Louisiana 2nd District
Founded by the French in 1718, ruled by the Spanish from 1763 until it was sold to the United States in 1803, New Orleans was a Creole city—part French, a bit Spanish, more than a touch Caribbean—when the American flag was raised over what is now Jackson Square. The statue of Andrew Jackson still seems an intrusion in a square set off by a French Market, the Cabildo, the Presbytere, the Pontalba apartments and Cathedral St. Louis. New Orleans was the fifth largest American city from 1840 until the Civil War and the only sizable city in the South. Yet even as it was sending Southern cotton to the mills of Lancashire, it was an alien cultural force in both the nation and region. Urbanized, yet poor and in many ways primitive, New Orleans had yellow fever epidemics late in the 19th century, even as it was installing electric lights. It had a riot in which Italian immigrants were massacred, even as it was laying streetcar tracks and telephone lines. This was one of the most corrupt American cities during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, when its votes were regularly bid for and bought. Like other Southern cities, it became rigidly segregated after 1890.
2008 Presidential Vote
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For a time during the 1970s oil boom, New Orleans seemed to be a fast-growing Sun Belt city. But in the 1980s, it was beset by economic woes. Its port lost business—oil to Houston and Latin American trade to Miami—though it still shipped large amounts of grain. In the 1990s, New Orleans took a turn for the better. Crime plummeted and no longer depressed tourism. Visitors wanted to see the gaudy bars of Bourbon Street, the graceful restored houses in the Garden District and the Mardi Gras parade. They wanted to dine in the storied restaurants, with a cuisine all New Orleans’ own, spicy and rich and unaffected by trends in low-fat food. Incomes went up, and home ownership increased, among blacks as well as whites. Mayor Ray Nagin campaigned to tackle corruption, but was criticized by fellow African-Americans for not paying enough attention to community needs.
But the nation has since acquired other images of New Orleans. As Hurricane Katrina made landfall early on a Monday morning, Aug. 29, 2005, more than 20,000 people huddled at the downtown Superdome, the shelter of last resort. Although they were told to bring food, water and medicine, many did not. The scene inside was nightmarish, with no power or provisions, and conditions worsened when the storm ripped two holes in the roof. A few days later, city officials began to load people on buses for transport to cities that were better positioned to provide services. The breach of the city’s levees led to a surge that churned through the low-income Ninth Ward, while the French Quarter, on higher ground, was largely untouched by the floodwaters. When the city started to dry out, Nagin begged people to return, though services were starkly limited.
During the months following the devastation, it became clear that the city was in for a very long recovery. Thousands of government trailers became semi-permanent homes. City residents who had fled the floodwaters only slowly trickled back, if at all. Only portions of the city got regular utility service. The recovery proceeded, but expectations repeatedly were downsized. In May 2007, the Kaiser Family Foundation issued a report saying, “Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of government at all levels to respond to it more effectively, was personally devastating for a large percentage of the Greater New Orleans population in ways that continue to reverberate today.” Overall, a third of Greater New Orleans residents said their lives remain “very disrupted” or “somewhat disrupted,” a sentiment shared by 59% of people living in Orleans Parish. In 2008, the last government trailer parks closed, and the restaurants in the French Quarter were back in business. But the numbers continued to tell the story of the city’s struggle to rebound. Its population was down from 460,000 to about 320,000 in 2008, public-school enrollment was down 52% and transit riders were down 75%. As the city repopulated after Katrina, the population jumped nearly 14% from 2006 to 2007, but then it slowed dramatically in the next year, increasingly only 3% in 2008. “It’s very clear we’re going to have a much smaller, very different New Orleans,” retired Brown University geographer Robert Kates told USA Today.
The 2nd Congressional District of Louisiana includes almost all of the city of New Orleans, everything except a few affluent white neighborhoods. It has nearly half of Jefferson Parish, African-American neighborhoods in Metairie and Kenner, and the West Bank towns of Harvey, Marrero, and Westwego. In the French Quarter—the Vieux Carre as it was originally called—are the 19th-century-row houses decked out in their island pastels and ornate wrought-iron railings. At street level are restaurants, art galleries and jazz and blues clubs, and the narrow sidewalks fill up nightly with diners, revelers, and patrons of the tiny voodoo establishments that are found only in New Orleans. South of the quarter is the downtown district, with its skyscrapers and the Superdome, and to the east is the old slum known as the Irish Channel, a reminder that New Orleans had more foreign immigrants than any other part of the South. Up St. Charles Avenue from the Vieux Carre is the Garden District, with the graceful intact homes of the rich early American settlers. The city’s population was 60% African-American in 2007, and the district is solidly Democratic. John Kerry won 75% of the vote here in 2004 and Barack Obama got 75% in 2008.