For the first time since Hurricane Katrina visited the Gulf Coast, the Super Bowl returns to the stadium that served as shelter of last resort for thousands left stranded by the storm. In those tragic hours, the Superdome stood as a symbol of the contradictions of life in New Orleans, juxtaposing the gleam of its tourism industry against the bleak realities of many of its residents.
Fast-forward seven years, and much remains the same. The city’s murder rate in 2012 was 53 per 100,000, 12 times the national average. Meanwhile, New Orleans has the second highest homelessness rate in the country, impacting over 10,000 people. Like the streets, the jails are filled to the brim. One in seven black men in the city is behind bars, on parole or on probation.
It would seem that a city facing such profound social issues would focus on addressing them, rather than rushing to accommodate a major sporting event. However, public officials argue that the worldwide attention and tourism dollars generated by the Super Bowl benefit everyone. But do they? A closer look shows that the costs and benefits of the preparations for the game are inequitably distributed. Here are four ways ordinary New Orleanians are burdened by hosting this Super Bowl.
1. Screwing with Mardi Gras.
The most immediately visible impact of the Super Bowl on locals this week is that carnival celebrations have ceased for the nine-day period bookending the game, per the mayor’s orders. This does not impact the high-profile final week of celebrations, which will generate close to $1 billion in local tourist revenue, without the need to rehab much of anything. But carnival in Louisiana goes on for weeks, commencing with 12th night on January 6, and ending with Mardi Gras, which falls on February 12 this year. For the last few weeks, parades are held in cities and towns across the state, giving local and regional crowds a chance to enjoy the festivities without the massive tourist inundation present during the final week.
In order to make space for the Super Bowl, parades normally scheduled for this weekend were moved up a week. This placed them closer to the holiday season, which generally causes a negative pressure on membership in the non-profit “krewes” that put on the festivities. This has resulted in some logistical nightmares involving timing location and float reservations. As a result, many of the smaller krewes have simply had to scale back this year.
Unlike the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras is known as the "Greatest Free Show on Earth.” It does not cost anything to partake in the revelry of one of the nation’s oldest ongoing festivals. Meanwhile, most New Orleanians gain little from having the Super Bowl in town: they will have the same view as everyone else watching on their TVs.
2. Uneven infrastructure investment.
Most of the $1 billion in renovations have focused on the tourism industry: a fresh slab of concrete over eight blocks of the French Quarter, a $336 million facelift of the Superdome, $350 million of improvements to the airport, and $52 million for a new streetcar. The pretty veneer may appeal to football fans arriving for the game, but it comes at the expense of needed upgrades through the remainder of the city. Even relatively affluent neighborhoods have streets in disrepair, while poorer areas are prone to flooding with practically every summer storm.
Meanwhile, other vital public services have been ravaged by the politics of austerity since Katrina passed. Most recently, Governor Jindal has placed the public hospital system on the chopping block. Last year, the Louisiana State University public hospital program saw $152 million in cuts throughout the state, on top of a $30 million cut from emergency mental health services earlier. These reductions only serve to aggravate a precarious situation created by the permanent shuttering of the longstanding Charity public hospital, which never reopened after Katrina.
Likewise, public housing and education have come under repeated attacks. The entirety of the public school teaching staff was laid off while evacuated from the storm, thus laying the groundwork for the transfer of the bulk of the school infrastructure to privately run charters. Meanwhile, four of the remaining public housing buildings were demolished. This has created a scarcity of affordable housing options, which, in the face of rising rents across the city, has precipitated the crisis of homelessness.
The city cannot provide adequate housing, health services and education for its most vulnerable citizens, yet finds the political and economic capital to expend on readying itself for the Super Bowl. In this way, the citizens of New Orleans have paid for this Super Bowl through misplaced priorities, streets left in ruin, hospital beds eliminated, teachers laid off, and public housing units razed.
3. The streetcar no one desires.
The city did find a little in the kitty for public transportation, though the new streetcar has created more headache than anything. Local transit historian Jack Stewart has dubbed it “the streetcar from nowhere to nowhere,” as it passes through no residential neighborhoods in a city sorely lacking in public transportation offerings. The local RTA services only 34 of the 89 routes that existed prior to Katrina, with many of those operating truncated and unreliable schedules. Meanwhile, streetcar service is but a fragment of what it was in its heyday nearly a century ago. In addition to the new route, the transit authority operates just three lines.
The current project is scheduled for an extension later this year, which will take it an additional 1.3 miles up Rampart to Elysian Fields. Though poetic sounding, the plan falls far short of original designs to construct a line running all the way to Poland Street, which would have serviced working-class neighborhoods of the seventh and ninth wards. These plans had to be scrapped due to budget shortfalls, leaving a line that will not service many locals, as the bulk of its trajectory runs alongside the tourist-laden French Quarter.
Transportation projects carry the potential to greatly level the economic playing field by reducing the burdensomely expensive need to drive. An ambitious transit renewal plan could have been the linchpin of a re-emergent New Orleans. Instead, the city opted to cater to the exclusive Super Bowl attendees in constructing a line that will become virtually useless after this weekend.
4. NFL limits free speech.
New Orleanians have had to endure nearly a year of crippling construction in the downtown corridor, while seeing precious resources diverted from the neighborhoods to the tourist center. They have also had to watch while the NFL dictates the terms of free speech in the city.
At the league’s behest, the city council passed a so-called “Clean Zone” ordinance last month, similar to those passed in other cities hosting the game in recent years. The law prohibited the use of signage in the designated area that did not include “at least 60% Super Bowl branding.” Among the impacted placards would be the many “Roger Goodell not welcome” messages present in restaurants through the French Quarter, in reference to the NFL commissioner who laid down stiff suspensions on the Saints coaching staff as part of the Bountygate scandal last year. Resentful fans of the local team have used the occasion of the Super Bowl to let their feelings be known.
In response to the new law, the ACLU swooped in and filed suit on behalf of two plaintiffs, a local preacher and an Occupy NOLA activist, both planning on holding signs at the big event. On Tuesday, the city and ACLU came to an agreement wherein the city clarified that non-commercial speech is unaffected by the ordinance. As far as commercial speech goes, only “off-site and mobile advertising” can be regulated, according to the deal. Thanks to the swift actions of the civil liberties watchdog, Occupy NOLA can picket outside the dome, and restaurants can leave their messages to Goodell intact.
While city officials speak of themes of rebirth this Super Bowl, there’s still much to be done in revitalizing New Orleans. Unfortunately, the public sector has been ransacked by the politics of privatization and austerity. Rebuilding a city requires more than rehabbing its sports arena; it is a long-term project, requiring investment in communities, a stable workforce, reliable schools, affordable housing, and a robust public health sector. It requires a politics of looking past the big game.