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A Two-City Tale

New Orleans and Houston offer a study in contrasts.

4:36 PM, Sep 6, 2005 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Late last week, as New Orleans was sliding into savage conditions, some talking heads were glowing with pleasure at the idea of a moral meltdown of such immense proportions that it would not only bury George Bush in its rubble, but erode forever the country's self confidence. Or, as Robert Scheer would happily write, "Instead of the much-celebrated American can-do machine that promises to bring freedom and prosperity to less fortunate people abroad, we have seen a callous official incompetence that puts even Third World rulers to shame."

Not quite. The reason New Orleans slid so quickly from civilization into Third World conditions was that it was pretty much a Third World city already, and didn't have too far to go. In its violence, in its corruption, in its reliance on ambience and tourism as its critical industry, in its one-party rule, in its model of graftocracy built on a depressed and crime-ridden underclass that was largely kept out of the sight and the mind of vacationing revelers, it was much more like a Caribbean resort than a normal American city. Its crime and murder rates were way above national averages, its corruption level astounding. The latter was written off as being picturesque and perversely adorable, until it suddenly wasn't, as it paid off in hundreds of buses--that could have borne thousands of stranded people to safety--sitting submerged in water, and police either looting or AWOL.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville defined a long set of traits that made Americans "different," and that remain today just as valid: Americans are restless, inventive, pragmatic, entrepreneurial, socially mobile, and so future-oriented they are ready and eager sometimes to let go of the past. None of these things defined what once was New Orleans; in fact, that poor destroyed city played them in reverse: It was socially static, fairly caste-ridden, non-entrepreneurial (read hostile to business), and wholly immersed in its past, to the point where its main industry is marketing ambience and nostalgia. "New Orleans's dominant industry lies not in creating its future but selling its past," wrote Joel Kotkin in the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com. "Tourism defines contemporary New Orleans's economy more than its still-large port, or its remaining industry, or its energy production. Although there is nothing wrong, per se, in being a tourist town, it is not an industry that attracts high-wage jobs; and tends to create a highly bifurcated social structure. This can be seen in New Orleans's perennially high rates of underemployment, crime and poverty." New Orleans, in short, was the place you went to take a vacation, not to prosper in life and start a family, much less start a business. This lack of opportunity, or the upward ladder of social mobility, is perhaps one reason so many evacuees felt they were breathing fresh air when they landed in Houston, and are deciding to make it their home.

Let us look now at Houston, for it is the second city in this cosmic drama, and one in which Tocqueville would feel right at home. Like so many cities in the Sunbelt, it is expanding, entrepreneurial, based on the future, and the place where the "much celebrated American can-do machine that promises to bring freedom and prosperity to less fortunate people" comes roaring to life. "In l920, New Orleans's population was nearly three times that of Houston," says Kotkin. "During the '90s, the Miami and Houston areas grew almost six times as fast as greater New Orleans, and flourished as major destinations for immigrants . . . These newcomers have helped transform Miami and Houston into primary centers for trade, investment and services, from finance and accounting to medical care for the entire Caribbean basin. They have started businesses, staffed factories, and become players in civic life."

It is now no surprise that Houston is the place where in days they built a new city in and around the Astrodome, that has taken in 25,000 refugees from New Orleans, and is planning to feed, house, employ, and relocate most of them. Houston is the place where the heads of all the religious groups in the city--Baptists and Catholics, Muslims and Jews--came together to raise $4.4 million to feed the evacuees for 30 days, and to supply 720 volunteers a day to prepare and serve meals. If New Orleans was where the Third World broke through, Houston was where the First World began beating it back, and asserting its primacy. Are we surprised that the star of this show has been Texas, home of Karl Rove and both Bushes, widely despised by the glitterati as sub-literate, biased, oppressive, and retrograde? No.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.