Can Mayor Mitch Landrieu reinvent New Orleans?
This story was first published May 1, 2011. It was updated on June 22, 2011.
New Orleans is one of the oldest cities in America. It's rich with culture and legendary for its indulgences and its disasters. Almost six years after Katrina, and one year after the BP oil spill, New Orleans has a new mayor with a new plan on how to run the city.
Mitch Landrieu says it's time to rebuild this place not into what it was but into what it can be. As we first told you in May, he brings his own brand of intensity to the Big Easy.
And like many people who live there, Landrieu is in the middle of a love affair with his troubled city, as we discovered when we caught up with him during Mardi Gras.
Can this man save New Orleans?
Will Mitch Landrieu become the mayor who brings the town back from the brink?
New Orleans is a rich gumbo of French, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean culture that has been slow cooking for three centuries. Tourism there is a $5 billion-a-year industry. And the biggest draw is Mardi Gras.
Beneath the Mardi Gras masks and the makeup, buried deep in the music, is an energy to New Orleans like no place else in America. And Mayor Mitch Landrieu moves to it with his own rhythm of leadership.
"I get the impression that you're having as much fun as the people are," correspondent Byron Pitts remarked, as Landrieu mingled in the crowd.
"I love Mardi Gras. I'm a street rat. I told you, I really, really enjoy it," Landrieu replied. "It's a lot of fun."
Mardi Gras is a two week long party where even the high and mighty can get down and dirty.
"You've been described, people I've talked to, as very much a modern-day mayor, that someone who was into statistics and analysis of things. But what we've seen is also an old-school mayor who likes to press the flesh and kiss babies and in New Orleans' case, dance with babies. Which are you? Which world are you more...comfortable?" Pitts asked.
"I'm both," Landrieu replied.
"Which one's more natural for you?" Pitts asked.
"They're both. I love 'em both. I mean, I love people. I mean, I'm in this business because I really love people," Landrieu said.
Landrieu's election in February 2010 held an omen of positive changes from the start - the very next day, the Saints won the Super Bowl.
"In a crazy way, it was a spiritual moment for the people of the city. People here so desperately needed something good to happen, and to believe that you could go from worst to best," Landrieu said. "You see that beginning to happen on the streets of the City of New Orleans."
But many of those streets are filled with reminders of the destructive power and emotional trauma inflicted by Katrina. Today, there are about 45,000 abandoned homes and buildings in New Orleans, making it one of the most blighted cities in America. But Landrieu says the city is making a comeback.
"Our unemployment rate is lower than the national average. Our housing values have gone up nine percent in the last year. For the first time in, I don't know, years, all of a sudden, more people are movin' back into the city," he told Pitts.
"The people of New Orleans not only are resilient, and not only are rebuilding back, but they're examples that in many areas we're doing better than we were before. And people just didn't fold their tent and go away," Landrieu said. "Because the things that we learned in Katrina is that the value of life does not come from the size of the home that you live in. That your church is not the building that you go to. It's the community that you have grown up and lived with."
Produced by David Schneider Landrieu grew up on Prieur Street in a middle class, integrated neighborhood.
"This is where I learned everything that I know, really everything that I know is a result of the values that I learned on this particular spot, learned how to live with other people that are not like you, learned how to compete and how to share, learned how to be part of a community," he told Pitts.
"And what is the saying if it doesn't play here?" Pitts asked.
"If it don't play on Prieur Street, it don't play. This is what it is," Landrieu said.
His father Moon, the former mayor, and mother Verna, still live in the house where they raised him with his eight brothers and sisters.
"I'd put him out here in his playpen out and he's talking to everybody walking the streets. I mean, and one day he climbed...," Verna Landrieu remembered.
"Put me out to play? Tell him the truth, you put me in a harness," Landrieu said, laughing. "You tied me to the porch, and put me in a harness out there."
"Well, I tied you down there in the harness, because you, he kept running into the street. But he was just one, you know, he was just constantly moving and friendly, and so, I mean, he's got his hands full, but he loves it," Landrieu's mother said.
"He's always been that way?" Pitts asked.
"Always, since the day he's born, absolutely," she replied.
After Katrina, the Landrieu home, like so many others, stood in nearly seven feet of floodwaters. "The damage that was caused down here was not caused by a natural disaster. It was caused because the levees broke. And the levees were owned, engineered and operated by the federal government," Landrieu said.
But this year, New Orleans has added protection for the hurricane season: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is nearly finished building 120 miles of walls and levees that will circle the city. At a cost of nearly $15 billion dollars, it's supposed to withstand a so-called "hundred year storm," much like Katrina.
The centerpiece is a 1.8 mile-long concrete wall that rises 26 feet above the water.
Pitts and Landrieu toured the wall, which the mayor said is eight miles away from the city. "You know, you got the coast, you got the wall and then you have the city, which is why they can comfortably say we are a lot safer than we were before Katrina," Landrieu said.
But inside the storm walls, Landrieu has plenty of other problems. "Nobody here is naive. I mean, what we're doin' is hard. Nobody else in the country has ever done this. People have had struggles in their communities with one thing or another. We're struggling with everything," he explained.
Asked what "everything" is, Landrieu said, "Everything is everything. Everything is, 'I don't have a house.' Everything is, 'I don't have a car.' Everything is, 'I don't have a doctor.' Everything is, 'I don't have a road.' Everything is, 'I don't have a school.' And we have to re-patch all that stuff."
