville Brothers for 2008 and a continued sponsorship by Shell through 2010. Voodoo Fest likewise brought in big crowds of more than 100,000 to see headliners Rage Against the Machine, Wilco and Smashing Pumpkins.
The year also the saw the emergence of several new, smaller festivals including the New Orleans Seafood Festival, Fiesta Latina and the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival.
On the cultural front, Louisiana's film industry " dubbed 'Hollywood South" " made a strong comeback with 41 film and television projects statewide qualified for tax incentives this year. That comeback was overshadowed, however, by a federal corruption investigation into the state film office's award of tax incentives and by the Hollywood writers' strike. The FBI investigation focused on the state's leading film company, LIFT Productions, and led to a guilty plea by former state film commissioner Mark Smith for taking kickbacks. LIFT laid off most of its employees and halted plans for a new production facility in Treme. Smith's guilty plea cast a pall over the tax credit program, which is otherwise credited with launching Louisiana's film industry and making it an overnight national sensation.
On the screen, no Louisiana production was bigger or more popular (at least in New Orleans) than FOX Network's K-Ville, the cop drama depicting crime and the NOPD in post-Katrina New Orleans. The show was a hit locally but received lukewarm reviews nationally. Dealing with changing and intermittent schedules didn't stop New Orleanians from dissecting the show's take on the city's crime " and debating the accuracy of local depictions. (Anybody up for a gumbo party?) The Hollywood writers' strike brought the show to a premature end.
FAITH, HOPE AND LSU
After getting all the way to the NFC Championship game in snowy Chicago at the end of last season, expectations were justifiably high for the New Orleans Saints this year. Every home game at the Superdome was sold out in advance " a first in franchise history. Drew Brees and Marques Colston repeated as one of the NFL's most dangerous tandems, but injuries to Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, along with inconsistent play, dampened hopes as the 2007 season wore on. Still, by mid-December the Saints held on to a fighting chance to make the playoffs. Hope springs eternal.
All over Louisiana, LSU football fans rode a roller coaster of a season as the Fighting Tigers reached the No. 1 spot in the BCS rankings twice " and then fell after triple-overtime losses to Kentucky and Arkansas. But in the end, the football gods smiled on the Tigers, who vaulted from seventh place into second in the BCS standings on the final weekend of college play. It helped that the Tigers won the SEC championship and had the toughest schedule of any Top 10 team. Now they face No. 1 Ohio State in the Superdome for the BCS championship on Jan. 7. If this season didn't give you a heart attack, nothing will.
Meanwhile, the NBA Hornets finally returned home for a full home season in New Orleans this year " and got off to their best start in franchise history. Attendance, however, has been disappointing. Things could perk up if Chris Paul continues his hot streak, Peja Stojakovic recovers from his injuries and the two lead the Hornets into the playoffs. NBA fans also are looking forward to the 2008 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans on Feb. 17.
So, there you have it. One year that had enough happening to last a lifetime " and enough good reasons to look forward to 2008. Until this time next year, be well.