Looking Across the Lines

October 31, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

For generations, New Orleans and its neighboring ''parishes'' (counties) have been at each other's throats -- the city acting its role as the racially and socially tolerant play-city of North America; the parishes trumpeting political conservatism and periodically electing white-supremacy candidates.

But when New Orleans' new black mayor, Marc Morial, made a recent political and financial foray to Washington and New York, he had two interesting traveling partners.

One was Michael J. Yenni, president of Jefferson Parish. For decades, Jefferson was a bastion of whites fleeing increasingly black New Orleans. It used to be so intent on holding down its taxes, while taking advantage of the big city's parks and facilities, that a New Orleans mayor privately maligned it as ''America's most parasitic suburb.''

But Mr. Yenni, this autumn, seemed pleased to be seen with Mayor Morial. The two traveled with James Monroe, president of MetroVision, a business-led effort to boost economic activity across the entire New Orleans citistate.

Why identify yourself with the mayor of New Orleans? Mr. Yenni replied: ''As parochial as some of my constituents can seem to be, as great as they think Jefferson Parish may be, we will never reach our potential unless the whole region rises together.''

He noted that ''a large part of my constituency is always paranoid that crime will spread across the parish line,'' and welcomed Mayor Morial's progress in reducing crime in the city, especially as a result of a 9 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew imposed on all youth.

Both men said they were delighted by the efforts of MetroVision to promote tourism, deal the region into significant NAFTA trade opportunities, and father the first council of governments for the nine-parish area. While MetroVision has spent millions on slick advertising and typical ''smokestack chasing'' hunts for big industrial hits, it has also pushed development of BIDCOs -- business and industrial development corporations designed to benefit small, medium and minority-owned businesses.

New Orleans' unlikely partnerships may say a lot about American citistates today. No one believes the region's historic parochialism, its deep social and economic inequities, will soon subside. But at least a conversation about a more cohesive future is dawning, driven by the overwhelming shared necessity of economic survival. The spread to the suburbs of tough urban problems -- crime, overcrowded schools, poor public transit, solid-waste dilemmas -- also creates a natural community of interest, Mayor Morial and Mr. Yenni agreed.

New Orleans' more vigorous city-suburban discussion is not, of course, an isolated quirk. The Memphis region was recently jolted out of complacency when W.W. Herenton, the city's first black mayor, openly suggested merging Memphis with surrounding Shelby County.

Mayor Dennis Archer of Detroit, reaching out to counteract decades of corrosive city-suburban enmity, has won agreement

for partial merger of the region's disjointed bus systems. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson credits Mr. Archer ''with trying to create a whole new atmosphere of openness and friendship -- and he's achieving it.''

And even with convicted drug offender Marion Barry returning to win the Democratic mayoral primary in Washington, several politicians running for office in neighboring Virginia and Maryland are talking about the need to reach across state and city lines to undergird the nation's capital city, afflicted with crime and threatened with bankruptcy.

Specifically, there's support for debating Mr. Barry's call for a regional transit tax to pay for bus and rail service and relieve the District government of a crushing $130 million-a-year payment.

Normally such a call would ignite anti-District bashing across the region. But no one is exploiting it in this election season. Parris N. Glendening, the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate, calls the tax a ''legitimate issue'' for debate. Mr. Glendening, currently executive of Prince George's County, is on record as saying: ''Suburban leaders who believe they can isolate themselves from the fiscal health of the central city are making a terrible mistake.''

It now appears that a number of issues Mr. Barry has raised -- coordinated air pollution standards, strengthened gun control laws in Maryland and Virginia, aggressive marketing of the Washington region to outside businesses -- may spring to regional debate after the election. Even a number of suburban congressional candidates are agreeing -- at least in theory -- that the Washington region's future is linked to the District's health.

The new wave of regional initiatives is getting minimal outside media attention because each effort seems idiosyncratic. News of these efforts' birth and travail rarely come to light nationally, even though a significant number of them could, in the end, spell stronger regions and a stronger country.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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