Every American city has experienced its share of social, environmental, economic and political challenges. New Orleans is probably the only city that, with the possible exception of arctic snow blizzards and desert sandstorms, has exerienced them all.
The citizens of New Orleans connect it to the entire world community, and the river which was the New Orleans’ original economic pillar also connected it to the world. As a consequence New Orleans has always been shaped and reshaped by the outside world. For centuries European wars, Caribbean revolutions, faraway famines, and America’s international relationships have brought new citizens and new economic realities to New Orleans and defined its culture, built its economy, and transformed its landscape. Throughout those same centuries the worldwide demand for products from the American heartland were shipped down America’s greatest waterway through the city’s port.
As a result the city has developed a blend of cultural, economic, social and political experiences that, despite its size, make it undeniably a world class city the likes of Paris, New York, Rome, Cairo, and London. New Orleans may be too small to be the biggest small city in the world, but it is certainly not too big to be the smallest big city in the world. It is now on the front lines of some of the most forward looking urban strategies to address challenges of resilience and climate change. But New Orleans has traditionally not seen itself as part of this world class group of cities, and certainly not a leader in that group. This, I believe, is neither because of its modest size nor its economic limitations, but because of its legacy of race and social exclusion.
I predict that the election of Latoya Cantrell as mayor will change that. Outgoing mayor Mitch Landrieu’s understanding of the economics of culture and his clear eyed and inspiring statements about history and race relations are statements that grow out of painful current and past experiences of New Orleans, that resonate with the entire country and are important contributions to it. Landrieu’s writings are equally important to a world struggling with ethnic issues and conflicts that have been either fought over or swept under the carpet for generations. Mrs Cantrell’s leadership grew out of her sensitivity to the exclusion of people, and her understanding of the social and economic disparities between their neighborhoods and communities. And as former mayor Marc Morial, a towering predecessor of both Landrieu and Cantrell, showed through community policing initiatives, New Orleans has an impressive record when initiatives are driven by civic engagement. Clearly, civic engagement will now, more than ever, drive the city’s solutions. It is an issue with which very few cities have the depth and scope that New Orleans has.
My point is that New Orleans’ world class stature now come from being able to blend diversity into unique and priceless cultural expressions, and from addressing the world’s pressing problems of climate change, urban crime, social exclusion and income disparity. The civic engagement and enclusion that have always been the backbone of these accomplishments are now the core value of the city’s political leadership, an exciting and inspiring new mayor. This bodes well for the future of the city and is the platform on which New Orleans can build its future and broaden its relationships as a world class city. Behind the jazz, the cuisine, and the architecture that have been the basis of the relationships are now to be added the experiences of civic engagement and inclusion.
The author, Bertrand Laurent, a development anthropologist, has worked in governance and work force development around the world for thirty years. Currently the Executive Chairman of The Caribbean Institute, he divides his time between New Orleans and Miami when in the USA. He can be reached at email@example.com