By Claire Byum for MidCityMessenger.com
New Orleans is better off now than six years ago, though there’s still a long way to go before every need is met and every pothole filled, Mayor Mitch Landrieu told a Lakeview crowd Wednesday night.
Landrieu addressed Uptown and Mid-City residents’ concerns during his annual “Budgeting for Outcomes” community meeting at Lakeview Christian Center on Wednesday. About 30 people expressed how they’d like to see the city’s budget used during the two-hour meeting, with the last 45 minutes reserved for Landrieu to directly address those ideas or questions.
The expansion of bicycle paths around the city dominated the discussion, but many people voiced their concerns about affordable housing, poor condition of the city’s roads and the removal of prominent Confederate monuments. Landrieu capped off his closing remarks by reiterating that the city doesn’t have money for all of it’s needs -– including hiring more firefighters and fixing roads –- so compromises have to be made yearly. But, under his leadership, Landrieu said the city is better now than ever.
“Where we are now is dramatically different than five or six years ago,” he said.
More than half of Wednesday night’s speakers touched on the necessity of maintaining more than 100 miles of bicycle paths across the city, asking officials to expand existing lanes and educate the public on bike safety.
Dan Favre, executive director of Bike Easy, said maintaining the already-constructed bike lanes would benefit New Orleans, especially as the population continues to grow. He also asked Landrieu to earmark funds to construct even more bike paths to “interconnect the city” for cyclists.
“As we continue to move forward and keep momentum up, I encourage you to invest in high quality, low stress bike ways across the city,” Favre said.
Some meeting attendees expressed dismay at spending more money on bicycle paths, especially given the state of most city streets. Landrieu, however, acknowledged the importance of providing infrastructure for cyclists but said the government is limited in what it can do –- especially regarding how drivers treat bikers, and vice-versa.
Unlike other cities, Landrieu said, drivers don’t yield to bikes or pedestrians as often because they’re smaller than cars. The biggest change has to come from how drivers see cyclists and how everyone can share the same road, he added.
“It’s time for cyclists and drivers to all start talking to each other and bring solutions to the City Council,” Landrieu said.
Several Lakeview residents expressed frustration with the condition of city roads, especially along Fleur De Lis Drive. More than $300 million has been spent on road repair in District A, Landrieu said, but residents still called neighboring roads “atrocious” throughout the evening.
Potholes are fixed as often as possible, he added, but there’s just not enough money in the budget to fix every road – about $9 billion total needed. Fleur De Lis Drive, however, is in luck: Landrieu announced construction on the third quarter of the road should start in August.
John Martin, who lives on St. Charles Avenue, said potholes turn into giant craters that destroy axles and tear up tires. He said a sinkhole opened up in front of his house and, though he called 311, nothing was done until he made a call to the mayor’s office.
One orange cone and a construction crew later, the crater was fixed. But Martin said the problem will happen again in another part of the street, though Landrieu repeated there’s only so much money for roads every year.
“The problem is that you’re in an old, tired city that got beat to death,” Landrieu said. “We have filled hundreds of thousands of potholes in the last few years, but they continue to crop up.”
Councilwoman Susan Guidry harped on the progress made in District A, highlighting the Mid-City library’s move to Canal Street closer to public transportation. She admitted the road improvements were “painful” progress, but said her six years representing District A were also very fulfilling.
Another vocal presence at the Lakeview meeting was from a man who said the planned removal of Confederate monuments would “wipe out the city’s history.” Last year’s crowd featured the “Save Our Circle” group, formed in response to Landrieu’s suggestion that the statue of Robert E. Lee be removed from Lee Circle downtown.
Similar to last year, Landrieu said the statues honoring Confederate leaders were erected in a period of history during which white supremacy and anti-integration sentiment was being reasserted by the governing class, and they do not represent his values or those of many other New Orleanians.
“I respect history, I think we ought to remember history, but I think we ought to remember history in context,” he said.
Among other issues touched upon Wednesday night were firefighter pay, AirBnB regulation, and the condition of rental properties. Landrieu capped off the meeting asking for an extra 500 police officers (to bring the total to about 1,600) to prevent acts of domestic terrorism. Since local first responders are the first to the scene of any disaster, there should be enough to cover a major incident – especially in a city the size of New Orleans.
Claire Byum is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New Orleans.