Wednesday, May 23, 2007

True Crime

A reader who knows New Orleans but no longer lives here asked for my take on the city's recent, much publicized spike in crime, saying that from afar it's easy to get that impression we're sinking into an uninhabitable quagmire of violence.

The short answer is: No, we're not an uninhabitable quagmire of violence. The long answer is complicated, and I feel some ambivalence on how to respond.

I don't want to downplay what is a serious issue. Our murder rate is atrocious. The police force is understaffed and overwhelmed. Our justice system is dysfunctional. The consequences are very real for the victims, for their families and friends, and for the neighborhoods besieged by violence. (And for the communities that lose a large percentage of their men to incarceration.)

Growing up in the country, the sound of gunfire was not uncommon: the single deep crack of a rifle as a man shot at an animal somewhere in the distance. Unfortunately, in some parts of our city, the sound of gunfire is also not uncommon: often the repeated pop-pop-pop of a handgun as some stupid kid wildly unloads an entire clip at some other stupid kid over the right to sell drugs on a corner for chump change.

But that's far from the whole picture. Some potential visitors, alarmed by the coverage in the national media, have expressed concern. The reality is that the parts of the city frequented by visitors are very safe. A typical tourist would have no reason to go to the drug-riddled neighborhoods where much of the violence is concentrated.

And for those of us who live here, we take reasonable precautions. Like residents of most cities, we each have a mental map of the city's risk-topography. We make decisions about where we'll go and when. We learn to spot trouble. We learn who and what to avoid.

Life goes on. The crime sucks, but we make do. And we still find life in this city very much worth while.


  1. Anonymous8:55 AM

    if new orleans became a crime-free city, do you think residents (and former residents) would lament the change? one hears that the crime rate went up, and thinks, in an ass-backward way, thank god new orleans is getting back to business.

    but, in reality, it would be nice if things could get better in new orleans for everyone. in my heart of hearts, i know that would be best. and then: the rest of the world, too.

  2. Isn't NYC full of people who lament the passing of the gritty seventies when the city had an "edge", who bemoan its current "Disney-fication"?

    If, for some bizarre reason, our crime problem turned around, I'm pretty sure it would be the same here.

  3. Actually, Andrei Codrescu wrote a Penny Post about exactly that: how he was nostalgic for the old gritty NYC.

  4. Anonymous11:59 PM

    The same could be said for Belfast.

    Until I started dating someone from Northern Ireland the only image I had was of sectarian street riots and IRA bombs. Then I went there and saw that what the US media portrays and what the reality is is very different. I plan to move there by the end of this year to marry my partner.

    Just as you mentioned about New Orleans, there are areas one stays away from and times when it's best to steer clear of an area. I'm going back soon for my 4th visit and look to make the move over to marry my partner.

    It's scandalous how a wonderful city such as NOLA has had to struggle so hard since Katrina. Amnesia has crept into the collective unconciousness of those outside the area affected. Your blog should be required reading to jog people's memories.

    Plus you write some really funny stuff and I love your drawings... keep up the good work!!!

  5. Anonymous12:01 AM

    oops!!! i repeated myself!!!

    that's what happens when you post & party ;-)

  6. Thank you kindly. (And party-posting IS a risky bizness.)

  7. Thanks a lot for your post -- clear, open-minded, honest, as always.
    And as for the particulars, sounds like what we New Yorkers learned to do many years ago, figure out where is safe, what/when is not safe, and work with it. Life is a trade-off, no matter what/where.

    And, by the way, your drawings are always a delight. That's how I found you a few years ago, thru Danny Gregory's drawing blog.

    Scott C