Did social and financial conservatism kill the Crescent City?
New Orleans is having a month-long celebration of John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and how it changed America, as part of a community-wide effort to fight illiteracy. I’m anxious to attend some of the events and discussion goups which are part of this laudable effort. Yesterday I just finished the book, which couldn’t have been better. If you want to get smart fairly quickly, read Barry’s books. Like Robert Caro, Barry gives you far more than you expect in a gripping, page-turning narrative. Most importantly (again like Caro), he brings you into the secret meetings of powerful men behind closed doors, where so much of consequence is decided.
So, at the end of Rising Tide, Barry writes a veritable epitaph for New Orleans. Once the wealthiest city in America, the old “Queen of the South” fell long and hard in the 20th century. Berry charts some of the reasons for New Orleans’ degeneration, and doesn’t sugarcoat it:
New Orleans had never been open, not in the way cities in the West were, where “old money” was measured in months, nor even in the way cities in the East were, where immigrants could muscle their way into first political and then economic power. New Orleans had been exclusive from the first…. But before the flood New Orleans had at least accepted transfusions of new blood. After the flood the city grew even more insular. The Boston Club and the finest Mardis Gras krewes closed even more tightly about themselves and seemed to take special pride in excluding newcomers, especially oil company executives. And the city’s elite held grudges: Russell Long, Huey’s son, was elected six times to the U.S Senate and chaired the Finance Committee for many years, but was never invited to the Comus ball.
The social conservatism intertwined with the financial conservatism; the one magnified the effect of the other. In the 1970s, a local economic study concluded:”[The] social system excludes executives recently transferred to New Orleans and discourages their participation in community issues… A narrow circle of wealth-holders… represent a closed society whose aims are to preserve their wealth rather than incur risks in an effort to expand it… This development has reduced the opportunities.” At the same time, Eads Poitevent, a bank president and Boston Club member, conceded: “The long-established New Orleans financial community has often been accused of beinga conservative aristocracy that was tight-fisted and wanted to keep things as they have always been. To some extent, that is absolutely true.” As a result, business in the city did not expand; it shrank. Local companies found it more difficult to grow. Large companies looking for headquarters, or even a regional headquarters, put their operations in Houston or Atlanta. Only one Fortune 500 company, Freeport McMoran, has its headquarters in New Orleans.
And so the city decayed. Before the flood New Orleans had vastly more economic activity than any city in the South. Decades later, while in the newest New South such cities as Charlotte and Miami– not to mention Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston– thrived and grew, New Orleans fell far behind its old competitors, and banks even in Memphis now dwarf those in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the city’s social and business elite increasingly went separate ways; in the early 1990s not a single bank president belonged to the Boston club.
New Orleans had become even more ingrown, and it was dying. Only the port, created by the great river and [James] Eads, remained vital. The city had become a place for tourists, and picture postcards… (p410-11)
It would seem difficult for a city to celebrate and promote a book containing such “rough truths”. But I’m proud that so many have come together to do so.