It's that time of year again. Time to pause a few moments and take stock of what has happened these past 12 months in New Orleans. As is our custom, we do this with an optimistic spirit — not rose-colored glasses, mind you — and with gratitude for what New Orleans has received and achieved. It doesn't require much study to realize that, despite all that's happened since January 2005, New Orleans has been blessed. So let's look back once again and recall the things that make living here better than anywhere else.
Public school construction projects were one of the brightest beacons of the city's recovery in 2009. In late August, the first of these, Langston Hughes Academy Charter School in Mid-City, welcomed back students, and next month three more — Treme's Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in Broadmoor and the Lake Area School, which will house the Greater Gentilly High School — will reopen their doors. Nine more schools are under design, and each harkens the return of a neighborhood.
Schools aren't the only things that are "going up" in public education; so are student test results. For the third consecutive year, New Orleans public school kids improved their LEAP test scores. Much of the credit goes to the charter school movement — the majority of the city's students are enrolled in charter schools — and we are thankful for all the dedicated administrators, teachers, board members and families who are helping the charter experiment succeed.
Crime remains a problem across the metro area, but advances are being made, especially in prosecutions. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and his staff have significantly increased the number of felony cases they accept. More important, the number of felony convictions is up sharply. Our new DA also believes in rehabilitating petty offenders. Instead of just trying to lock up every defendant, Cannizzaro has more than doubled the number of participants — from 335 to 791 — in his diversion program, which allows nonviolent offenders to get drug rehabilitation, job training and other counseling opportunities instead of jail time and a lifelong rap sheet. Since little court time is spent in placing someone in the program, it also lets the DA's office concentrate on getting violent criminals off the streets. It's working.
There were no hurricane evacuations in 2009. Enough said.
Theater, on the other hand, stormed into New Orleans this year in a big way. With $27 million in restoration and repairs, the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park reopened to rave reviews last January. As part of the "Broadway Across America" series, the Mahalia brought the musicals Cats and The Color Purple to appreciative audiences, with more offerings to come. Speaking of Broadway, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré hosted the world debut of the Broadway-bound White Noise: A Cautionary Musical, which took advantage of the state's live performance tax credits program. The show was a hit, and most of the performances were sold out.
Our beloved NFL Saints this year gave us some of the best gridiron drama we've ever known. The amazing comeback against the Miami Dolphins and the overtime victory against the Washington Redskins stand out as great finishes — and despite the disappointment against the Dallas Cowboys, this season has been near perfect and always entertaining. If the Saints keep playing as they have this year, they could have home-field advantage when New Orleans hosts the 2013 Super Bowl.
Elsewhere, the National World War II Museum completed a $50 million expansion with a high-tech movie theater, the Stage Door Canteen that hosts a swing-era 1940s musical revue, and a John Besh restaurant, The American Sector, which pays culinary homage to the home front during WWII. The museum wasn't the only entity hoping to refresh old memories and spark new ones. After being shuttered for four years, the Roosevelt Hotel reopened its gilded doors this year, rekindling hope for our city's — and the hospitality industry's — continued comeback.
All in all, 2009 was a good year, and 2010 promises to be even better. In just 18 weeks, New Orleans will have a new mayor and a significantly changed City Council. Now that's a blessing to cheer about.