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From the Big (and Small) Screen to Real Life

New Orleans, Los Angeles and Albuquerque are writing their own stories to improve citizens' lives.

New Orleans, Los Angeles and Albuquerque round out the seven cities vying for a spot in the second cohort of the City Accelerator. Each has its own unique and rich history; each faces significant challenges; and each feels familiar because of the stories they have helped to tell in the movies and TV. But the stories of the cities themselves are as compelling as any you have seen on a screen.

New Orleans

The French Quarter, Canal Street and the city's iconic street cars are familiar items in films and photographs of the past 50 years. Most strikingly, the HBO series “Treme” was set in the city’s historical neighborhood of the same name, three months after Hurricane Katrina. The series was loved my many, reviled by some, but the opening scene remains indelibly stamped on our memory. We meet Davis McAlary as he walks to the window of his apartment, hears the sounds of a second-line and utters the line that defined the series and, in large measure, post-Katrina New Orleans itself: “That sounds like Rebirth.”

Indeed, the most compelling and memorable scenes are those of a true drama that played out in August 2005. I happened to be in China when Katrina came ashore and ravaged the Crescent City, watching the news anxiously from the other side of the world.

For reasons lost in the history of push-and-shove politics and sometimes obscure planning of the Interstate Highway System, I-59 was built in the 1960s to provide a direct route between New Orleans diagonally across Mississippi and Alabama to Chattanooga. Frankly, as an urban planner and career public servant, the alignment never made sense to me from a traffic necessity standpoint. Even after all of these years the road is not heavily traveled.

However, in the wake of the storm it was fairly obvious that many evacuees would take this easy 500-mile route away from disaster. Accordingly, it was not a surprise when Chattanooga was suddenly faced with hundreds of people, including families and children, with little more than the clothes on their backs – all needing shelter, food, clothing and the rudiments of life until their city could get back on its feet. Tennessee native Al Gore chartered a plane and brought many more that had no other means of transportation.

When I returned from China a few days later, the disaster relief center in downtown Chattanooga was humming in full operation. Walking among the stunned and somewhat bedraggled crowd, I was amazed at the diversity of our unplanned – but still very welcome – guests. There were those with their own financial resources who needed little more than information and there were those who needed practically everything. I could write volumes about the interesting personalities of those visitors, but I will only mention Miss Ella – a spry 80-plus year old – who quickly assumed a leadership role in her temporary public housing unit, mastered Chattanooga's public transit system and roamed freely throughout the city, found a comfortable church and set in for the long haul. She stayed with us for several years until she moved back near family in Baton Rouge and passed away in 2012. Chattanooga still remembers her fondly and misses her.

For me, Miss Ella will always represent the irrepressible spirit of New Orleans.

There were some evacuees that we refused to let leave. Sometimes in national meetings I would find myself seated alphabetically next to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Each time, I could not help but remind him about Chattanooga's role in the tragedy of Katrina and I always invited him to come and enjoy our fine Creole restaurant, Blue Orleans, at Main and Market Streets – owned and managed by natives from his city that became permanent citizens of ours.

The story of New Orleans’ recovery is monumental and inspirational, but the story doesn’t end there. Unfortunately, the unifying effect of overcoming adversity did not have a lasting, equalizing effect on the economics of the population. An article in 2012, “New Orleans Grew More Unequal After Hurricane Katrina,” cites a report by the admittedly left-leaning American Society for Law and Policy. The report claims “reconstruction efforts were handled in such a way as to broaden the gap between whites and minorities in the region, and to make it harder for local people of color to find jobs." Backing up the claim with data, a U.S. Census report for the period 2005 to 2009 confirms that New Orleans had the second-highest level of income inequality. Only Atlanta had a more significant gap.

A more recent source is not encouraging. An article in the Times-Picayune cites another ranking placing New Orleans in the same position – still below Atlanta, but "roughly on par with Zambia." That report notes that even though Atlanta had more inequality than New Orleans, Atlanta's median household income was $46,466 – more than $12,000 higher than that of New Orleans. Thus, "the average resident in Atlanta was much better off than the average New Orleanian."

The video submitted by New Orleans in support of its City Accelerator initiative understandably focuses on continuing the city's post-Katrina rebuilding. Health care was selected as something that can improve the quality of life in a universal fashion – particularly for those remaining at the lowest income levels. The brief history of "Big Charity" – the city's historic charity hospital established in 1732 – underscores the past and continuing commitment to citizens in need. The 56,000 residents that would otherwise have no health coverage are now further aided by a system of 54 neighborhood clinics and the Greater New Orleans Health Connection.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu sums it up by stating that the city hopes to use City Accelerator to leverage data and pursue the goal of having all citizens take part. In his words, New Orleans has become the nation's leading laboratory of disaster recovery and intends to continue efforts to move beyond simply rebuilding the city and to make New Orleans "the city we always we wanted it to be."

