Opinion

How NYC became the Big Easy

It’s not just the humidity, the tropical rain, the casual way of counting votes: New York City feels more and more like New Orleans. For this former New Orleanian, the experience is akin to an unsettling déjà vu. 

The obvious comparison is the ceaseless outdoor drinking. Emperor Cuomo has now randomly decreed that people can no longer buy a drink at a restaurant to go, but they can still sit outdoors and drink. Walking up and down Ninth Avenue is like walking through a party. 

This isn’t last summer’s ebullient party, with everyone relieved to be (sort of) out of lockdown, eager to support their months-shuttered local spot and see their friends again. This is more like the early-morning hours of a party that started off well last night and only continues because people can’t think of anything better to do. 

This inertia bleeds into core Midtown. New Orleans has long had a half-empty “central-business district” it’s not sure what to do with. In the optimistic 1960s and still-in-denial ’70s, it built dozens of hopeful skyscrapers. But the oil industry moved to Texas, and no other mass-scale industry replaced it. 

Now, one such skyscraper is literally worth less than nothing, abandoned by its owner. Since it costs a lot of money each year to keep a building standing, and it isn’t worth spending that money with no tenants, the city has taken responsibility, building a buffer so that passersby aren’t clonked in the head with debris. 

Walking down Sixth Avenue or across 42nd Street these days feels more like walking down Canal Street or Poydras Street. A few ­pedestrians, but not that many. Empty store after empty store signals distress, except for one thing: New Orleans is actually better at keeping trash off streets

An empty storefront seen on 14th Street in Manhattan.
An empty storefront seen on 14th Street in Manhattan.
William Farrington

In core Midtown, the tourists, ­almost all Americans, outnumber the office workers, just as they have long outnumbered the locals in central parts of New Orleans. 

But they are a different type of tourist than what New York is used to. Usually, our tourists are in a hurry: rush to dinner at 6 p.m. to be done eating by 7:30, to get to the theater. 

Now, they have succumbed to the general malaise, having figured that there isn’t much to do but wander around, slowly. 

The scariest comparison is our newfound indifference to violent crime. New Orleans had 195 murders in 2020, a 60 percent rise over the previous year. With its small population — fewer than 400,000 — that gives it a murder rate on the outer edges of developed-nation numbers. 

But the Big Easy never shows a sustained sense of crisis. Mayor after mayor says he (and now, she) will cut crime, then finds a way to blame something else: poverty, guns. The “thou shalt not kill” billboards don’t work. 

Now, Mayor de Blasio takes a more than doubling of shootings in two years and declares that it isn’t a problem. When President Biden said that cities should spend more money on police, de Blasio said Friday, the president meant “certain cities”  — the bad, failing cities, not us. 

But the second tourist shooting in Times Square within six weeks had spurred him to at least desultory action. He said he would “flood the zone” with cops, so as not to have a “negative effect” on tourism. 

NYPD officers at the scene of the shooting in Times Square on June 27, 2021.
NYPD officers at the scene of the shooting in Times Square on June 27, 2021.
G.N.Miller/NYPost

This is the New Orleans ­approach: Keep the tourist-rich French Quarter safe (sort of), with the city’s most competent cops. Rich neighborhoods fend for themselves, too, via private-security guards, such as where mayoral candidate Maya Wiley lives in Brooklyn. Everyone else is on his own. 

Until now, New York’s attitude was different: The tourist areas were safe because everywhere was safe. We hadn’t had real “no-go” zones in decades; tour guides have even hosted organized forays to the South Bronx.

Carjackings in New Orleans are so common that people don’t want to stop at red lights or at gas stations. Now, New York is growing accustomed to them: a violent carjacking on the far West Side and in Brooklyn last month got little attention.

But New Orleans is different from New York in one respect: It’s cheap, and, if you don’t mind the heightened risk of crime and the lack of job opportunities, it’s easy to live there. 

New York is now making an odd sell: a far worse quality of life and greater danger, but at the same high real-estate prices and taxes needed to fund our $98.7 billion budget. 

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. 

Twitter: @NicoleGelinas




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