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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Safest City in America

Change is in the air. Ponderously, against resistance from entrenched factions, the historically and politically ingrained patterns are being overwhelmed by Katrina’s clean sweep. The total failure of the Orleans Parish schools has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light of day, and the fear of the unknown is finally being overcome by creative ideas and new approaches.

Thank goodness, because I think it’s high time we started talking about one of the other major contributors to the broken pre-Katrina New Orleans: crime. From the New York Times:

New Orleans, the nation's most dangerous city, has suddenly become perhaps its safest, and what had easily been the murder capital of the United States now has a murder rate of exactly zero

This radical drop in violent crime is complicated to interpret, and even harder to talk about – because talking about it requires finessing politically and socially charged issues. Yet talk about it we must, if we ever hope to regain the vibrancy of New Orleans’ culture. The very communities that were hostage to the criminal drug gangs are vital to the city’s soul, and any vision of the future that does not include these areas will irrevocably destroy the city’s culture.

Peter Scharf, executive director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at the University of New Orleans, estimated that there were as many as 20,000 participants in the city's drug culture before the storm. Those drug users and dealers were the engines of the city's crime, Scharf said, but are now largely absent. No one is certain where they wound up.

That’s a lot of people! So where did they end up? They ended up everywhere, dispersed widely with everyone else, and chatter on the internet notwithstanding, they have not impacted the crime rates in any meaningful way in their new communities.

Early on, I also thought the criminal element would make their presence known in their new locations. Yet the stage was not set overnight in New Orleans; it evolved over decades. Furthermore, the ingredients required for this noxious sub-culture -– corruption, institutionalized poverty, educational failures, and woefully inadequate policing -- do not exist everywhere. New Orleans was unique in many ways.

The bottom line is that the notorious criminal element in New Orleans is currently displaced and scattered – emasculated by Katrina. The communities they terrorized have a chance to re-take their neighborhoods, and they should be given every assistance to do so.

The unremitting focus on racial issues in the wake of Katrina – even after most of the violence was discovered to have been sensationalized – has given fuel to some of the most extremist groups in our society, and their radical views are in danger of impacting how the city is rebuilt. I do not want racists – black or white – to further their interests on the back of New Orleans.

We have to start working on getting those neighborhoods home – now – while the toxic sub-culture is not there. Nobody has any interest in reviving the crime and violence, least of all the neighborhoods that were the victims.