Commentary Magazine


New Orleans

To the Editor:

In “New Orleans—An Autopsy” [September], Ben C. Toledano proves himself an excellent diagnostician of civic disease. There can be no doubt that a combination of corruption, a stultifying class system (among whites and blacks alike), and the lack of a merit-based economy were ravaging New Orleans long before Hurricane Katrina hit. Mr. Toledano is also right to skewer the elites that allowed the illness to fester. But I believe that his “autopsy” is premature; New Orleans is not dead, and it can be rebuilt.

Mr. Toledano writes of the “lost joys” of the city’s “cuisine, music, and architecture,” and suggests that for a long time they merely “masked problems of major proportions.” Maybe so. But the joys have not been altogether lost: much of the city’s cultural nucleus escaped major flooding during Katrina, and its “undeniable charms and graces” have not lost their power to attract.

This is not to suggest a New-Orleans-as-theme-park revitalization program. A vibrant culture, however, can attract not only dreamers but also workers, planners, and entrepreneurs who want to build a good life while enjoying good times. Economically, too, the need for a major port at New Orleans’s precise geographical coordinates is unchanged.

One reason for Mr. Toledano’s skepticism about New Orleans’s future is that its most capable native sons—those who might form an elite that would challenge the cycle of poor governance—tend to depart for places more hospitable to their talents and ambitions. But renewal does not necessarily have to come from within. Almost every time I check with friends and family back home (I myself left New Orleans sixteen years ago to pursue a career in journalism), they tell me that despite persistent problems of crime and corruption, they are encouraged by an ongoing influx to the city of young, energetic newcomers.

Clearly, there remains much doubt about which force will win the new battle for New Orleans. The voters, for their part, did not help themselves by reelecting the incompetent Ray Nagin as mayor in 2006. But cities—indeed, entire nations—have recovered from worse problems than those bravely outlined by Mr. Toledano, and New Orleans still has ample reason for hope.

Quin Hillyer
The American Spectator
Alexandria, Virginia

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To the Editor:

Ben C. Toledano’s comments on the problems of New Orleans included some amusing details and were interesting to read. I am familiar with many elements of the picture he paints. My father was the original Jewish partner in one of the law firms Mr. Toledano refers to, paired with a vintage Episcopalian aristocrat who later became a renowned federal judge. And just like the cast of five characters named by Mr. Toledano, all of whom I know well or at least casually, I too moved to New York to pursue my interests. Although I never hit a glass ceiling in New Orleans (or anywhere else), Mr. Toledano’s essay did set me wondering whether my indifference to the exclusion of Jews and others from my native city’s antiquated birth-based clubs might suggest that I had unconsciously bought in to the upper-class New Orleans ethos that is his theme.

Still, to attribute the current catastrophe in New Orleans in any significant way to the Boston Club and its cousins makes no sense, and the anecdotes marshaled by Mr. Toledano hardly prove his case. If, in New Orleans law firms, the Jewish name came second more often than first, as he points out, many elite firms in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston had no Jewish partners at all in those days. And who, Jewish or otherwise, with the talents and ambitions of a Nicholas Lemann or Walter Isaacson would have stayed in New Orleans (or Atlanta, Houston, or anywhere else) when New York, Washington, and the like beckoned?

Besides, whatever the power structure in New Orleans 50 years ago, the serious wealth and power passed in time into the hands of white Christians of non-aristocratic birth, Jews, and latterly African-Americans. Mr. Toledano correctly identifies the serious problem, even after Katrina, of the black elite’s monopoly on high elective office in Orleans Parish, and the frequency of corruption among elected officials from that community. But the suggestion that powerful blacks absorbed their value system osmotically from the exclusive white clubs is not only unsubstantiated but very counterintuitive. I fear, alas, that they created their own system.

Ironically, when it comes to the saliency of birth and caste in New Orleans, Mr. Toledano misses one striking historical example: the high sensitivity among New Orleans Jews themselves to the distinction between those who arrived from Germany and Alsace in the 19th century (the presumptive elite) and those who came from Eastern Europe in the 20th. In my youth some blurring had already set in, but many Jewish families still chose schools, swimming pools, and synagogue affiliation based on this sub-ethnic classification. In the generation before mine, it must have been a formidable barrier: my father, of decidedly Eastern European origin, said that when he attended Tulane in the 1920’s he was more welcome as a guest in the most exclusive non-Jewish fraternity houses than in the one of the Western European Jews. A similar differentiation existed historically in many Jewish communities, but it always seemed especially persistent in New Orleans—and in this, the Gentile club structure and Mardi Gras hierarchy may indeed have played a role.

Finally, I reiterate that talented young people will continue to leave this special and still highly seductive city for a variety of reasons having little or nothing to do with the inaccessibility of the Boston Club. This was certainly true in my own case. Far from perceiving a potential limit on my success by staying home, I in fact thought I might do better in that medium-sized pond. If I moved elsewhere, it was mostly because I had developed a serious attachment to traditional Judaism and talmudic learning. New York provided for this interest; New Orleans did not. In suggesting that our kind decamped because we could not be Mardi Gras machers, Mr. Toledano’s essay overlooks the possibility of more complex, and more persuasive, motives.

Richard B. Stone
New York City

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To the Editor:

Ben C. Toledano suggests that exclusion from certain lunch clubs and private Mardi Gras organizations impeded New Orleans Jews in their professional advancement and slowly drove many of them from the city. As anecdotal evidence, he cites three individuals now in their seventies, two in the business and financial world and one a renowned doctor, and, in a later generation, two prominent journalists, Walter Isaacson and Nicholas Lemann. All five ended up in New York. He then notes that in 1970, New Orleans “had 10,000 Jewish residents; today there are probably fewer than half that number.”

As of mid-August 2005, however, the Jewish population of New Orleans still stood at 10,000. Since then, it has dropped not by over half but by a third (according to the local Jewish Federation). That drop resulted not from social dissatisfaction but from Hurricane Katrina, and it is directly proportional to the post-Katrina decline in the city’s population as a whole.

The vast majority of Jews in New Orleans did not care, and had no cause to care, about the admissions policy at some private club. In fact, they were so successful in so many fields, and became so prominent in philanthropy, that it is hard to believe they constituted only one to two percent of the population. As long ago as the early 1900’s, Jewish lawyers began founding or joining firms with Gentiles who were core members of exclusive clubs; many such firms still exist today as “old-line” practices.

Talented people from all over the country, including Jews, have often gravitated to New York, especially to pursue careers in business, finance, writing, and journalism. But to escape exclusivity? In New York, Jews were barred from white-shoe firms until the late 1950’s. In addition, New York exceeded New Orleans in exclusive clubs and developed a more important form of exclusion that did not exist in New Orleans: restricted apartment buildings.

As for Mr. Toledano’s five individuals, why did he not also cite Michael Lewis, another nationally prominent writer originally from New Orleans? Could the reason be that Lewis is himself, by birth and social class, a member of the “controlling oligarchy”?

Harvey M. Stone
New York City

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