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Lessons from the Lower Ninth

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There are lessons for the Triangle in Peter Eichenberger's story this week about activists in New Orleans blocking bulldozers and racing to court to protect residents' interests in the Lower Ninth Ward.

I don't think I ever set foot there in 20 years growing up in New Orleans--that's how distinct from the rest of the city it is. In part it's because New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, and if you don't live there or know someone or have a favorite restaurant, there's little reason to go. Downtown thrived through the 1970s because of an effective, high-volume transit system of buses and streetcars, so that's where everyone--black and white, rich and poor--headed to shop, work, go to a movie or hang out. (Sprawl killed that.) And the Lower Ninth Ward had a stigma. It was home to the Desire Street housing project, reputed to be the city's worst, and that was saying something. To upper-middle class (and upper class) society, it was considered home to the poorest of the poor, and that was really saying something.

To the white power structure of oilmen, trading tycoons, lawyers, doctors and business owners, the problems of the Lower Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods like it all over the city just didn't concern them. The reason was Mardi Gras. For them, Carnival was a two-month social tsunami that picked them up and carried them through debuts, balls, parties and parades they'd spent the rest of the year planning and saving for. That meant civic (and public) money and attention that in other cities was focused on culture, the arts, education and economic development got short shrift. About the only thing that got the Uptown folks' attention was the crime rate, and then only when it crossed into their neighborhood. So it's not surprising that the same power structure that thinks nothing of bulldozing the Lower Ninth Ward wants to go ahead and stage Mardi Gras this year.

What's that got to do with us? Well, for starters, let's appreciate what we've got in the Triangle: business, arts and governmental leaders who understand the value of creating good schools and better jobs. We may disagree about how it's done, but our goals are the same.

And what do we have to learn? In Raleigh and much of Wake County, it's that safe housing, good planning and public transportation are keys to creating a successful city. In Durham, it's that crying about crime and worrying about image don't solve the economic problems of young people and their families. In Chapel Hill and Carrboro, it's that maintaining a good image doesn't justify ignoring drug and housing problems in our midst.

But it shouldn't take a catastrophe to make us realize that.

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