Nearly five years ago, in our first post-Katrina issue, we called New Orleanians to action in the rebuilding of our historic and unique city ("By Our Own Bootstraps," Nov. 1, 2005). We noted the various local planning committees that were competing for political relevance against a backdrop of citizens and businesses going it alone. "This is a time of tremendous challenge — and virtually unlimited opportunity," we wrote. "Let's not squander it." We noted that then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu took the lead in forging a team to bring back the local hospitality industry — with the ambitious goal of seeing it operate at full capacity by Mardi Gras 2006. That goal was met in spectacular fashion. Today, Landrieu is our city's new mayor, and he's setting equally ambitious goals for himself and New Orleans in the years to come.
While we look forward to a better New Orleans, it's appropriate to reflect on how far we've come since Katrina. Indeed, New Orleanians have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps on many fronts:
• Politically, we threw off the shackles of old-style leadership and dissolved longstanding political fiefdoms. Thanks to citizen-led initiatives, New Orleans now has one assessor instead of seven, one sheriff instead of two, and soon it will have one court system as well. Citizens also pushed to reform local levee boards and to demand higher ethical standards from elected officials. Most of all, New Orleanians finally took charge of their city's political future after decades of complacency and a sense that nothing could ever change. "Enraged and engaged" best described the post-Katrina electorate, and that spirit has given New Orleans a very different political landscape.
• Local public education has undergone a radical transformation. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, lawmakers authorized a state takeover of failing public schools in New Orleans. Since then, New Orleans has been the epicenter of education reform in America. Dozens of charter schools (each with its own board) have replaced once-failed traditional schools, and test scores are steadily climbing. Elementary and high schools operated by the Orleans Parish School Board likewise have improved dramatically, and the school district recently refinanced $97 million in bonds after receiving clean audits four years in a row — and finishing with a surplus for the last two years.
• Artistically and culturally, New Orleans is undergoing a renaissance. The city has more restaurants today than it had before the storm, and the explosion of local artistic expression that followed the hurricane was one of Katrina's silver linings. Galleries, theaters, filmmaking, and musical and cultural festivals are as much a part of local life as ever, if not more so. The newly restored Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts likewise has brought life back to Armstrong Park. On the literary front, poets, historians and authors have produced an entire genre of post-Katrina works, and the city's struggle to recover continues to inspire artists across all disciplines.
As we look back at how far New Orleans has come since Aug. 29, 2005, we also look forward to our city's ongoing journey of rebuilding and renewal. We do so not only to make our city better than ever, but also to honor those whose lives were lost or forever changed for the worse by Katrina and the federal flood that accompanied the storm.
Despite all the progress New Orleans has made since Katrina, our city lags in two critical areas: public infrastructure and all-inclusive neighborhood redevelopment. The two are closely related. Neighborhoods that were poor and underserved before the storm remain even more so today. The Lower Ninth Ward, for example, remains world-renowned for the slow pace of recovery there. Wealthier and middle-class neighborhoods with higher percentages of insured homeowners recovered faster, thanks to private-sector investments. If New Orleans is truly to recover from Katrina, the recovery must include all neighborhoods. Where private capital is lacking, public infrastructure should lead recovery efforts. This includes stepped-up enforcement of blight laws, as Mayor Landrieu recently noted in town hall meetings.
Much work remains to be done, but New Orleans is well on its way. We noted five years ago that our city's recovery would be a marathon, not a sprint. Thanks to a change in leadership — and increased citizen activism — our city is finally hitting its stride.