Regional Debates, Unlikely Partners

Article excerpt

For generations, New Orleans and its neighboring parishes have been at each other's throats -- the city acting out its role as the racially and socially tolerant play-city of North America, the parishes trumpeting their political conservatism and periodically electing candidates who espouse white supremacy.

But when Marc Morial, a black who's in his first term as the mayor of New Orleans, made a recent political and financial swing through Washington and New York City, he had a couple of interesting traveling partners.

One was Michael J. Yenni, the president of Jefferson Parish. For decades, Jefferson was a bastion of whites in flight from increasingly black New Orleans. The parish used to be so intent on holding down its taxes, while still taking advantage of the big city's parks and other facilities, in fact, that a mayor of New Orleans privately maligned it as 'America's most parasitic suburb."

But Yenni, this autumn, seemed downright pleased to be seen with Morial. The two traveled with James Monroe, the president of MetroVision, a business-led effort to boost economic development and other activity across the entire New Orleans "citistate."

Why would Yenni choose to so closely identify himself with the mayor of New Orleans?

"As parochial as some of my constituents can seem to be, as great as they think Jefferson Parish may be," Yenni said in an interview, "we will never reach our potential unless the whole region rises together."

And while he pointed out that "a large part of my constituency is always paranoid that crime will spread across the parish line," Yenni said that he welcomes the progress that Morial can report of a dropping crime' rate in New Orleans, especially as a result of the city's 9:00 p.m.- 6:00 a.m. curfew on all youth.

Morial and Yenni said they were delighted by the efforts of MetroVision to promote tourism in and around New Orleans, to deal the region into the significant business opportunities with Mexico that have accompanied the North American Free Trade Agreement and to father the first council of governments for the nine-parish area. And while MetroVision has spent millions on slick advertising and typical "smokestack-chasing" hunts for big industrial hits, it has also pushed the development of business and industrial development corporations (BIDCOs), which are designed to benefit small, medium-sized and minority-owned businesses.

New Orlean's unlikely partnerships may say a lot about America's citistates these days. No one believes that the region's historic parochialism, its deep social and economic inequities, will subside anytime soon.

But at least a genuine dialogue about a more cohesive future for the region is dawning, driven by the overwhelming and shared necessity of economic survival. Morial and Yenni also agreed that the spread to the suburbs of tough urban problems--crime, overcrowded schools, poor public transit and solid waste disposal, to name just a few--is creating a natural community of interest. …