When Landrieu took office he faced the same problems other mayors do: budget deficits, high unemployment and crime. But he also took over a city government described as suffering from incompetent leadership and widespread corruption.
"That's accurate," Landrieu acknowledged.
"It sounds like you have your hands full just fixing city government before you can fix the city," Pitts remarked.
"That's an excellent question. And the answer is, 'Yes.' And the answer is also, 'We have to do both,'" Landrieu said.
"You've been very up front about the problems in New Orleans. Why the blunt honesty? Is it to lower expectations?" Pitts asked.
"The people of New Orleans have gotten to rock bottom. And the only way out in my mind is for them to really understand it, and then to really choose to get better," Landrieu explained.
The one problem most people want to see solved quickly is violent crime. New Orleans has the highest per capita murder rate in the country.
The neighborhood of St. Roch looks quaint on the surface, but there have been at least ten murders since last November, in an area just over one square mile.
The mayor acknowledged crime is his biggest obstacle.
"You've got to fix that first," Pitts remarked.
"Well, let me say this. You have to fix everything all at the same time. You can't concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of the others," Landrieu said.
Landrieu and the top brass from the New Orleans Police Department walked through St Roch during our visit. It's something they do every month in tough neighborhoods.
The mayor says it makes people feel safer and more connected to him and the police.
"Do you fully appreciate how much people expect from you? I mean, there are people...in the city who are genuinely counting on you, Mitch Landrieu, to make their city, make their life better," Pitts said.
"Well, that's good. I'm countin' on them," Landrieu replied. "I mean, so back at you. I mean, we're all in this together. They had enough of people pulling us apart. We're going to try to figure it out. They also know intuitively that they have to do themselves."
Part of the "crime problem" is the New Orleans Police Department itself. Last year, Landrieu took the unusual step of asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.
In March, it issued a scathing report describing a corrupt and dysfunctional police force.
"Political corruption is endemic all over this country, in some places worse than others, right?" Landrieu said. "On crime, you have all the major American cities where the crime rates at different points in their histories, have spiked dramatically. So this is not somethin' that we get just because we drank it in the water down here. It's not sumpin' that you don't find in other places. But for some reason, we seem to kinda get, you know, the microscope."
"I don't know if 'defensive' is the right word. But you get riled up," Pitts pointed out.
"Well 'pissed' would be the better word," Landrieu replied, laughing. "Okay? Because you get to these things where you go to places and people say things to you. They just say, 'Well, gee. I didn't realize that we were the only ones that were like that.' By the way, you know, people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Take care of your business and we'll take care of ours. So confronting corruption, confronting crime, making sure the people of America know that we know we've got it and we're gonna do somethin' about it is a healthy thing."
"I think it's actually a pretty exciting time, I think. The fact that we have a hands-on mayor," Father Tony Ricard told Pitts.
On the mayor's walk through St. Roch, Pitts met the neighborhood priest, Father Tony.
"It seems to me in New Orleans, your problems have problems. That everything that can be wrong with urban environment is wrong in New Orleans," Pitts said. "So can one mayor fix them?"
"I think that you always need a catalyst to start somethin'. You know, when God created the world, there was the big bang. Somebody had to make the boom. And I think this mayor has the ability to be that bang, to be that one that will give us that start," Father Tony said.
Many believe Landrieu at least has the pedigree: his sister Mary has been a U.S. senator from Louisiana since 1997. And the last white mayor of New Orleans was their father Moon. He ran the city in the 1970s, when it was bitterly divided by race and class. His most important step was integrating city government, and setting the stage for a succession of four black mayors. Mitch Landrieu's election broke the streak.
"As you well know, New Orleans has been dominated by white business elite, black political elite. But you're neither one of those. So do you represent a new way, a third way of doing business in New Orleans?" Pitts asked.
"Well, yeah. I think so. You can't hide behind race any more. You can't hide behind class structure any more. You can't hide behind family. You need to produce," Landrieu said. "I have to be honest with you. I get a little frustrated that things don't move more quickly."
"Sometimes I think I was born in the Northeast because I have a couple of, you know, not-so-good things about me. I'm impatient. I'm hot tempered. I wanna go faster rather than slower. I don't understand why things take so long. At the same time, I have to admit to you that you don't wanna lose the richness of what it is that we do down here. And sometimes, richness takes time," he explained.
During the pageantry of Mardi Gras, Landrieu presides over the parades with their elaborate floats and marching bands.
"I've talked to a lot of politicians who certainly love and respect their city. But you seem to have a unique affection for New Orleans," Pitts pointed out.
"I think that you know now that I'm like every other New Orleanian. You've talked to a lot of people on the streets, and every one of them will tell you that they are desperately in love with this troubled yet beautiful city. This place that is just so spectacular that it just, as I like to say, gets all up in 'em all the time," he replied.
This year's Mardi Gras was the largest since Katrina, a $350 million moneymaker for New Orleans. It's one more sign - he says - this American original is starting to thrive again.
"I think that you know that people here are gonna fight for what it is that we have because we love it so much. We just adore it," he told Pitts.
"It sounds romantic the way you describe it," Pitts said.
"It is romantic," Landrieu said. "It's one of the things that people like about the place."
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