Justin Burnelljustinburnell@gmail.com 504.669.0604
Spirals of Progress a Review
New Orleans Boom and Blackout opens with a hearse at the Superdome. In the hearse is an empty coffin. Behind is a long line of taxis. Like the coffin they are also passenger-less and stand empty and unrented. The drivers are protesting the new regulations for taxicabs in New Orleans. New credit card machines and surveillance cameras cost money, and everyone in New Orleans always feels stretched thinner than everyone else. Their representative begins to speak in front of the golden Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Mayor Mitch Landrieu isn’t at the Superdome. The cavalcade rides toward city hall where Landrieu starts the one-hundred-day countdown to the Super Bowl. He is focused on the future out beyond the crowd. He addresses the press and says, “The idea is to make sure that New Orleans shines its brightest light at this particular time when we are on the world’s stage.” After revitalizing Louis Armstrong Airport, the front door to the city, Landrieu wants tourists treated lavishly. Landrieu won’t have them sticking to dirty seats or haggling over fares. At the podium he proffers a clean and sunny future.
The cover of New Orleans Boom and Blackout (NOBB) shows 49ers cheerleaders mid-dance under the half dead lights of the blacked out Superdome. Tom Benson, the Saints, and the stadium play major roles in the main narrative. The book ends (around) Super Bowl Sunday. Brian Boyles gave me every reason to think NOBB is about football or at least about a very big football game. It isn’t. Instead Boyles explores the future myth of the new New Orleans, and Mayor Landrieu’s position in continuing the cyclic legacy of speaking of the nations oldest city in the future tense.The Cycle
NOBB is chaptered in days. They move from 101 days to SB XLVII to a little past the game, but the scope of the book is vaster. As anyone who has delved into New Orleans’ history finds, context is crucial. The city of backdoor deals sealed with handshakes, the city where people take care of them and theirs is a place where one is either in on the joke or not. The residents are sharply divided—rich or poor, powerful or weak, local or snowbird—but the place operates in limbo. It is liminal. New Orleans is both the city that care forgot and a city of hope. “Only in New Orleans” has become a cliché. It has become so for good reason. One doesn’t have to look far back for absurd stories. When I moved here my friends told me stories of their parents rushing to the polls to ensure that the crook (Edwin Edwards) beat the devil (David Duke, former leader of the KKK). Boyles rolls through the regrettable moments in the city’s history with ease, pointing forward because at best the past is bittersweet, but the future is eternally hopeful and renewed.
NOBB frames the current rebranding of New Orleans with the past visions of New Orleans future. The book explores the making of the future myth and the one shot schemes promised to usher it in. It would be easy to cast these mayors, governors, and businessmen as hucksters angling to sell Springfield a monorail (even though that was actually proposed in New Orleans) but Boyles presents these men as they appeared to their era, as men who saw a future and grasped for the silver rope to pull New Orleans from the swamp.
Sports and politics are tight in the South. This is more or less the de facto premise of the book. In NOBB politics, sports, and the bright horizon all meet at the Superdome, or its creation. Boyles begins when New Orleans hosted the 1964 AFL All-Start game. When the black players arrived in the city, they were met with racism endemic of a (nearly) bygone era. After a night of being kicked out of clubs and bullied, the players boycotted the All-Start game in protest. Boyles quotes Mayor Victor Schiro saying the players “should have rolled with the punches” and lets the words stand on their own.
After this P.R. catastrophe, Dave Dixon, one of the city planners who coordinated the All-Star game, and Governor John McKeithen saw New Orleans stuck and sinking into a shameful history. The men shared a vision. New Orleans could have its own professional football team and with it a state of the art stadium: a superdome.
McKeithen thought a football team would put the city on the map and the Superdome would be the dot. The dome would be a modern marvel. With its 250,000 square feet it could host conventions, concerts, and college and pro football games. With it, New Orleans could compete with Atlanta and Houston as the jewel of the South. The building alone could generate a new era of growth and tolerance, a modern New Orleans. Or so went the promise.
“The Louisiana Superdome Welcomes You to Tomorrow” read the scoreboard ten years after the All-Star boycott. Boyles tells of the high wire balancing act it took to get the deal for the Saints and the Superdome done. But like the Morial Convention Center and the Word’s Fair ten years later, the Superdome was a financial disaster.
