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Tale of Two Cities

by Mark Peres

September 4,2005

Charlotte is everything that New Orleans is not. If Charlotte is anything, it’s efficient, clean, orderly and proper (CMS and the School Board notwithstanding). If New Orleans is anything, it’s inefficient, dirty, disorderly and decidedly improper. Where Charlotte is buttoned up, the Big Easy is gone wild. Where Charlotte works hard and is reverential, New Orleans is carefree and endlessly irresponsible. As we welcome our new guests into town, each city could learn a bit from the other.

It’s not a surprise that if any city would utterly fail to follow its own plans and be completely disorganized under pressure, it would be New Orleans. The city, and the great state of Louisiana of which it is part, is notorious for decades of graft, corruption and incompetence. Add to that a hurricane of historic strength and federal officials who were more concerned about their August vacations than an inconsequential political base, and you’ve got exactly what occurred.

Would the civic and government response been different in Charlotte? Some insist no, that we would have been overwhelmed, that the same underbelly of poverty would have been exposed. Here’s my take: Charlotte would have responded differently because the culture here is different. Our decades of history tell a story of work ethic, cooperation and skilled leadership. We’re not perfect, but we generally get it right.

We’ve examined at length the personality of our city in these pages. Indeed, it’s all the citizenry ever really do in Charlotte. It’s the subtext of every column and conversation. We’re a Southern city on the move with national ambitions. As a result, every debate comes down to one decision: will it bring us closer to a more progressive and liberal world-class ideal without sacrificing the more conservative moral and fiscal quality of life that has made Charlotte what it is?

That’s our essence in a nutshell. How you answer that question in Charlotte reveals everything about you.

What we desire reveals what we don’t have. So this is what we fret about: We need more funkiness, more jazz and tattoos. We need the creative class and diversity. We need artists and street life and gumbo. This would be such a neat city if only we could only let loose and be more like Miami, San Francisco and (we dare say) New Orleans.

What do you think they might be fretting about in New Orleans (other than survival)? Here’s my guess: once we rebuild (with the rest of America primarily doing the job), how can we be less dysfunctional and incompetent? How can we be less irresponsible and inept? This would be such a neat city if we could only be more businesslike like Jacksonville, Dallas and (we dare say) Charlotte.

I have a family connection to New Orleans. It was the city my parents emigrated to from Brazil. My brother and sisters were born theres. My family then moved to San Francisco, where I was born, and I later grew up in New York and Miami. Every one of those places teemed with diversity and chaos. They were complete social stews of integration, combustion and artistic expression.

Yet, as an adult, I prefer to live in Charlotte (as I did Tallahassee and Winter Park). Things work here. Life is orderly and predictable. The Charlotte Way is definable: everyone is welcome and is expected in return to contribute to make the city a better place, and as such it is a city suitable to newcomers. But typical of non-natives, we want a flavor of what we left behind—exotic spices, bold colors, strange melodies and rhythmic movements. We want the clash of ideas. We want history and change that marks greatness in urban realms.

New Orleans can learn from us, but Charlotteans can certainly learn something from New Orleans. We can learn that there is more to life than the rules of the road. We can learn that not much is achieved being conventional. We can learn, instead, that lasting testaments to our humanity always comes from misbehaving. New Orleans has given the world joyous music and indelible memories, and in its struggle, will surely do so again.

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