Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, gathers no moss — a fact I was reminded of on Wednesday morning, May 15th, when I talked to him in his comfortable but hardly regal second-floor office in City Hall. He had been, by his count, at the center of eight public meetings or events the day before — some of them in connection with the tragic street shooting at a Mother's Day parade the previous weekend.
The week before that, he had presided over the 2013 World Cultural Economic Forum, an annual gathering he midwifed into being as his state's lieutenant governor in 2008. The same week he had been front-and-center at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a musical conclave that featured hundreds of acts, including artists of national and international prominence. And he had delivered his State of the City address, which boasted numerous practical achievements, not least of them being a building boom and economic upsurge and the stepping-up of New Orleans' recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while at the same time he honestly addressed the city's troubling crime problem, highlighted by a mounting murder rate.
"The theme of that address was 'let's keep what's good and get rid of what's bad and try to know the difference," the mayor said in a far-ranging conversation, a few portions of which are presented here.
Landrieu sees numerous and obvious parallels between his own city and Memphis — a fact he may choose to accentuate when he appears at the Peabody on Thursday, May 30th, as the inaugural honoree and speaker at "A Summons to Memphis," a luncheon event named after the well-known novel by the late Pulitizer Prize-winning Memphis author Peter Taylor.
The event is sponsored by Memphis magazine, the Flyer's sister publication, and is described by publisher Kenneth Neill, CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., as a component to the "celebration of our city's artistic heritage." Each year a different dignitary will be "summoned" to Memphis to provide insight into the issues of urban life.
And Landrieu certainly has insights. Told that the basic problem now confronting the governments of both Memphis and Shelby County is the combination of a declining revenue base with increasing revenue needs, he nodded familiarly.
"Well, that's the whole story right there. Money now is going to the states, not the cities. ... We have a country with a huge debt. Washington is dysfunctional. We have a federal government that's not sending money down to local governments anymore; states that are saying, 'we're not going to do that either,' and basically pushing everything down to the local level, which is faced with either increasing taxes or decreasing services."
The result of that dilemma, he said, is predictable. "People who have, get more. And people who don't have, continue to get more of less. There's an increase in racial tensions and geographic tensions."
In New Orleans, that called for "defining partnerships that didn't exist before" — and the crystallizing of opinion around carefully selected goals. "Nothing beats a lot of money on a project that's important to everybody that comes from a lot of different people, a little bit at a time."
Landrieu presents Katrina as an object lesson par excellence.
"What people don't want to remember accurately was that Katrina was not a natural disaster for us. We get hurricanes all the time. They come in, they go out. We get wet. It knocks things down. We get dry and we clean them up. This has happened on the Gulf Coast forever. This was a man-made disaster.
"What was different about it is there were federal levees designed and built by the government that broke. And when that happened, the city flooded, and the city got 17 feet of water, 500,000 homes got hurt, 250,000 got destroyed, 1,700 people were killed. So, when people say to us, well, the federal government gave you a lot of money, the technical answer and the real answer is: They only gave us about a third of the damage that was caused by the fact that their levees broke. So $126 billion sounds like a lot of money, unless the damage was $300 billion."
Landrieu inherited the problem of Katrina when he was elected mayor in 2010 on his third try for that office. As the son of former Mayor Moon Landrieu and the brother of U.S. senator Mary Landrieu, as a veteran of 16 years in the Louisiana House of Representatives and several terms as lieutenant governor, Landrieu had a well-rounded perspective on how government works.
"The recovery had kind of stalled when we came into office. We had to fix a lot of stuff. The organization of government was kind of dysfunctional. ... I restructured how government was organized and the chain of command, created a new Recovery Office, and began to make some hard decisions that folks wouldn't make before, because we had a limited amount of resources.
"We had a little bit of money and a lot of projects, and the money was spread over these projects, and none of them were fully funded. For example, we had about $1.5 billion worth of projects that were city-related. ... We've only got about $998 million, so we can spread the money and not finish any of these projects, or we can cut a third of the projects out and fully fund the other two-thirds, and that's what we did.
"We thought it was really important to get a lot of the city's infrastructure rebuilt." That meant, among other things, "a streetcar line, a brand-new medical center, a lot of work being done on the sewage and drainage system, a huge amount of retail being built right now in the city." All of that was accomplished by careful "focusing and targeting" of resources. "But to do that," he adds, "you had to tell a lot of people no."
And there was the matter of vision.
"We called the whole city together and said, look, it just can't be the government. The faith-based community, the private sector, not-for-profits, everybody's got to put into the pot, and everybody's got to envision not building the city back the way she was, because the city wasn't in a great spot before Katrina. It had dilapidated schools, it had dilapidated roads. ... I said, y'all think about what you want it to look like in 2018 and then start building and designing toward that. And that's what we did."
But, he says, "We still have problems." And one of those is crime control.
"A city is not all one thing or another. Cities are glorious, beautiful, wonderful, and authentic. They are also deep and dark and troubled. Memphis, Atlanta, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago ...
"Our overall crime rate is safer than 73 percent of American cities. I think Memphis — I don't want to misstate this —has a higher crime rate than New Orleans with rape, robbery, burglary, that sort of thing. However, our murder rate is much higher than Memphis', higher than Atlanta's. ... What we've found out, based on statistics — and I'm willing to bet, without looking it up, that Memphis is not far away from it — that it is generally young African-American men killing young African-American men, who are somehow related in geography, may or may not be in gangs, and are messing around with each other relating to drugs and other kinds of relationships. And the cycle of violence goes, you disrespected me or took my stuff or you came into my neighborhood, and the way we resolve our differences is by shooting each other in the head and leaving you for somebody else to find."
Landrieu has tried a number of approaches, including responding to high-incidence crime areas with a "multi-agency gang unit — the ATF, DEA, FBI, the New Orleans Police Department., U.S. Marshals — everybody converging on the area." Think Memphis' Blue Crush on steroids.
Another point of affinity with Memphis concerns the positive impact of cultural and sports events in generating a sense of community.
Landrieu saw obvious connections between the rise of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, a Super Bowl winner in 2010, the year he became mayor, and the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, a playoff contender for each of the last three years, and saw a geometric rise in solidarity in both cases.
"The Saints took that to another level, because the city was so used to losing, in everything, that when the Saints won, it gave us a chance to think, you know, we can actually go from worst to best. And they have been a driving force in our ability as a community to come back and visualize ourselves as a successful town, and I would think the Grizzlies would do the same thing for you."
A knowing look, a pause, and then a chuckle.
"Unfortunately, I think if you get the [Miami] Heat, you're going to have a little trouble."
We'll count him as a well-wisher, anyhow.