Keeping Score

In the Shadows of the Super Bowl, New Orleans Struggles

On eve of Super Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says New Orleans is "bigger and better than ever." The facts say otherwise

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Patrick Semansky / AP

In this Jan. 31, 2013 photo, a front porch stands alone where a house once was in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood that was heavily damaged by floodwaters from a levee break after Hurricane Katrina.

The Super Bowl is, well, the Super Bowl of civic cheerleading. It’s a chance, we are told, for a host city to shine, to soak in the adulation of all the revelrous out-of-towners. They’ll spend lots of money on hotel rooms and drinks and merchandise, so the Super Bowl gives its host city an economic jolt.

In New Orleans, such boosterism is louder than the Mardi Gras parade. At some point on Super Bowl Sunday, you’re bound to hear breathless talk about how the Super Bowl is a surefire sign of the city’s rebound. On Friday, in his annual state-of-football press conference, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell played the role of cheerleader-in-chief. “It’s clear this city is back bigger and better than ever,” Goodell declared.

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This statement, unfortunately, is just not true.

That’s not to say that New Orleans’ return to the Super Bowl rotation for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 isn’t an important step forward. It is, for reasons both psychological — more than seven years later, it’s still hard to forget the Katrina victims packed into the Superdome after the storm— and pecuniary. Although the economic impact of hosting mass sporting events is often overstated, having tens of thousands of people come to your city to spend money doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

But Super Bowl hype tends to obscure harsh truths about the host city. “Some things are markedly better,” says Allison Plyer, director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. “Some things are definitely not. We still have a lot of trends that are troubling.”

New Orleans has made real strides. The city has weathered the national recession better than most places. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the number of jobs in the New Orleans metro area rose 0.6% from October 2007 to October 2012, while the U.S. lost 3.0% of all jobs. School reforms have paid off: during the 2010-2011 school year, 68% of the city’s public-school students attended schools that passed state standards, up from 28% in the 2003-2004 school year. Blight is declining overall: the city had about 35,700 blighted residential addresses in March 2012, compared with 65,428 addresses in March 2008.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans was the fastest-growing large city in the country between 2010 and 2011.

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When Goodell says New Orleans is “bigger than ever,” however, he’s not staring at the facts. New Orleans lost 26% of its population since 2000. The city has 360,740 people: in 2000, it had 484,674 people. (Its population peaked, at 627,525, in 1960.) Is New Orleans “better than ever?” The city has a poverty rate of 29%, nearly twice the national average of  15%. In 2007, New Orleans had a 21% poverty rate. Child poverty is 42% in the city, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center; the U.S. rate is 23%. Unemployment in the metro area rose from 3% in October 2007 to 6.5% in 2012. Post-Katrina housing is less affordable, and violent crime is still twice the national rate.

Goodell couldn’t have been considering the area hit hardest by Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward, when he boasted that the city is bigger and better than ever. “Post-Katrina, New Orleans is in many ways a tale of two cities,” says Plyer. “For those at the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, life is appreciatively worse.” Just take a drive east of the central business district and the French Quarter, where the NFL is holding most of its Super Bowl events. Cross the Claiborne Avenue bridge, over the Industrial Canal and into the Lower Ninth Ward, and it’s easy to see what Plyer is talking about. Houses are still boarded up and abandoned, cats dart in and out of empty lots, the area feels desolate and still devastated. “There ain’t no recovery here,” says Sherman Miller, who works for a non-profit organization that is growing a community garden in the neighborhood. “There’s a lot that needs to be done. There are no jobs here, honestly.”

The Lower Ninth Ward’s population has dropped 80% since the years between 2000-2010, from 14,008 residents to 2,842. “A lot of people here are getting ignored,” says Claude Mamon, 37, a truck driver who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward. He points to the abandoned house across the street. “I know a squirrel is living in there,” Mamon says. “I’ve also seen a couple of cats, and an opossum. They need to fix that.”

And what does having the Super Bowl in the area mean to the Lower Ninth Ward? “Not a freaking thing,” says Wyquila Kent, 35, who was sitting with a friend, Lynell Lewis, 25, on a porch off North Rampart Avenue on Friday afternoon. “Sure, some people are pumped about it. But as you can see, we don’t get too happy about things down here.” Across the street are two abandoned homes, each still marked with  “X” that rescue workers spay-painted on empty, condemned New Orleans properties after the storm. On one of them, the graffiti says “T-Mark,” and “Luckie.”

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A car speeds by at over 50 miles per hour, down a local street; Lewis’ son is playing a few yards away. “That’s a perfect example,” says Lewis. “Lawless. If my son had been crossing the street when that car came, he’d be dead.” Almost on cue, Lewis’ son darts across the intersection, chasing a big wheel. “Just a few seconds later,” she says.

Lewis, who like Kent is unemployed but says she wants to work, doesn’t see any Super Bowl benefits spilling over the Lower Ninth Ward, which is about five miles east of the Superdome. “All we might get is a blimp,” says Lewis. “That’s it.”

For years, Lower Ninth Ward residents have been clamoring for a full-service grocery store. Instead, they get a community garden. “We can’t go over there and get groceries” says Lewis. “We’re not vegetarians. I don’t see how that’s going to help my son eat.” Lewis looks away, her expression tired, sad. “The cats can eat from the garden,” Lewis says. “The cats have it better than us.”

How’s that for a Super Bowl slogan?