This week, a HuffPost reader in New Orleans complained to us that his city is pretending to be something it's not -- namely, a clean, safe place.
"The only thing people here are concerned with here in New Orleans is the Super Bowl," this reader told us via e-mail. "The city is doing all it can to put a mask on right now to make it seem like it's something it is not. It will all go back to broken streetlights, potholes, and the 'normal' murder rate of 10 people a day afterwards."
(For the record, New Orleans had 193 murders last year -- meaning that while the city's murder rate is about 10 times higher than the national average, it's not quite at the level this reader suggests.)
The letter made us curious, so we asked our HuffPost readers in New Orleans whether they'd been seeing the same thing -- the city sweeping its problems under the rug while the nation tunes in to watch Super Bowl XLVII.
A few readers wrote back to say that yes, New Orleans has a lot of issues that you won't necessarily learn about from watching Sunday's game. But many more wrote to tell us that the city is doing fine, that it's bounced back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (truer for some people than for others), and that even where the city is imperfect, its flaws are part of its charm.
Below are some of the letters we received, as well as photos of New Orleans taken by our readers. Together they offer a range of views on a city that, according to the people who live there, can be seen an almost limitless number of ways.
Many people were quick to defend New Orleans against criticism. One reader, who told us that she sings in a blues band and "performs nightly on Bourbon Street," wrote to say:
Sure, they are dressing up the city a bit. But like it or not, the Super Bowl is here this year. (We'd like it better if our Saints were in it!) And like anything or anyone facing a special "date," we are taking the time to mow the lawns and iron our shirts. Taking pride in one's appearance is no more unexpected than cleaning up when the relatives are coming for a holiday. Afterward, of course, your socks will be back on the floor, and your friends that love you know you that way.
I get tired of hearing these cynics talk about how New Orleans is wearing a facade when special things happen here. Don't like it? Run for office and see how much better you'd do! I love my New Orleans, flaws, blemishes and all!
A running theme in the letters was an attitude that might be best described as: "Yes, the city has real problems, but that doesn't make me love it any less." We read a lot of letters here at HuffPost, and New Orleans is more or less the only place where so many readers have shared this sentiment with us. Said one person:
I would agree that the city government is scrambling to present a "different" New Orleans than our actual city. In true New Orleans fashion, it seems like some councilmen or planners woke up a few weeks ago and said "hey, we won a bid two years ago to host the Super Bowl. It's happening in two months... maybe we should fix the streets and make the streetcar run!" Suddenly, construction appeared everywhere, though we, the residents, cannot actually see any improvements. Our residential streets are still rife with potholes. Royal Street in the French Quarter, home of art galleries and street performers, is under massive construction, which means no one can get into the many shops and galleries, and street musicians cannot perform over the noise of bulldozers and jackhammers. Art and music define our city, yet the preparations for Super Bowl deny our tourists access to those arts [...]
After next weekend, the city will go back to its yearly Mardi Gras state, full of drunk people listening to music, watching parades, and having a good time. The city will abandon any street improvement projects, the streetcar will go back to limited service (this has been the case for over two years now), and all will be as it has always been. And that is the New Orleans that we love, and choose to live in!
And several readers, like the one below, pointed out that civic maintenance is still civic maintenance, regardless of whether or not a football game is happening.
Every city puts on its best face for a national spotlight and tourism. There is a flurry of activity in New Orleans -- fixing roads, adding a streetcar line, and some serious cleanup downtown -- but we'll benefit from at least the first two long after the Super Bowl is gone. And hopefully the city will benefit from the positive exposure for even longer afterward. A super-clean New Orleans may not be our real face, but I'll take it while it lasts. And we should care a lot about two weeks that bring in a half billion dollars to the city (Mardi Gras too). No one thinks crime or homeless people have disappeared, not even for the Super Bowl.
At the same time, some readers told us that they've definitely seen cleanup efforts happening in certain parts of town and not others. Said one:
Yes, New Orleans city leaders, as well as the business sector, have been busy making New Orleans look as dressed up as a Mardi Gras float.
Where there were weeds one day, fresh sod has been laid and a lawn appears. Where there was a barren median yesterday, there is now a row of palm trees. The famous French Quarter "Funk" that is the keynote odor of the Quarter has miraculously been washed away and garbage is being picked up as soon as something is dropped [...]
This is not just in New Orleans proper. In the neighboring county, Jefferson Parish, they've spent $4 million to tear down aluminum lighting fixtures along a stretch of barren highway known as Airline Highway (now gentrified to "Drive"), and have installed elegant lamp fixtures that reminds one of the Art Nouveau elegance of Paris. Yet this two-mile strip has almost no businesses and doesn't serve the community in any way, other than leading people into New Orleans and -- you guessed it -- to the Superdome.
How nice it would have been to have used that money to fix streets in Jefferson Parish.
Another reader advised us:
Have a reporter and photographer to go out to the lakefront (Lake Pontchartrain) and just ride from Canal Blvd. to Marconi and see how nothing has been done to repair this beautiful strip. When I visit Chicago and go along Lake Michigan, I get sick to know what potential we have here that we've never have taken advantage of.
Also, while you are in the Lakeview Area, have your reporter drive down any side street, and you will find the worst streets in America.
And a third reader, from the Mid-City neighborhood, told us that in his view, the Super Bowl has been a mixed blessing at best:
New Orleans is a great place to hold an event like the Super Bowl. The location of the Louisiana Super Dome, and the fact that this is a very pedestrian city (you really can walk to just about anywhere), makes it ideal. However, because of the Super Bowl, the city leaders, mainly Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have been working overtime to ‘fix’ obvious problems.
A new streetcar line that travels from the Amtrak station on Loyola Avenue to Canal Street was added, but one of the main thoroughfares that runs directly through the Central Business District (CBD) was blocked for many weeks. New streetlight poles were placed along Airline Avenue, the road leading from Louis Armstrong Airport, while the streetlights on my block remain broken. The sidewalks on Royal Street in the French Quarter were fixed, but the process took months, and business suffered on that very street due the sidewalks being roped off during construction. Some streets around the tourist areas were fixed, while potholes continue to ruin the alignment of many automobiles around the rest of the city.
The off-ramps leading to the Super Dome were closed off two weeks before the game, as were streets around the venue. Many people utilize these off-ramps and streets daily to get to and from work. The NFL has rented swaths of parking spots around the city where parking spots for the locals are never enough. The NFL has even gotten the city to declare certain areas of the city as ‘clean zones’ where people are not allowed to display certain flags or signs!
I'm all for tourism, but the city has allowed the NFL to take over.
But for every complaint we heard, there was also a story like this:
I am not a member of the current city administration (though I was in the Tourism Office of a prior administration a decade ago), and I am not an official apologist for the city either. But I am a former New Yorker who has lived here for over 30 years, and there is a good reason for that.
New Orleans is a great city in many ways, with a vibrant artistic, cultural and music scene, and the site of some of the most important historic events in our nation's history. The people here are, by and large, friendly, outgoing and fun-loving. And hard-working. Many of us work hard to promote our city, myself included, as a writer for several tourism publications. I certainly wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't believe in what I was doing. I COULDN'T be doing it. I'm not the kind of person who can promote something I don't like. Other people can do this: I simply cannot.
Some captions and letters have been edited for clarity.