New Orleans reached its most consequential position as an economic and population center in relation to other American cities in the decades prior to 1860; as late as that year it was the nation's fifth-largest city and by far the largest in the American South. Though New Orleans continued to grow in size, from the mid-19th century onwards, first the emerging industrial and railroad hubs of the Midwest overtook the city in population, then the rapidly growing metropolises of the Pacific Coast in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century, then other Sun Belt cities in the South and West in the post-World War II period surpassed New Orleans in population. Consequently, New Orleans has periodically mounted attempts to regain its economic vigor and pre-eminence over the past 150 years, with varying degrees of success.
By the mid-20th century, New Orleanians were observing with concern that the city was even ceding its traditional ranking as the leading urban area in the South. By 1950, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta (along with Seattle, outside of the South) had surpassed New Orleans in size, and 1960 witnessed Miami's eclipse of New Orleans, even as New Orleans' population was recorded as reaching its historic peak by the 1960 Census.
Like most older American cities in this period, New Orleans' center city commenced losing inhabitants, though the New Orleans metropolitan area continued expanding in population - just never as rapidly as its metropolitan peers in the Sun Belt. While the port remained one of the largest in the nation, automation and containerization resulted in significant job losses. The city's relative fall in stature meant that its former role as banker and financial services provider to the South was inexorably supplanted by competing companies in its now-larger peer cities.
New Orleans' economy was always more of a trade-based, commercial entrepot than manufacturing powerhouse, but the city's smallish manufacturing sector also shrank in the post-World War II period. Despite some economic development successes under the administrations of DeLesseps "Chep" Morrison (1946-1961) and Vic Schiro (1961-1970), metropolitan New Orleans' growth rate consistently lagged behind the more vigorous Sun Belt cities.
During the later years of Morrison's administration, and for the entirety of Schiro's, the city struggled to digest the ramifications of the legal enfranchisement of its sizable African-American population. New Orleans was very much at the center of the Civil Rights struggle. The SCLC was founded in the city, lunch counter sit-ins were held in Canal Street stores, and a very prominent and ugly series of confrontations occurred when the city attempted school desegregation, in 1960. That episode witnessed the first occasion of a black child attending an all-white school in the South, when six year-old Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in the city's Ninth Ward. The Civil Rights movement's success in realizing the desegregation of public facilities and schools, and the enfranchisement of the black voter, constituted the most significant event in New Orleans' 20th century history.
Though legal equality was established by the end of the 1960s, a yawning gap in income levels and educational attainment persisted between the city's white and black communities. The effects of this gap were amplified by accelerating white flight, as the city's population grew poorer and blacker. New Orleans' political leadership, from 1980 onwards firmly in the hands of its African-American majority, struggled to narrow this gap by creating conditions conducive to the economic uplift of the black community.
Tourism Becomes a Major Factor for Economic Survival
New Orleans became increasingly dependent on tourism as an economic mainstay, arguably fatally so by the administrations of Sidney Barthelemy (1986-1994) and Marc Morial (1994-2002). Unimpressive levels of educational attainment, high rates of household poverty and rising crime became increasingly problematic in the later decades of the century, with the negative effects of these socioeconomic conditions newly amplified as the United States economy increasingly rested upon a post-industrial, knowledge-based paradigm where brains were far more important than brawn.
By the year 2000, in spite of resurging investment in many of the city's historic neighborhoods, there was widespread concern that the long-term relative decline of metropolitan New Orleans, born of the region's continued sluggish growth rates, was tipping into absolute decline. Initiatives such as the "Top 10 by 2010" and "New Orleans 24/7" efforts, the founding of the Idea Village business incubation non-profit, and the creation of Greater New Orleans, Inc. ("GNO, Inc.") as a new regional economic development partnership sought to reanimate the city's entrepreneurial roots, opening the latest chapter aimed at jump-starting the region's economy in the history of New Orleans.
Despite - or perhaps because of - the experience of Hurricane Katrina, this latest push appears to have gained considerable traction; the city's population is surprisingly surging as migrants from elsewhere seek an escape from worsening economic conditions.
Coupled with groundbreaking, nationally-unprecedented public school reform efforts and the ongoing crafting of a powerful master plan and new comprehensive zoning ordinance that promises to speed growth and upgrade the quality of new development - in part by removing Byzantine rules and political whim from planning and permitting - New Orleans is arguably laying the foundation for a degree of economic prosperity not witnessed since the antebellum period, prosperity resting upon the continued expansion of the creative industries sector, a rejuvenated maritime industry and a focus on advanced manufacturing, teamed with a wealthier and better-educated populace.
The turn of the 20th century witnessed one of the earlier episodes in the ongoing series of energetic recommitments to jump-starting economic growth on the part of New Orleans' government and business leaders. The most portentous development during this period was a drainage plan devised by engineer and inventor A. Baldwin Wood and designed to break the surrounding swamp's stranglehold on the city's geographic expansion. Until then, urban development in New Orleans was largely limited to higher ground along the natural river levees and bayous. Wood's pump system allowed the city to drain huge tracts of swamp and marshland and expand into low-lying areas. Over the 20th century, rapid subsidence, both natural and human-induced, left these newly-populated areas several feet below sea level.
New Orleans was vulnerable to flooding even before the city's footprint departed from the natural high ground near the Mississippi River. In the late 20th century, however, scientists and New Orleans residents gradually became aware of the city's increased vulnerability. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy killed dozens of residents, even though the majority of the city remained dry. The rain-induced flood of May 8, 1995 demonstrated the weakness of the pumping system.
After that event, measures were undertaken to dramatically upgrade pumping capacity. By the 1980s and 90s, it was worrisomely clear that extensive, rapid and ongoing erosion of the marshlands and swamp surrounding New Orleans had left the city far more exposed to hurricane-induced catastrophic storm surges than it had ever before been in its history.
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