There’s an old episode of “The Simpsons” where Marge is mugged and the police are useless to catch the perpetrator. Nevertheless, Marge conquers her own fear and anxiety, managing to capture the guy who did it single-handedly.
Police Chief Wiggum arrives at the scene and proceeds to lecture the gathering crowd. “She caught her own criminal, unlike the rest of you lazy bones.”
The crowd begins to look down sheepishly. “You’re not gonna find those criminals looking at your feet, people,” Chief Wiggum chastises.
City government in New Orleans often seems like it’s channeling Chief Wiggum, and not just because our former police chief was a dead ringer for the iconic cartoon lawman. Publicly, we’re told to rely on government to provide us with the services it monopolizes. Yet when push comes to shove, the only effective way to get anything done here is to do it yourself.
This past week, WDSU ran a story about how two Uptown neighbors, Jerry Friedler and Ross Reilly, decided to finally fix the potholes on their street themselves and at their own personal expense. Apparently the potholes were so deep and jagged that they were actually popping the tires on passing vehicles.
“We had somebody getting to Magazine from Tchoupitoulas, and they blew out two tires on their car,” Reilly said.
Unfortunately, the city was not happy with the development. This is because, you know, they’re jerks. According to WDSU, “New Orleans Department of Public Works said it doesn’t want people filling potholes on the streets, noting that it’s both illegal and could lead to an even bigger problem.”
Illegal? What sheer, unmitigated ingratitude! The city should be ashamed to even raise the specter of illegality when it has allowed streets to deteriorate into open hazards. It would be like giving a person the Heimlich maneuver and having them accuse you of assault and battery.
Moreover, once a street crumbles to the point where it actually disables car, saying that an attempt to repair “could lead to an even bigger problem” is flatly absurd. Once tires are blowing out, you’ve reached the highest possible grade of “problem.” It’s difficult to conceive of any way an amateur repair could cause greater harm.
Nevertheless, the city does have its own solution for neighbors confronted with car-swallowing potholes: call them incessantly.
“A city official said homeowners should call 311 to report problems so crews can be dispatched to survey them,” WSDU reported. “If it looks like no progress is being made, call 311 back for a status update.”
Yeah, I think we’ve all gotten this kind of advice before. This is the advice given by people who are never, ever going to help you. “Call me,” the pitch goes, “and if I don’t do anything, call me again.” Beating your head against a brick wall is equally productive.
It’s not just potholes, either. We have a general expectation that reporting problems to the city government is a fruitless endeavor.
I can think of a couple of personal examples offhand. On multiple occasions I’ve reported hit-and-runs to the NOPD, only to find that getting them to actually follow through on an investigation is like pulling teeth. This is true even when I have a make, model, license plate number, and the name and phone number of a witness. The case is already made, but they don’t consider it worthy of the effort.
Another time, I was clearing some ginger leaves on the side of my house and discovered the remains of a street sign that had been knocked over, ostensibly one directing cars not to park too close to the intersection (which is a major problem). My first instinct, rather than being to call the city, was to simply make a small sign myself. After all, the sign had been missing for years and nobody from the city had noticed.
Even complaints about crime are being handled by ordinary citizens who step up to the plate in the face of the vacuum left by an incapable government. Additional security in the French Quarter? It’s being paid for on an interim basis by Sidney Torres.
Despite their protestations to the contrary, the city is effectively telling us to help ourselves. The new paradigm is that of self-help government.
Government shortfalls are probably inevitable given the mistakes made by previous generations of public leaders. We were the lazy grasshopper, not the industrious ant; we didn’t prepare for lean times by maintaining infrastructure and paying pension obligations as they arose. Money is tight, inefficiencies are institutionalized, and there’s nobody to perform the most basic tasks.
The only thing we’re left with is … us. Self-help government is not the best solution. But when tires are popping left and right on your street, it is the only solution.
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.