New Orleans should annex all of unincorporated Jefferson Parish! Metairie shall henceforth be known as New Orleans West! “Fat City” will receive a makeover and be reinvented as “the little Bourbon!” Prosperity shall rein!
Now that I have your attention, I will explain why this should happen, but cannot happen due to historical factors and outmoded laws.
New Orleans actually achieved its current boundaries in 1874, the same year former Reconstruction Governor Henry Warmoth killed local newspaper editor D.C. Byerly on Canal Street with a pocket knife after the latter attempted to beat him to death with his cane (a momentary digression: Byerly was the original owner of my current house). It was Governor Warmoth who had orchestrated the grand expansion of New Orleans in the Reconstruction Era.
Under Marmoth, New Orleans (which was consolidated with Orleans Parish in 1805) gobbled swaths of Jefferson Parish, including the erstwhile cities of Lafayette, Jefferson City, Algiers and Carrollton.
Jefferson City, which forms the middle part of Uptown New Orleans, proved the most difficult to bring under the city’s yoke. Warmoth’s reconstruction government clashed with the pro-Confederate government of Jefferson City, culminating in a grand battle which took place on May 20, 1869. Warmoth himself, on horseback, led a phalanx of 450 soldiers armed with muskets and howitzers down St. Charles, then left down Napoleon to Lawrence Square. There, infantry under Warmoth exchanged fire at the police station and then scoured St. Stephen’s Church for stragglers.
Think about that for a moment. That really happened, and within stumbling distance of Ms. Mae’s.
Afterwards, in the 1870 special session, Warmoth pushed his annexation plans and New Orleans consumed Jefferson City. Then, to add insult to injury, he created a slaughterhouse monopoly outside the city limits to kill Jefferson City’s stock landing and much of its commerce (a matter that went up to the Supreme Court in the now-notorious “Slaughterhouse Cases” which upheld the monopoly).
Warmoth was impeached in 1872 (replaced by the nation’s first black governor, incidentally), but his push paved the way for the annexation in Carrollton in 1874, also done without the popular approval of its residents.
Much of the opposition to annexation in Carrollton came from the fact that Carrollton, save for a few bond issues, was debt-free. New Orleans, conversely, was rife with debt yet overtaxed. Several years later in 1882, Governor Samuel McEnrey pushed the state to enact a new charter for New Orleans, noting that there was “no check against extravagance and abuse.”
“Were it not for individual enterprise and public spirit, the city would be in a deplorable condition,” McEnrey opined.
This perception of New Orleans only accelerated in following years. The botched annexations of Jefferson City and Carrollton weighed heavy in the public mind, as did the popular perception of New Orleans as being too big for its proverbial britches. By the end of World War II, with suburbanization kicking into high gear, the rest of the state was fed up.
Municipal annexations, traditionally a state legislative power, were largely delegated with the passage of Louisiana Act 315 of 1946, which became La. Rev. Stat. 33:171 to 33:179. This act allowed annexation to occur via petition or ordinance with a popular vote. However, reading those statutes in their present form, you get the idea that New Orleans wasn’t well-liked. To wit:
- La. Rev. Stat. § 33:172(a): “The limits and boundaries of incorporated municipalities shall remain as established on July 31, 1946, but may be enlarged or contracted, by ordinance of the governing body as hereinafter provided, the city of New Orleans excepted.”
- La. Rev. Stat. § 33:172(a)(6) (governing petitions to annex territory): “[T]he city of New Orleans cannot incorporate any area of Jefferson, Plaquemines, or St. Bernard parishes. In addition, except as provided in this Paragraph, the provisions of this Section shall not otherwise apply to the parish of Jefferson.”
- La. Rev. Stat. § 33:180(a): “The governing body of any municipality other than the city of New Orleans may, by ordinance, enlarge the boundaries of the municipality to include territory within which all of the land is owned by a state agency, political subdivision, or public body[.]”
The message was clear: New Orleans cannot annex anything, not ever and no how. You let New Orleans encroach on neighboring municipalities, and the next thing you know they’re exchanging gunfire in Lawrence Square.
I tend to think that the legislation was really just trying to enable the decline of New Orleans’ political clout, abetted by the phenomenon known as “white flight.” If New Orleans couldn’t expand, unfettered suburbanization in Jefferson Parish could continue. It was a ready escape valve for those who feared being under the thumb of entrenched, corrupt machine politicians and bureaucrats – or worse, persons with dark complexions!
Those fears endured throughout the remainder of the 20th century. The result has been a considerable reduction in the population and tax base of Orleans Parish and the stratification of the metroplex along political and racial lines. The moment you cross into Jefferson Parish – and it doesn’t take long to get to the parish line – the political barometer leaps to the right.
This hasn’t been healthy. When you get down to the brass tacks, Jefferson and Orleans are, generally speaking, shareholders in the same corporation. Our fortunes rise and fall together; divides and instability don’t put more money in our pockets – they only increase risk and lower returns.
At the same time, huge parts of Jefferson Parish are still up for grabs. Metairie in particular is unincorporated, and its population is well into the six-figure range. However, due to restrictions on annexation in Jefferson Parish and the total ban on any expansion of Orleans Parish, the municipal boundaries in the region are virtually fixed. Change is verboten, which is the same as mandated stagnation. If New Orleans were a business, we would say that it had suffered grievously from being artificially hamstrung by government regulation.
The positive results would be readily apparent if New Orleans were allowed to expand. A 2006 report from the Brookings Institute found that “[a] city’s ability to annex land from its surrounding county is a primary determinant of its fiscal health.”
The report further concluded that “[a]nnexation is far from an outmoded, dying practice.”
There are, alas, other impediments to annexation aside from state law. First, you will find no shortage of opponents in the areas to be annexed, but the reality is that they feed, in varying degrees, off of the city to which their suburb is anchored and should not have any reasonable objection to being brought back into the fold. This is especially true given that the divide between New Orleans and Jefferson has narrowed substantially in recent decades. New Orleans, a majority-minority city, has shown itself open-minded enough to elect a white mayor and, for at least one term, a Republican congressman. No serious commentator could conclude that we are still stuck in the politics of the 1960’s.
Secondly, there is the little matter of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which would frown on any dilution of minority voting power in a major Southern city. This problem is endemic to the VRA, which tends to view the crowding of minorities as a victory for equality. The reality is that minority voters would have a greater political impact in the region if our municipal boundaries were more rationally based. Instead of a perceived monolithic majority taken for granted, they could be potential swing voters or a reliable base. The VRA should not prevent the expansion of New Orleans.
The bottom line is that annexation authority is important and New Orleans cannot afford to stay silent on the matter. In the past year, Baton Rouge and Kenner have both shown some interest in expanding precisely because the law allows it. New Orleans should not bow down to some archaic laws borne of 19th century thinking and indulge the stupid idea that its boundaries shall forever stand as they were set in 1874.
New Orleans has the right to be dynamic. To the extent New Orleans has become insular and stagnant, much of that blame can be laid at the feet of those who artificially constrained its borders. It is high time New Orleans was allowed to grow.
Mark my words: continuing the status quo will not only be worse for New Orleans, but for the entire metroplex as well.
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.