NEW ORLEANS—Mayor Ray Nagin said he worries that slayings in the city make it seem dangerous, but news of such crimes “keeps the New Orleans brand out there.” In a city where the tourism industry is the lifeblood of a fragile economy, the wave of violence threatens to derail efforts to bring visitors—and former residents—back. Yet Nagin, at a bricklaying ceremony Thursday, told reporters it’s a “two-edged sword.”
“It’s not good for us, but it also keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs and what we need to bring this community back,” he said. “Sure it hurts, but we have to keep working every day to make the city better.” Anti-violence activist Baty Landis called Nagin’s remarks “stunningly insensitive.”
The city has recorded at least 117 murders this year. This week, two brothers suspected in 14 murders were found shot to death. “New Orleans is not a brand, it’s a city,” said Landis, whose group SilenceIsViolence marched on City Hall in January in response to a rash of violent crime. “We’re not products. We’re people with lives, some of which are being taken by other people.”
Nagin said at the Thursday ceremony marking construction of a new community center that the brothers’ deaths are “symptomatic of the things we’ve been struggling with since Katrina and really before Katrina.
“Some of these guys are so violent that it is hard for witnesses to come forward, and they get involved in repeat criminal activities,” the mayor added. “So it is unfortunate that they had to die, but it did kind of end the cycle that we were struggling with.”
A Nagin spokeswoman did not immediately return a message Friday. After he was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2006, Nagin made safety a top priority. He has supported pay raises for police and rebuilding the depleted officer corps. Still, National Guard soldiers continue to patrol less-populated parts of the city and police continue to work out of trailers while waiting for storm-damaged buildings to be rebuilt.
It’s not the first time he has raised eyebrows with off-the-cuff remarks. People still talk about his comment in January 2006 that the city, predominantly black before Katrina, would one day again be “chocolate.” He later apologized.
Kelly Schulz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, declined to comment on Nagin’s specific comments. But she said the city must strike a “delicate balance,” between drawing attention to its recovery needs and those of the tourism industry—a “multibillion dollar, perception-driven industry.”
“One good thing you can look at is, a lot of visitors have come to the city and their expectations were so lowered that they were pleasantly surprised,” she said. Tourism officials tell prospective visitors that New Orleans is mostly safe and that much of the crime involves “criminal on criminal.”