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Tale of Two Cities -- Revisited 

Twenty years from now, what will our children say about our best efforts to improve our city?

New Orleans begins the New Year anticipating both a mayoral primary on Feb. 2 and Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3. Mayor Marc Morial's eight years in office end three months later -- making the Super Bowl his last best shot to showcase our city to a horde of visiting VIPs.

As we enter the New Year, we sense the rhythms and repetitions of history. For example, in January 1981, New Orleans Mayor Dutch Morial greeted visitors to Super Bowl XV with a city-funded brochure titled A Tale of Two Cities. Designed specifically for an audience of visiting business leaders, Dutch Morial's Two Cities still stands, two decades later, as a serious, fact-intensive "exposition of a new kind of New Orleans growing dramatically within the old." In addition to articulating Dutch's vision of New Orleans' potential, the report offered a remarkably candid assessment of a city struggling to catch the rest of the New South.

Reading the report today, we are struck how some of Dutch Morial's visions for the future faded, while others blossomed, and still others await fulfillment. Dr. Anthony Mumphrey, who today is the master consultant for the $800 million renovation of Louis Armstrong International Airport, served the elder Morial two decades ago as the mayor's executive assistant for planning and development. "New Orleans' fall from glory lasted so long, from the end of the Civil War to the 1970s, that failure, cynicism and pessimism had become an ingrained habit," Mumphrey wrote. "I think success has come as a shock and much of the citizenry keeps waiting for the sky to come falling down." Those words still ring true, and they should serve as a signpost to mayoral candidates. We need a leader who can convince us that our problems are solvable -- starting with perhaps our biggest problem, our failure to believe in ourselves.

Other Two Cities passages have an eerie ring today. "The billion dollar energy industry puts down deep roots," one headline proclaims. Morial could not have foreseen the oil bust that began the following year, in 1982, or the industry's abandonment of downtown New Orleans for Houston in the 1990s -- the result of multi-national mergers and their ensuing pressures to downsize the entire industry.

In 1981, Mumphrey predicted the 7,000 acres in eastern New Orleans designated the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District would provide 50,000 jobs by the year 2000. Today, the most optimistic estimate by The Chamber is 8,000 jobs at what is now the New Orleans Business and Industrial District. That prediction includes the struggling Jazzland. Folger's Coffee has a $100 million expansion planned, and there are high hopes for Lockheed Corporation's share of a military fighter jet project. Voters on Feb. 2 must decide whether to renew a 22.79-mill tax to benefit NO-BID. That, at least, presents a chance for citizens to buy into a major piece of the city's economic development scheme, and to hold public officials accountable for past efforts.

In 1981, tourism was the second major industry in the city; now it's No. 1. Then as now, the port boasted favorable but industry-specific statistics. Today, the port's future may depend on the state's selection of a downriver Millennium Port, and tourism's fortunes turn precariously on international events.

In 1981, Two Cities touted the $150 million conversion of "waterfront ugliness" in preparation for the 1984 World's Fair. The Fair was an artistic success and a financial disaster, but it proved to be a major catalyst for the Arts-Museum-Warehouse District and a multi-billion dollar economic engine that now bears the late mayor's name: the Dutch Morial Convention Center. In retrospect, the Fair was a huge success for what it left in its wake, not for what happened during the six months it was open.

Two Cities saluted developer Lester Kabacoff for building the riverfront Hilton Hotel on the site of old wharves. Today, his son Pres Kabacoff has offered Mid-City the creative conversion of the old American Can Co. factory into a multi-use residential development project. The younger Kabacoff's vision of a Wal-Mart anchoring redevelopment of the St. Thomas project site has proven a tougher sell.

In 1981, Patti Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center, led the effort to rescue 13 architecturally significant structures on Julia Street from the middle of "skid row." That corridor today anchors the arts district. Meanwhile, preservationists battle developments as well as a perception that they obstruct jobs and better housing for the city's poor.

And in 1981, a young zoo director named L. Ronald Forman received recognition for leading the rescue of the animals in the Audubon Zoo, which had been "a place of cruelty and neglect." Today, Audubon is one of the finest zoos in the country and the crown jewel of a cluster of Audubon success stories. Redevelopment of the park golf course has hit "sand traps" with some neighbors and park users, however.

Tale of Two Cities shows us that we've come a long way -- and that we still have far to go. Twenty years from now, what will our children say about our best efforts?


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