Recently, I was seated at a table with a delegation from Albuquerque. In the sort of conversation that always comes with such encounters, I asked if their city was seeing any reaction to its new prominence with the popular television shows “Breaking Bad” and its prequel “Better Call Saul.” Surprisingly, they responded that despite the dark nature of the storylines, the overall effect seemed to be positive. "After all," one replied, "the city itself is like a major player in these heavily watched stories. How many communities get that kind of exposure?"

However, despite the positive exposure, Albuquerque faces significant challenges. A 2012 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute found that New Mexico had the highest income gap between the richest households and low- and middle-income households.

A subsequent press release
from the group New Mexico Voices for Children quotes Research Director Gerry Bradley as saying, "Underlying extreme inequality in New Mexico are serious problems in the state's job market. New Mexico has an array of jobs: excellent jobs, good jobs, poor jobs and no jobs. The excellent jobs are in the national labs and at Intel; the good jobs are in health care, manufacturing and education; the bad jobs are the poverty level jobs in hotels, restaurants and call centers; and the 'no jobs' are because the demand for labor in New Mexico is very weak for workers with low levels of education."

In the February 2014 Brookings paper, "All Cities Are Not Created Unequal,” Albuquerque might take comfort that it is not listed among the overall worst of the worst. However, Albuquerque is mentioned – and in a rather unique and troubling fashion. The paper notes that a small group of cities were "not places where the rich made astronomical gains, but where low-income households suffered most from the recession and weak recovery. Many are Southern and Western cities – including Sacramento, Charlotte, Tucson, Fresno and Albuquerque – where house price collapses reduced work opportunities for poor households." So why isn't this a bigger deal? The paper concludes that inequality also rose in other cities where poverty deepened: "In those cities, however, inequality has not become a leading political issue."

The video submitted by Albuquerque
for City Accelerator focuses on efforts to promote and support entrepreneurs – especially among minority and immigrant populations. Mayor Richard Berry proposes a "deep-dive discussion with small business," and observes that, "when entrepreneurs thrive the whole community thrives."

Los Angeles
From classic detective dramas such as "Dragnet" to period noir films set appropriately in black and white to the dazzling and colorful car chasing (and car crashing) films of today, Los Angeles is center stage. How many hopeful people, young and old, from communities large and small, urban and rural, north and south, have migrated to Los Angeles to "be discovered" and become stars? In the words of the Apostle: "Many are called; few are chosen."

A large and diverse community, Los Angles is a study in contrasts. From the dazzling excesses of Rodeo Drive to the dismal homelessness and hopelessness of Skid Row, the community encompasses a full range of economic lifestyles. It is a difficult community to fully appreciate and absorb, let alone engage and address in a positive, problem-solving initiative.

As a mayor attempting to deal with homelessness, I visited Los Angeles (and other cities) years ago seeking inspiration and looking for best practices. Walking through the streets and experiencing firsthand the missions and soup kitchens of the most poverty-stricken areas, I must admit to having been somewhat stunned and overwhelmed. Los Angeles has been fighting the good fight for a long time. Still, in that list of cities in the aforementioned paper "All Cities Are Not Created Unequal,” Los Angeles is ninth on the Top 10 list of cities registering the highest level of inequality. Among Los Angeles’ 3.8 million people, those in the lower 20th percentile exist on an annual average income of about $17,657. Those in the 95th percentile enjoy incomes of about $217,770.

In terms of addressing poverty and income disparity, Los Angeles has been at it for a long time, but it still has a long way to go. Yet it soldiers on. The city is not without tools and innovative techniques. Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Rick Cole outlines city leaders’ current thinking and strategies. In Los Angeles’ City Accelerator video, he notes they have already qualified for federal "Promise Zone" designation along with receiving a Bloomberg Innovations Grant. They hope to use the City Accelerator as a means to more fully engage the city's diverse population. Cole notes that people wonder, "How do I interact with my government?" and proposes that instead of just listening and attending meetings, "People want to be part of something."

Los Angeles is moving aggressively. In his new administration, Mayor Eric Garcetti has taken on large, challenging projects – from embarking on an ambitious earthquake-proofing effort to reclaiming and restoring the city's famous concrete-lined river. Perhaps the most challenging and inspiring of all is the stated intention to once again attack that unrelenting, diminishing and depressing problem of poverty and perhaps, this time, finally succeed in raising the economic fortunes of its lowest-income residents and businesses. Hopefully, fresh energies, innovation and a commitment to civic engagement through City Accelerator will make the difference.

And Finally...
Clearly these three cities have more in common than the fame and fortunes that come from being featured in popular films and television productions. All are successful in many ways, struggling in different ways and committed to making a better future for all of their citizens in some very special ways.

The thing about films and television is that it is mostly fantasy and fiction. Beyond the silver screen, New Orleans, Albuquerque and Los Angeles are real communities with real futures dealing with real problems and real opportunities.  There will not come a time (at least not anytime soon) when "The End" will flash up on the screen and the credits will begin to roll. The leaders of these special and unique cities are fully aware that their stories are still being written. They are reaching out for all the assistance that can be obtained – including the City Accelerator.


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Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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