The New Visionary
“They said about us, ‘Y’all slow, y’all say you’re going to do things and you don’t do things and all that stuff you want to do is not going to be finished.’ And I said, ‘Not now. Not in this New Orleans, where we are on time, on task and under budget. Things are gonna get done!” Mayor Landrieu says after he dances onto the stage of the Superdome. Boyles watches from the stands with all the army of Disney volunteers.
Landrieu preaches that the new New Orleans will be a destination for major sporting events, success in the tech industry, and unique culture. His administration began the era of the cultural economy. The Super Bowl is his Superdome. Just as the city wallowed ignominy after the boycott, Landrieu took office in a period of abject struggle. The city was still in the crawl of rebuilding from Katrina and the indictments of government corruption seemed to rain down daily. For Landrieu the Super Bowl is just as much about earning the nation’s trust as it is football
It is clear that the game is a moment for the city to shine, but for Landrieu sees it as an audition for the future. He set about repaving major streets in the French Quarter as quickly as possible. Even though some blocks flood due to the repaving, on dry days the asphalt gleams. Landrieu builds the Loyola streetcar line in time for the game to help tourists traverse the Central Business District. He says that those who criticize it for going nowhere don’t see the larger picture. The area will develop around the streetcar line. Boyles draws the mayor leveraging the present for the future, knowing that the Super Bowl is his one-number audition. The success of the weekend at the price of all else. The NFL may take over the French Quarter, the streets may be repaved slapdash, and the city may only reap a fraction of the profit, but Landrieu only thinks of the promise. Boyles presents a well put together, easy going Landrieu scrambling to make sure the paint is new and thickly coats the rust underneath so that later, with the faith of the nation and investors, he can get around to the rust.
NOBB clearly shows the city’s ebb and flow of famine and promised feast, but Boyles’ portrayal of Landrieu is what pulled me through the book. The mayor’s charisma becomes one with the city’s. When Landrieu jumps from the new Loyola streetcar to lead a parade, the city’s allure and the mayor’s magnetism feed into each other and remind me why so many people over emphasize the city’s character to the point of magical realism. The mayor laughsand embraces the band director of the St. Augustine High School Marching 100 and it is impossible to not want to be swaying on the street in the sun with the horns roaring around you in New Orleans, which is exactly what Mitch Landrieu wants.
Amidst the history and saviors, Boyles walks the street. If the city as a whole is personified by Landrieu, then Brian Boyles is representative of the crowd of onlookers. His narrative implies closeness. He hangs out at a strip club to talk with the house DJ then crosses Canal Street to watch Lil’ Wayne perform at an exclusive after party—where he bumps into James Carville and Mary Matalin—and then stops off at a divey CBD bar and diner to chat with the owner. Boyles uses his time during the hundred-day span to illustrate how closely connected the bottom of New Orleans is to the top.
He pops into the text only as needed. Toward the end of the book Boyles is on his Super Bowl greeter shift. The volunteers are chaperoned by the extra police who’ve been bussed in from around Louisiana. Both volunteers and police guide tourists and point them in the right direction. The police are annoyed because they’ve been pulled away from real cases so they can manage foot traffic. I can feel the bored, distracted dance of the volunteers and the shit talking of the police. Just as I wondered why anyone would stick around, Boyles says, “Cold, unnecessary and among dwindling cohort, I resolved to abandon my post.”
Boyles isn’t a force, but he is the connective tissue. Or his tone is. As the book moves though history and the city, Boyles’ conversational tone reinforces the idea that all these events and cycles and players are working and talking together. I think above all this is the most enjoyable part of the book. The tone renders the pathos of the city’s close quarters where the living and dead, the hustlers and marks, the rich and poor are sardined shoulder to shoulder. In moments the prose collapses time and event on top of each other, which is how it feels as I write this in Alcee Fortier park established in 1926, surrounded by buildings of one hundred years or more, cars zooming by the cyclists riding in the new bike lane on Esplanade Avenue. His tone echoes the unsettled feeling of devotion to the future while living in a place out of time and on the verge of sliding into the ocean.