Each year at this time, it's our habit to take stock of the city, our neighbors and ourselves. At year's end, we prefer to breathe deeply and focus on all the reasons we remain in this improbable, wonderful place — in short, to count our blessings. These are the things for which we were grateful in 2008 and which make us hopeful for 2009:
We dared to hope and change. New Orleans elected a new congressman, Anh "Joseph" Cao, and helped elect a new president, Barack Obama. Much has been made, of course, about the change these men embody (Cao is the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress, and Obama the first African-American president), but it's our hope the changes they bring will be more tangible ones for Louisiana — sensible energy policies, a commitment to restoring our wetlands, and Category 5 levee protection for southeast Louisiana.
The recovery continues. Sure, it's a story of fits and starts, but at least in 2008 we put some plans in place for the future of New Orleans. While many criticized the new School Facilities Master Plan (SFMP), we think the end product was properly vetted, displaying an engaged public and responsive school administrators. The plan was initially put forth for public comment, and many passionate residents told Orleans Parish School Board members, administrators and Recovery School District officials what was right and wrong with the SFMP. Changes ensued, and although not everyone was left happy, most people realize the plan is a living document that can and will change over time.
By financial measures, the proposed LSU/VA medical complex easily will be the largest investment in post-Katrina New Orleans. A lot rides on this plan — the future of health care for the indigent and uninsured, health care for veterans, a teaching hospital for LSU and Tulane, and the development of an economically viable biosciences district — and much of the financing for the LSU/VA remains uncertain. We hope that sometime in 2009, we will see concrete signs that this plan will become a reality.
We got serious about land use. For years, New Orleans had no citywide master plan, but voters wisely concluded in November that there's no point in writing a city plan if it does not have the force of law behind it. When New Orleanians decide what goes into the master plan — and, yes, this is a nagging reminder to attend the citywide planning meetings — the law will be on our side.
Hurricane season came ... and went. For the first time since Katrina, we faced a large-scale evacuation. Our nerves and our wallets were sorely tested, but New Orleans as a whole suffered a few weeks of inconvenience rather than many months of agony. Unfortunately, Hurricane Gustav inflicted enormous damage on coastal Louisiana (including the entirety of the United Houma Nation) and Baton Rouge, previously thought to be a safe evacuation haven. Hurricane Ike then tore apart Galveston Island in Texas. Truly, we felt their pain.
Our culture continued to thrive. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival saw its biggest year since Katrina; the Voodoo Music Experience came of age in its 10th year; and even the Po-Boy Preservation Festival, in its second year, looks like a winner in years to come. The number of local restaurants has eclipsed pre-Katrina levels. More than 80 major TV and film projects were produced in the state, from Oliver Stone's W. to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (starring Brad Pitt, whose first Make It Right homes opened in the Lower Ninth Ward just before Christmas). Perhaps the single most significant artistic endeavor was Dan Cameron's Prospect.1 biennial, a sprawling, citywide exhibit that drew glowing press and visitors from around the world.
The Inspector General has reported for duty. After a year of delays and frustration, New Orleans Inspector General Robert A. Cerasoli issued his first interim report on the city's use of take-home cars. Now it's up to the City Council to put some teeth in the IG's recommendations and institute some real reform. Here again, real progress will take an engaged electorate keeping the pressure on local officials.
The Saints continue to break our hearts, but the Hornets give us a buzz. The Hornets gave us a lot of post-season joy in 2008, and we hope the team will go even further in 2009 — to places unheard of for New Orleans professional sports franchises.
Tick-tock, tick-tock. As you read this, Mayor Ray Nagin has less than 500 days left in his inert second term. We're getting a new mayor in 16 months, and that means New Orleans may finally see what real leadership can do. Look for many names to surface in the coming months as potential candidates weigh their chances. Let's hope citizens demand a leader who doesn't just strut, preen, swagger and bluster — but who actually walks the walk for reform, leadership, courage and recovery.
Now that's something to hope for!