It’s fashionable to be down on Louisiana these days.
We’re in a tough spot. A budget deficit of $1.6 billion. The contraction of the oil and gas industry. LSU’s plunging credit rating.
Amidst such problems, our Governor awkwardly flirts with presidential primary voters in far off places. His preoccupation with the Republican presidential nomination drags Louisiana into distracting debates ranging from alleged Muslim “no-go” zones in Europe to legalized bigotry in the name of Jesus Christ.
The gravity of our economic problems, coupled with our most visible leader’s propensity for distraction, might lead some to believe that Louisiana is “breaking bad.”
We’re undoubtedly broke. But maybe we’re not as bad as we seem. If you look in the right places and apply the proper context, there are a lot of little reasons to be optimistic about the future. Here are few that you might have missed:
Louisiana Is Still Growing Stuff
In 2014, Louisiana agriculture contributed $12.7 billion to the state’s economy. The record setting 2014 figure marked a 7.6 percent, or $900 million, increase from 2013.
The 2014 figures capped off 5 consecutive years of agricultural growth – from $9.9 billion in 2010 to the record setting figure of 2014.
The largest contributors to the 2014 increase were soybeans, beef, and forestry.
Soybean values increased from 2013 to 2014 by 28 percent, or $252 million, totaling $1.16 billion. The cattle business grew by $231 million, or 35 percent, totaling $895 million. The forestry sector increased by $981 million and totaled $3.86 billion in 2014.
Louisiana Is Getting Healthier
In September 2014, it was announced that Louisiana finally lost its distinction as the state with the highest adult obesity rate. Louisiana’s obesity rate fell from 34.7 percent to 33.1 percent. The percentage decline translated into 56,000 fewer obese residents in the state.
In January 2015, New Orleans – “The Big Easy” and “The City That Care Forgot” – adopted a city-wide smoking ban with very little controversy or fanfare.
In our bright red state, smoking is routinely banned in both public and private establishments without any real dissent or complaints about a loss of personal liberty.
In a political climate ripe with conflict, where our leaders often manufacture debates about even the most basic scientific facts, we have collectively decided that smoking is bad for us and we ought to do something about it. That kind of consensus is refreshing.
Louisiana Is Getting Smarter
In 2014, 75 percent of Louisiana’s public high school students graduated on time. That figure marked an increase over 2013 and set a record for the state. It was the fourth consecutive year the graduation rate increased in Louisiana and capped an 8 percent increase since the 2006-2007 school year.
Louisiana high school students with disabilities showed the largest gains. The graduation rate for those students shot up 6 percentage points in 2014.
The graduation rate among African-American students increased by 2 percent while their white peers improved by .01 percent serving as evidence that Louisiana’s efforts to close the achievement gap are working.
Louisiana Is Preserving The Past
In 1742, Marie Therese Coincoin was a born a slave into the household of Louis St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches. At the age of 26, Marie was leased as a housekeeper to a young French merchant named Claude Metoyer. Marie and Metoyer entered into a 19-year relationship that resulted in 10 children. Eventually, Metoyer purchased the freedom of Marie and several of their children.
Upon securing her freedom and a parcel of land from Metoyer, Marie began raising cattle and tobacco. Her fortunes grew as she and her sons received land grants and purchased slaves. They became pillars of a community called Isle Brevelle, populated by “gens de couleur libre,” free people of color who thrived as business people, plantation owners, and slave owners.
In 1796, one of Marie’s sons, Louis Metoyer was deeded 911 acres of land. In the 1820’s, Metoyer, a free person of color, commissioned his enslaved workers to build the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches. On the grounds of the plantation was built the African House.
The African House is a two-story hut-like building that reflects the style and traditional architecture of houses in Africa. It is one of the single most unique historical architectural structures still standing in the United States.
On March 16, 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the African House as a national treasure. The designation is currently bestowed upon only 61 sites around the country. It is the first such designation of a site in Louisiana.
Louisiana Is Embracing The Future
Tennessee Williams was famously quoted as saying:
“America only has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
New Orleans was founded in 1718 and has enjoyed a rich and textured history. Each year, thousands of visitors flock to the city to soak up its magic and step back in time. The ancient architecture of the French Quarter. The Street Car on St. Charles Avenue. Mardi Gras Indians.
In many ways, New Orleans’ history has been both its greatest asset and biggest burden. Over the years, the city’s stubborn unwillingness to change has preserved one of America’s great cultural treasures. That stubbornness has also facilitated growth-killing poverty and crime.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans experienced an entrepreneurial boom. Droves of young, educated, optimistic professionals flocked to the Crescent City and opened businesses. The entrepreneurial boom in the tech sector led industry insiders to create a new nickname for New Orleans – Silicon Bayou.
This year, almost 300 years after it was first founded, New Orleans is getting solar powered trash cans. That’s right. Solar powered trash cans.
In April 2015, Waste Management began installing 246 solar powered trash compactors in the business sections of the French Quarter as well as Poydras Street, Frenchmen Street, and Convention Center Boulevard.
The modern cans use energy from solar panels to compact garbage, reducing overflow and the frequency with which they need to be emptied. They even include software that alerts the city when the can is empty, nearly full, or full.
Tourists will now stroll down Royal Street marveling at some of America’s oldest architecture, looking into windows of antique shops that house treasures dating back to the 1700’s. Those same tourists will quietly toss their garbage into solar powered trash cans.
There is no better image of where Louisiana could be headed. A truly unique and functional blend of both the very old and very new. A new South that blends aggressive cultural conservation with smart evolution.
Louisiana Does Resurrection Well
Louisiana seems to possess an innate ability to resurrect itself from the dead. From the Great Flood of 1927, to Hurricane Katrina, to the BP Oil Spill, time and time again we have been declared dead. Each declaration of our death has been followed by a period of rebirth. Maybe it has something to do with our Catholic origins.
These days, Theo Shaw is my favorite story of Louisiana resurrection.
In 2007, protestors from around the country converged upon the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana as it was thrust into our ongoing national debate about race and the allegedly disproportionately harsh punishments levied against young African American males.
Theo Shaw and 5 of his African American classmates at Jena High School were charged with the attempted second-degree murder of a white classmate following a schoolyard fight. The fight occurred against the backdrop of alleged wide spread racial tension at the high school. The widely criticized attempted murder charge was levied against the African American students despite the fact that the white victim was able to attend a school function the same night.
Shaw, who was unable to post bail, sat in jail for 7 months before he was eventually released. Though Shaw insists that he played no role in the fight, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor simple battery.
Eight years after the national controversy surrounding Jena, Theo Shaw is heading to law school at the University of Washington with a full scholarship. Shaw graduated from the University of Louisiana at Monroe with a BA in political science and went on to work at the Southern Poverty Law Center counseling juvenile offenders. He is 1 of only 5 students in his incoming law school class to be awarded the prestigious William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholarship.
“Breaking bad” – To go wrong. To go downhill.
Louisiana is going through a tough time right now. A $1.6 billion budget deficit is certainly proof that we’re broke. But when you find yourself becoming overly pessimistic about Louisiana’s future, remember these little symbols of what our future could hold:
Solar powered trash cans and Theo Shaw.