Wally Wally Wally Wally Wally Wally World: An Introduction to New Orleans

I moved to New Orleans at the end of May. There were many reasons for the move: the food, the music, the people, the warm weather, the low cost of living, the family ties, and the burgeoning start-up community. Yet I’m reminded of one of the drawbacks of the city every time one of my relatives instructs me to avoid an area or implores me to stay safe.

New Orleans is a pretty dangerous place. While violent crime fell nationally during the recession, New Orleans’ murder rate remains the highest in the country. Lines are cleanly drawn between good and bad neighborhoods with few places falling between the poles. A look at the New Orleans crime map reveals violent crime generally confined to poorer neighborhoods with thefts and robberies seeping into more affluent neighborhoods.

What makes residents most frightened is that there is no buffer between the good and bad. Abandoned buildings are a stones throw from multi-million dollar, antebellum mansions. The Ritz Carlton is five blocks from one of the few remaining housing projects in the city. My girlfriend summarized the real estate market, “If you never see a crackhead walk by your house, you’re paying too much.”

Between not growing up around here and incomplete segregation, I have no sense of what my risks are in any given situation. Obviously, there are places I shouldn’t walk alone at night. That is true of any city. My questions to locals have been about degree of advisable activity. Can I ride my bike there during the day? Should I not even drive there? Would it be best to barricade myself in my apartment after sundown?

So far, my strategy has primarily been better safe than sorry. Once or twice, I have ventured into areas away from the more sanitized track that my parents kept me on during visits to make judgments of my own. What I’ve seen has been nothing short of shocking. In all the places I’ve been, I have never seen so much blight and overt poverty. But aside from these brief, drive-through excursions, I’ve tried to stick to the places I know and be on guard at all times.

I can’t help but feel that completely discriminating against neighborhoods is overkill. There is a certain logic to avoiding bad neighborhoods altogether. The probability of something happening to you there is higher than elsewhere, but its not necessarily true that something bad will happen if you go there. Looking at crime rates, its not even probable.

Avoidance seems like a cognitive shortcut to actually assessing risk, and labeling an area as “bad” likely becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Once a reputation is developed, people who might otherwise spend their money in the community take their business elsewhere. Businesses and economic opportunities erode over time, and more residents resort to crime. Then the former patrons of the neighborhood become further assured in their perceptions and behavior, and the downward trend continues. On the other hand, if this reasoning is sound, then neighborhoods should be able to improve with consumers frequenting businesses in that neighborhood during low-risk hours.

Nonetheless, this sort of probabilistic risk assessment is the reality, and I’ve found that credit card companies may be acting under similar conceptions. After buying an $800 mattress from Macy’s on my card, the card was declined on an $85 purchase from a Wal-Mart in not the best of areas. I paid with cash even though I knew my card worked hours earlier, and immediately received a call from the credit card company asking if my card was stolen.

That day was brought to a fitting end with a news story about a viral video from that very Wal-Mart, which I will share with you now. Whatever the risks of being here in New Orleans, this place has a style all its own. To me, that makes being here worth it.