The news stories that captivated New Orleans in 2015 were both salacious and somber, of broad practical import and mostly symbolic significance.
The City Council placed new restrictions on smoking in public spaces and banished monuments to Confederate figures. The New Orleans Police Department mourned one of its own caught in the upsurge of homicides, and the owner of the city’s two professional sports franchises bickered publicly with his estranged relatives. Enormous sums of money were dedicated to projects — a new airport terminal, street repairs, coastal restoration — that could reshape the city and region.
For better or worse, New Orleans is, in many ways, a changed city as the books close on a tumultuous year. The following compilation attempts to capture what the editors of The New Orleans Advocate felt were the 10 biggest developments, culled from a much longer list of potential candidates.
1. The past isn’t past
The irony of placing Robert E. Lee on top of a 60-foot column in the middle of a busy traffic circle is that it actually makes him less conspicuous. All a distracted motorist is usually aware of is the column. It was easy to ignore who was up there or why — until 2015. “I’m ashamed to tell you that I had never thought about it before,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, speaking one week after an avowed white supremacist murdered nine black people at a South Carolina church with the stated aim of igniting a race war, according to police. The war never happened, but the debate that ensued over Confederate symbols in public places — pictures of the accused murderer brandishing a Confederate flag quickly surfaced after the shooting — would expose how divided the South remains over how to interpret and commemorate its history. Landrieu called in July for Lee and three other monuments to come down. A debate that seemed at first confined to bar stools and dinner tables gradually emerged online and then erupted in the City Council chambers, where a 6-1 vote last month doomed monuments to Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. P.G.T Beauregard, along with an obelisk honoring a white, Reconstruction-era uprising. Barring a successful lawsuit to keep it from happening, all four are headed for a city warehouse in 2016.
2. Team Rita vs. Team Gayle
Another question that divided New Orleanians in 2015 was whether Tom Benson, in his ninth decade, is capable of running the Saints, the Pelicans and the rest of his business empire. The public found out in January that Benson had decided to cut his daughter and her two children out of a family business that everyone had assumed they would run someday. His third wife, Gayle, now stood as heir apparent. Lawsuits followed in three separate courthouses. But the pivotal moment came in June, when a state judge ruled against his jilted relatives and declared that Benson is still capable of making “reasoned decisions.” If that’s true, it’s a capacity that will be tested soon. The family drama in 2015 coincided with another Saints season so dismal that some fans are now wondering whether head coach Sean Payton is really the one who needs to be put out to pasture.
3. Vitter’s implosion
John Bel Edwards pulled off Louisiana’s greatest political upset not just of the year but of recent memory in the 2015 race for governor. Starting without any money or name recognition to speak of, he chipped away at the invincible-looking candidacy of Sen. David Vitter until all of a sudden, in the final weeks of the campaign, Vitter no longer looked invincible. Edwards revived Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal with a television ad that neatly juxtaposed his own military service with Vitter’s past indiscretions. Vitter stumbled into a public spat over campaign espionage with Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, revealing how much even some Republicans wanted Vitter to lose. And by a landslide, Edwards became the first Democrat elected governor in the Deep South in over a decade.
4. Mean streets
It was a tough year for the New Orleans Police Department. An uptick in homicides, which reversed the optimistic trend of the past few years, hit home in June with the killing of Officer Daryle Holloway. Then another officer, Vernell Brown, was struck and killed while assisting a motorist on the interstate. The department’s manpower shortage stretched response times well beyond what residents are accustomed to, even for the highest-priority crimes. And a series of brazen armed robberies in affluent neighborhoods put the city on edge.
5. Clearing the air
Setting aside its typical aversion to modern public health trends, New Orleans decided in 2015 to ban smoking in bars and casinos. The City Council passed the measure 7-0 after emotional testimony on the ravages of secondhand smoke and warnings from business owners about the potential economic impact. Worries about the “Disneyfication” of a famously libertine city never gained traction the way they did during previous debates over noise levels or go-cups.
6. Hospital reborn in Mid-City
New Orleans in 2015 saw the completion of one of the biggest public infrastructure projects since Hurricane Katrina and also kicked off work on another one. In July, some 200 patients made the short trip by ambulance from LSU Interim Hospital to University Medical Center. Successor to the famed Charity Hospital, the $1.1 billion facility embodies new thinking about how to deliver health care to the poor and stands as, perhaps, the most visible monument to the billions of FEMA dollars that have helped rebuild the city since the 2005 storm and flood. The new, $599 million terminal planned for Louis Armstrong International Airport embodies something else — the city’s aspiration to regain its place as a major international destination not just for tourists but also businesses, along with cities like Houston and Atlanta that have eclipsed it over the past half-century.
7. Pothole patrol
When the mayor sits down under the basketball hoop at one high school or another to gather public input for the coming year’s budget, it is almost always the most frequent request: Fix our streets. Ordinarily, Landrieu can do little but plead poverty. By one estimate, it would take more than $9 billion to pave all of the so-called interior streets in Orleans Parish. In 2015, he finally convinced FEMA to help out, landing a $2 billion settlement with the agency that will finance both street and sewer repairs.
8. BP ponies up billions
Even that sum, however, was dwarfed by what the oil company BP said it would cough up for the Gulf Coast in 2015. To settle claims of economic and environmental damage from its 2010 oil spill, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion, a windfall that helped plump local government coffers and seed expensive efforts to halt coastal erosion from Florida to Texas.
9. Ex-DA at the defense table
Capping an investigation that helped bring an end to his 30 years as district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes, Walter Reed was indicted in April on 18 federal counts, including wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering; a 19th charge was added in October. Reed’s political career had ended a few months earlier, when Warren Montgomery took over as district attorney, part of a broader sweep of many long-tenured St. Tammany public officials. The housecleaning continued in November’s elections, when longtime Sheriff Jack Strain lost a close re-election bid to Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith.
10. Hero’s fall complete
Darren Sharper, who helped the Saints bring home their only Super Bowl title, stood in orange jail scrubs in a New Orleans courtroom in 2015 and admitted to repeatedly drugging and raping women. The onetime star safety ultimately pleaded guilty to similar charges in four states, one of the most shocking cases of criminal conduct in a year that saw the NFL on the defensive over how it disciplines players accused of abuse.