On April 10, New Orleans was in the midst of its most successful French Quarter Festival ever — organizers pegged attendance at more than half a million people — when violence broke out on Canal Street. Two men with a longstanding beef exchanged words, fired shots and sent seven people to the hospital on a Saturday night from a heavily patrolled area in the heart of the city's tourist district. The story grabbed international headlines, as did one central image captured by a news photographer: There were so many bullet casings littering Canal Street that an NOPD officer had to use a souvenir go-cup to mark the position of one of them.
Good music, a good party, a good drink and violence that shocks the soul: Those are the images New Orleans broadcasts to the world, and that's the city new Mayor Mitch Landrieu inherits this week as he takes the oath of office at Gallier Hall. He's also inheriting a severely dysfunctional police department and a huge budget deficit. In an interview with Gambit last week, Landrieu said he was "very unhappy to learn the police department has overspent its budget by $15 million" this year. The next day, the city's revenue estimating conference put this year's shortfall at $25 million.
The outgoing administration has left Landrieu and all of New Orleans in a hole. That is Ray Nagin's legacy.
And then there's the Danziger Bridge incident, in which NOPD cops shot unarmed citizens in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The feds have charged four cops, and the ensuing cover-up threatens to become one of the worst scandals ever in a department plagued by corruption. Many in the city, particularly African-Americans, distrust the very people whose job it is to maintain order, and for good reason.
Such is the rat's nest of challenges Landrieu inherits this week, yet he shows an admirable willingness to roll up his sleeves and get to work. He has not ruled out court action on questionable contracts; he has run a vigorous national search for a police chief who can reform NOPD; and he has said that if the New Orleans Recreation Department isn't in shape to open pools and parks this summer, he'll ask the business community for immediate help.
Landrieu stands at a precipice. Just a few months ago, the New Orleans Saints accomplished the seemingly impossible by advancing to the Super Bowl and bringing home the Lombardi Trophy. There's a renewed national interest in our city, thanks to the cable drama Treme, which has won nearly universal critical acclaim for its depiction of New Orleanians struggling to come back after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. And events like the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival are bringing record crowds back to the city to enjoy all the things we do so well. Landrieu's challenge will be to build on these achievements and momentum while repairing the things New Orleans historically has flubbed.
It's a tall order, but not an impossible one. In 2006, Newark, N.J., elected a young mayor named Cory Booker, who faced many of the problems New Orleans faces today — poor city services, underperforming public schools, a lack of good jobs, a budget severely out of whack, widespread political corruption (five of its last seven mayors have been indicted) and a soaring crime rate. In 1996, the rate of violent crime in Newark was six times the national average, earning it the title of America's Most Dangerous City from TIME magazine. New Orleans now holds that distinction. Booker came into office with brashness, energy and a laser focus on fighting crime. Results did not happen overnight, but a restructuring of Newark's police department and an unrelenting attack on violence brought violent crime rates down. They continue to fall. This March, Newark celebrated its first calendar month since the 1940s without a single murder.
Landrieu says he has sought the counsel of America's best mayors. That's a good start, especially compared to Nagin's go-it-alone approach to governance. The example of Newark should show us all that radical improvement is within our grasp if Landrieu and citizens work together to make it happen. At any precipice, we have two choices: fall into the abyss — or soar.
Our wings are spread, Mr. Mayor. Lead the way.