Three for the Road
I leave you with these parting words and numbers.
Editor’s note: Due to changing work commitments, this will be Robert Edgecombe’s last column for Biz New Orleans. He has been a wonderful addition to the magazine and we wish him well in all his endeavors.
For the past 14 months, I have used data on a variety of topics to tell the story of the New Orleans area—how it has changed, how it compares to other regions and what trends are important for our leaders to consider going forward. In many respects, the data tells a positive story: Our population continues to grow; new investment is robust; educational outcomes have improved; and our quality of life remains comparatively quite favorable. On the other hand, data also highlights our ongoing challenges of high crime, housing affordability, water management, economic diversification and many others.
In this, my last column—at least for a while—I want to leave you with three numbers that to me represent some of the city’s most important ongoing dynamics. The figures aren’t exactly related to one another, but together they’re worth keeping in mind as reminders of New Orleans’ trajectory, potential and difficulties.
The first number is 630,000, the approximate population of New Orleans in 1960. According to the most recent estimates, the city’s population today is about 390,000. That means that the city has a footprint that once accommodated roughly 60 percent more residents than it does today. As of 2010, the city reported about 25,000 fewer housing units than in 2000, but 21,000 more vacant units. There is the same geographical demand for municipal services—street maintenance, emergency response, utility provision and the like—against a much smaller tax base. This math poses an ongoing challenge for the city, one which is likely to last a generation or more.
The second number is 2,900, the estimated number of new housing units created in downtown New Orleans between 2005 and 2015. For perspective, those new units represent a more than doubling of the pre-Katrina downtown housing stock and a major physical, cultural and economic shift in the residential dynamics of the city. New buildings, large-scale renovations and complete repurposing of commercial buildings have been a hallmark of the last decade in New Orleans, and make the city a prime example of the “back to the city” movement that has characterized many American metropolitan areas in recent years. Time and future development will reveal the continued demand for downtown living, but it’s certain that in the last 10 years, the identity of our city’s core has been recast.
The third number, 52, is deeply sobering. That’s the percentage of working-age African-American males in New Orleans who are unemployed, according to a 2013 report published by the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola. Representing about 26 percent of the city’s population, black males have been most vulnerable to the perennial challenges of urban life in New Orleans—poverty, economic instability, educational insufficiency, violence and cultural trauma. This statistic is a devastating example of untapped potential in employment, economic growth and civic contribution. Thankfully, the issue is being addressed purposefully through city-run programs, education reform, nonprofit initiatives and criminal justice interventions, but it is both causal and symptomatic of our city’s greatest challenges.
New Orleans is an interesting place to study, and a fascinating place to live. While life and progress here is experienced in much, much more than data and statistics, I do hope that we all resolve to measure ourselves and learn about the key indicators of our regional conditions. Numbers don’t tell us everything, but they do provide common reference points for us to set visions and priorities for the place we call home, and I hope we will continue to study them and apply them toward our highest aspirations. It has been a pleasure to share them with you.
Robert Edgecombe is an urban planner and consultant at GCR Inc. He advises a wide range of clients on market conditions, recovery strategies, and demographic and economic trends.