A few years ago, local NBC affiliate WDSU reported on an embarrassment familiar to all New Orleanians, namely the fact that street signs seem to be regarded as more of a luxury in this city than an obvious necessity. Particularly absent are those signs actually identifying the names of streets – you know, so you can actually find your way around.
“If you think about some of the basic things you expect a city to have, in terms of the impression of the city, if it doesn’t have a street sign it kind of lets you know they don’t have it all together,” local resident Francis James told reporters. His intersection had no signs at all.
At the time, Public Works Director Col. Mark Jernigan told the Council Public Works Committee that his department was aware of at least 2,000 street signs in need of replacement. Benchmarks were set to (presumably) rectify the problem.
Fast-forward to the present day. Our local ABC affiliate, WGNO, reported this week in response to a viewer tip that the signs at the intersections of Louisiana Avenue at Coliseum, Chestnut, and Camp streets were all spelled wrong.
Instead of “Louisiana,” each sign read “Lousiana.”
Now, we might forgive people who, perhaps due to a combination of accent and poor education, pronounce our state’s name as though it is missing the first “i.” Hell, we even regard it as a species of cultural peculiarity that merits acknowledgement, if not appreciation.
However, misspelling Louisiana is downright incompetent. It’s not the type of mistake that should normally pass several layers of bureaucracy. After all, somebody had to receive that shipment of signs. Somebody had install them. Somebody, probably multiple people, had to completely ignore the error. Where was the oversight?
Thankfully, the response was swift. On Friday, WGNO reported that the offending signs were mysteriously gone, with only the posts remaining. “Progress!” WGNO opined.
Of course, this was not progress. Although misspelling a street named after the state in which New Orleans is situated was undoubtedly a major gaffe, the problem was hardly rectified by removing street signs at four intersections. Despite the misspelling of one street, the signs still served their practical purpose of notifying motorists where they were. It would have been better to wait for replacement signs before pulling the existing ones.
The entire spectacle was a primer on the laissez faire attitude towards basic infrastructure in New Orleans. Somebody did something stupid, and next, the response to the ensuing controversy actually made the problem worse.
In this case, it turns out that the immediate culprit was the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been performing drainage work on Louisiana Avenue. However, the Corps has failed the city before (Katrina, cough cough) and ought to be under a virtual microscope when performing city services. However, the buck was passed by the City, and thus the error was allowed to occur.
Incompetence is, sadly, the common thread that connects the actions of our fair city. In June, we were treated by news that Jernigan had sent a letter to Jeannie Tidy, head of Community Visions Unlimited, complaining that her organization’s activities in painting drab utility boxes with public art free of charge were (shudder!) not properly authorized by his department.
“What you have done in the past and are currently planning to do with regard to painting city property in the public right of way has not been permitted or authorized by the Dept. of Public Works,” Jernigan wrote, seemingly ignorant of the sheer scandal engendered by exposing munificence absent government sanction.
Understandably, public outcry ensued. Jernigan seemed more concerned with clamping down on an unequivocal public good, i.e., free public art, than he did with the more pressing concerns of Public Works. Even Mayor Landrieu himself was forced to distance himself from his own appointee with a public statement in support of Tidy.
There are two lessons we should take from all of this. First of all, our city has terrible leadership. Secondly, our local bureaucrats are more focused on trivial nonsense than things that actually matter.
Driving around New Orleans I am confronted with the stupidity of our public works on a daily basis. The pedestrian signals on Canal rarely work, stop signs and street-name signs are missing everywhere, and worst of all, one-way signs — which are supposed to be at every intersection in multiple locations — are often missing entirely.
Oftentimes I am shocked that visitors to our city survive their trips at all. Driving here is a veritable “Whack-a-mole” game, and Public Works is often the one swinging the mallet.
What is fundamentally clear is that the current administration’s promises to reform local government have fallen well short of expectations. Basic services are still being unmet, creating an accurate impression that New Orleans simply doesn’t “have it all together.” The game of chance that constitutes our roadways will, alas, continue indefinitely.
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.
[Correction: 12:18 p.m. Wednesday: The original reporting by WGNO incorrectly indicated that the Louisiana Avenue signs were created and then removed by the city Department of Public Works. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for the Louisiana Avenue sign, city officials say. This column has been corrected to reflect that.]