Detroit and New Orleans Have More in Common Than Most Think

Most important, their prospects for survival can teach us about the resiliency of urban areas everywhere.
January 2016
In the wake of bankruptcy, there is a renewed sense of possibility in Detroit. (David Kidd)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

It came as a surprise to me, but Detroit and New Orleans are similar in some interesting ways. Both were founded by French settlers in the early 18th century. On the site of modern-day Detroit, explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701 established Fort Ponchartrain, named for the secretary of the French navy; a decade later, Cadillac decamped south to become governor of Louisiana, where the large lake on New Orleans’ north side was also named for Ponchartrain.

Both are port cities, though the combined ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana form one of the largest port systems in the world, dwarfing Detroit’s. They both identify strongly with their musical history -- jazz and blues in one case, and Motown in the other. And both have experienced catastrophic disasters -- one natural, the other economic. Now they have something else in common: Their prospects for survival can teach us about the resiliency of cities elsewhere.

Detroit’s decline, of course, played out over decades, as the auto industry faded and white middle-class residents fled to the suburbs. In the end, the Great Recession was too much to bear, resulting in the largest municipal bankruptcy in America’s history. The post-Katrina flood in New Orleans a decade ago made its own history as the nation’s worst-ever natural disaster.

The role of the federal government in these two calamities strikes a powerful note of contrast. The feds played a significant role in New Orleans. It was federally built levees that failed in Hurricane Katrina, leaving 80 percent of the city underwater. It was the federal government that proved hopelessly inept in the days following the storm, which killed 1,800 people and left tens of thousands homeless. President George W. Bush will be forever remembered for one of the signature remarks of his presidency: “Brownie,” he said to Michael Brown, his Federal Emergency Management Director, “you’re doing a heckuva job.”  Shortly afterward, “Brownie” was fired.

In the end, the feds chipped in $126 billion to clean up Katrina’s mess throughout the Gulf of Mexico, with $76 billion going to Louisiana. That’s the single greatest contrast: No one expected a massive federal bailout for Detroit, and there was none. Recent federal aid to the city has been comparatively modest -- around $350 million.

Instead, the foundation for an eventual recovery in Detroit is coming from a combination of sources -- the state of Michigan, the private sector, foundations and bottom-up neighborhood efforts. Along with the well-known Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert, business leaders have purchased scores of buildings in the heart of the city and, in many cases, moved their employees into them. JPMorgan Chase has committed an investment of $100 million. The Ford, Kresge, Knight and Kellogg foundations have made major commitments.

But when it comes to elected leadership, the two cities begin to look alike again. Both Detroit and New Orleans were in decline well before bankruptcy and Katrina -- and not just for economic reasons. The New Orleans mayor in office during Katrina was Ray Nagin, who eight years after the storm was indicted on 21 corruption charges. He was convicted and sent to jail in February 2014. Kwame Kilpatrick, who in 2001 had become Detroit’s youngest mayor at age 31, was convicted on 24 counts of corruption and sentenced to 28 years in prison.

In the aftermath of these embarrassments, both cities have found the leadership they needed. Mitch Landrieu, who became mayor of New Orleans in 2010, has done such an effective job of controlling spending, modernizing the city’s bureaucracy and fighting corruption that this magazine recently honored him with its Public Official of the Year award.

In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan is earning similar plaudits for his handling of the bankruptcy and for establishing a healthy working relationship with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, even though Duggan is a Democrat and Snyder is a Republican.  “They are trying new ideas and modifying plans as they go along,” JP-Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon told The Wall Street Journal, “never pointing fingers or worrying about taking credit.”

In both cities, there is a renewed sense of possibility that reaches far beyond politics. Besides corruption, Detroit and New Orleans have suffered for decades from high rates of crime, poverty and poor schools. Both lost a majority of their populations. Now, in both places, some of the most discouraging numbers are starting to turn around. In Detroit and New Orleans, young urbanists, artists and techies are flowing in, infrastructure is being repaired and rebuilt, and the atmosphere of hope is starting to penetrate the neighborhoods where ordinary citizens live.

The remaining concern in both cities is inequity, particularly regarding race.  Will the entire community share in the turnaround? Or will rapid revival result in massive displacement, as cheap properties are gobbled up by the newcomers, forcing longtime residents to look for housing elsewhere?

In a recent speech at the National Press Club, Landrieu recounted the progress New Orleans had made in recent years, concluding that “this comeback is one of the world’s most remarkable stories of tragedy and triumph, resurrection and redemption. In one word, resilience. We are America’s comeback city.”

It is beginning to look as if Landrieu’s city may have to share that honor with its seemingly much different neighbor far to the north.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus |