Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Tale of Two Katrina Cities

To me one of the most personally compelling aspects of the post-Katrina environment has been the huge number of refugees who have ended up in Houston. The Houston Chronicle has estimated that there are 239,000 refugees in Texas altogether, and the largest proportion of them is in Houston.

I grew up in Houston. I have also visited New Orleans many times, and almost took a job there once. I have a fond attachment to both cities, and am struck by how different they are. In many ways New Orleans is the anti-Houston (or vice versa if you prefer), both in stereotype and in the data.

Houston is perhaps the nation’s ultimate free-market city. The lack of zoning laws means that bankrupt restaurants can be converted into anything, and contribute to a startling rate of competitive experimentation and transformation. The downside of this is that people can put of any old thing they want, without concern over the effects on the neighbors. The Economist magazine, in a largely flattering article in 2001, said simply that “Houston is ugly. It was hardly charming to begin with and has pulled down many of its old buildings.” But fundamentally Houston looks like freedom. It looks like people busy going about the very important work of creating value. The self-sorting qualities of the market, whereby art gallery owners like to be situated near other galleries rather than factories, and some homeowners prefer to be in the midst of the big city and others in quiet cul-de-sacs, means that land is still arranged to create the most value. And freedom of commerce promotes somewhat more social harmony, as I argued previously. According to Census data for Houston and New Orleans, Houston is roughly 50% non-"white," and 37.3% of businesses are "minority"-owned. In New Orleans, which is roughly 71% non-"white," only 28.6% of businesses are minority-owned. According to the above Economist piece, an astonishing 88% of Houston residents, the highest of any U.S. city surveyed, agreed in 2001 that “if you work hard in this city, eventually you will succeed.”

But at the same time Houston can never have the soul of the Crescent City. Hardly one of America’s biggest cities, New Orleans is always substantially overrepresented on the list of America’s best restaurants. Its local culture, of which Mardi Gras (the most interesting parts of which have nothing to do with Bourbon Street hedonism) is only the most famous example, has no parallel. While Houston is America stretched to the limit, built on ambition, the freedom to succeed or fail, the constant destruction of the recent past to enable the construction of a new future, and above all the glories of commerce, New Orleans is an outpost of the Old World in the New, devoted to preservation of its ancient ways (it is often said that a family has to be there for 200 years before being accepted as an old-timer) and with the finer things in life. New Orleans, along with Tennessee, invented much of what the world knows as modern American music.

And yet New Orleans is unfortunately increasingly built on the tourist Potemkin village in front masking the poverty-stricken city behind it. In New Orleans the poverty rate is 27.9% (as opposed to 19.2 percent in Houston), 15.3% of industrial employment is in “arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services,” and 20.4% of residents work for the government. For Houston, these figures are 8.1% and 11.1% respectively. New Orleans, other than the oil industry, prior to Katrina primarily survived as Las Vegas on the bayou and with quirkier culture.

But despite that seemingly limited economic portfolio, the country needs both cities. They are both different parts of what it means to be America. New Orleans will be back, a shrunken but still vital version of its former self, not just because of its unique geographic value but because so many of its people conceive it as vital. To be from New Orleans is to immediately identify yourself to the world as a distinct kind of American, and that sort of invaluable cultural treasure will not go away without a fight. But for those in New Orleans who were stifled by its lack of robust and diverse economic growth, the flip side of America, Houston, beckons.


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