The word of the day is “Schadenfreude,” a loanword of Germanic origin that refers to satisfaction received from the misfortunes of others.
Oh, I should use it in a sentence? OK. “I felt a warm feeling of Schadenfreude when the man who stole my bicycle was struck by lightning, died in intense pain, and then a swarm of rats appeared and urinated on his remains.” (Note to readers: I really hate bike thieves).
Following Hurricane Sandy, regrettably if understandably, many New Orleanians felt a whiff of Schadenfreude. We had been told so many times by so many people after Hurricane Katrina that we were poor, stupid, and our city had been built in the wrong place. People asked if we should bother rebuilding New Orleans, as if we were all just going to pack up our bags and move.
Everyone seemed to take this issue seriously. PBS, CNN, National Geographic, and even Slate published articles asking whether New Orleans should be rebuilt, moved, or left to rot. Of course, the vast majority of the “rebuilding” was ultimately done by private property owners with their own money, and thus not really open to public debate. It was happening, period. Nevertheless, it was a popular idea to have every yokel from Jerkwater offer his two cents on what to do about that pesky City of New Orleans.
Thus, when Sandy struck the New York metroplex, flooding streets in Manhattan, of all places, there was a feeling of validation in many New Orleans hearts. Many New Orleanians comically suggested whether major news outlets would once again solicit responses from viewers asking whether we should rebuild New York, move it inland, or leave it to its own devices.
Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org, recently wrote a column for the Huffington Post that encapsulates this feeling, although she managed to do so in reasoned and temperate language:
Even though parts of Lower Manhattan from Wall Street to 34th Street remain without power, and floodwater is sitting stagnant in miles of century-old subway tunnels, it’s not likely that anyone will suggest that everyone in Lower Manhattan ought to permanently relocate. [Unlike with New Orleans,] [i]t’s not likely that anyone will recommend that the survivors in Hoboken or Queens should not ever return home.
Rosenthal also noted that fifty-five (55%) of America’s population lives in levee-protected counties, which makes sense, because people tend to migrate towards water. We can’t all live in the middle of the desert, which would raise its own host of problems.
I’m not quite as optimistic as Rosenthal, though. For some reason, New Orleans is a city that constantly is expected to justify its existence. While New York can just say: “Hey, we’re New Yohrk, fugettaboutit” (or whatever those people say), New Orleans is always more like: “We have an important port and cultural assets so please don’t tell us to move.” We’re always on the defensive.
A huge part of the reason is one we can all acknowledge. New York is a growing economic powerhouse, while we’re the proverbial poor man of the Sunbelt.
But there’s no valid reason why this has to be the case. We’re not in a bad location. Sure, we’re prone to being struck by hurricanes, but so is the rest of the Gulf Coast. However, we’re an old city that’s hard to navigate legally and politically, where connections often matter more than qualifications, and where new commerce just generally feels like the low man on the totem pole.
This is why I’m such a knee-jerk, business-friendly guy. It always seems like local politicians are droning on about neighborhoods and how they’re threatened by commerce, when the story of New Orleans over the past fifty years is a massive loss of population due to a dwindling economy. Thus, we have way too much residential housing stock (much of which is therefore blighted) and we’re trying to cram business into small corridors. This is supposed to be a winning strategy?
There aren’t easy fixes to all of this, either. Government can’t just step in and change the prevailing business culture, nor can it give everyone a good smack to make them see the big picture and look beyond their narrow interests.
Ultimately, it’s going to take fundamental changes from all of us, and I hope we’re working our way in that direction over time. I hope, because feeling Schadenfreude when New York floods isn’t a side-effect of their problems – it’s a signifier of our own dysfunction. If it were self-evident that New Orleans is a vibrant, necessary city, we wouldn’t have to defend ourselves.
I truly do pray that the nation looks at the outcome of Hurricane Sandy and better understands the need for good flood-control infrastructure nationwide (instead of mouthing platitudes about people needing to move). Still, if we were economically vibrant there would be no question of New Orleans’ importance. That, dear readers, is our core problem.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.