Charged with rebuilding his city and decisively re-elected six months ago, Mayor Ray Nagin remains an elusive character and a controversial leader—and miles of the Big Easy are still uninhabitable.
Sept. 4, 2006 issue - Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, had been avoiding a group of particularly determined—and strident—community activists who were after him to do more to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward, a working-class, predominantly black area that was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. A year after the storm, New Orleans water and sewer pipes are still badly damaged, and the city has been unable to certify that the water is drinkable in much of the blighted but once tightknit neighborhood known as Lower Nine. At a press conference on Aug. 1, the mayor tried to be good-humored when he was confronted by Vanessa Gueringer, a particularly vocal organizer for a community group called ACORN.
"Oh, Miss Acorn," said Nagin with a smile, "Are you still mad at me?"
"Hell yeah!" she shot back. "Is the water certified in Lower Nine?"
Nagin's smile faded.
"You can't see the good in anything," he said.
"No, I can't," said Gueringer, "because my community is still being locked out. And I'm still angry."
Nagin tried to reassure her about the water. "I'm working on it, I'm working on it, we have people down there every day."
"No, you don't," Gueringer snapped. "I know you're lying to me, Mr. Mayor."
Nagin walked away. (His staff later said he needed to get to an appointment.)
Even so, he is the theater commander in the battle to save New Orleans, and the war is still not going well.
...................He lacks the dominating personal force of a Rudy Giuliani pulling New York together on 9/11. Nagin can be touchy about invidious comparisons with New York: questioned about the slow pace of rebuilding in his own city, he gave NEWSWEEK his controversial anniversary talking point—"They still have a big hole in the ground after five years."
Tough words, but it should be noted the damage wreaked by Katrina to New Orleans far surpassed the lasting physical impact of the downed Twin Towers. A year after the storm flooded New Orleans and killed more than a thousand people, the city has lost more than half its population. ...............................
There are, in some ways, two New Orleanses. The city's original crescent, "the sliver by the river" of high ground along the Mississippi, was not badly damaged by Katrina. Housing prices are booming and even Donald Trump is looking to invest. But the lower-lying areas stretching toward Lake Pontchartrain are still battered.
The sense of anger and suspicion among Lower Ninth residents, many of whom believe they are being conspired against by white uptown developers, has been a burden for Nagin. His attempts to deal with that sense of alienation bring into sharp relief the mayor's uncomfortable place in the Big Easy. He has always had a foot in both worlds of New Orleans, rich white as well as poor black. His almost unique position could have been a blessing, allowing him to bridge deep divides, something he has failed to accomplish............................................
Nagin did create an ambitious-sounding Bring New Orleans Back Commission in late September and appointed a racially mixed (eight whites, eight blacks, one Hispanic) panel of local worthies to offer recommendations. The most forceful presence on the panel was a wealthy developer, 69-year-old Joe Canizaro, a "git-r-dun" type with close ties to the Bush White House. The commission brought in professional urban planners who suggested that a smaller, drier New Orleans might be healthier and safer. The planners suggested that parts of the lower-lying areas—which were disproportionately populated by African-Americans—be returned to cypress swampland. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Canizaro said he believed that the mayor would act on the BNOB proposals. "I had no doubt," he said.
Nagin now says that he never wanted the BNOB to be "his" plan but rather a forum for ideas that he could use or discard. When the plan was unveiled at a public meeting in early January, the hotel ballroom erupted with angry protesters. Conspiracy theories were racing through the black community that white developers wanted to drive blacks from the city and seize their property. (The Lower Ninth Ward, in particular, has a higher homeownership—about 60 percent—than most of the city.) Nagin began publicly backing away from the BNOB plan, insisting the Lower Nine would be rebuilt, or making ambiguous or contradictory remarks to a variety of different audiences. Canizaro was desperately trying to get Nagin to go to Washington and present the BNOB plan to policymakers and members of Congress, to show that the city would make wise use of federal dollars. Each time he asked Nagin, Canizaro said, Nagin would reply, "We're going to do it." But nothing would happen. "That was the height of frustration," Canizaro recalled. "That's when I realized the Bring New Orleans Back plan was in serious jeopardy."...................................
Nagin's political instincts were spot-on. In a runoff election in May, he beat a white candidate, Mitch Landrieu, winning more than 80 percent of the black vote and about 20 percent of the white vote. ............... Actually, the 100 Day Plan envisions a bottom-up approach: each community will come up with its own plan, and these plans will be knitted together in a larger plan. With less than two weeks to go on Nagin's 100 Days, some communities, like middle-class Broadmoor, are far along, and some neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth, are still basically nowhere.
Nagin himself has been out of town for much of the time, making speeches to various groups. His detachment vexes some local organizers. The Rev. Leonard Lucas Jr., the wealthy pastor of the Light City Church in Lower Nine, styles himself as Nagin's black conscience. Devoted to getting jobs and federal money into Lower Nine, Lucas seized on the reconstruction of the Jackson Barracks, the local home of a Louisiana National Guard unit, as a chance to get contracts for minority-owned companies. Lucas persuaded Nagin to go to a meeting on the project, and crowed afterward, "We got the mayor onboard and he liked it. He didn't like it—he loved it!" But then Lucas never heard back from Nagin. Now the reverend is bitter. "I've never seen a black man hate his people like that. All he did was sell his people out." Calling Nagin a "white Republican," he denounced the mayor for joining with the white business community in trying to drive blacks out of the city.
Nagin insists he's trying to restore black neighborhoods but accepts that he is going to be a target of frustration. "I'm the mayor, I take those hits at times," he says. Nagin worries about the effect of the rough publicity on his wife and kids, who only this past week were able to move back into their house, which was buffeted and flooded in the storm and is still not entirely repaired. ("My daughter went into her room, kissed the carpet, kissed her bed and kissed the wall," says Nagin.) He has been tending to his own soul, reading a book called "Inspiration: Your Ultimate Calling," a New Age spirituality book that asks readers to remember the "voice in the Universe entreating us to remember our purpose ... " Nagin says his calling is to "find broken stuff ... I do turnaround, I do fixes, I start up stuff."
Carvin, the mayor's political adviser, says that Nagin "doesn't like politics. He's not comfortable with it. He's not comfortable with the wheeling and dealing that goes on in politics." Carvin, who has not seen much of Nagin since the election, is disappointed in his pupil. "He had a marvelous opportunity, having won the election against all odds, to try to pull it together and exhibit all the qualities that a leader should have," says the old political hand. "And he just hasn't done that." Until he does, New Orleans will remain a smaller, sadder city.