Dennis Persica: Gretna faces future with new leader

BY DENNIS PERSICA

Special to The Advocate

Parts of Gretna’s downtown core look much like they may have 100 years ago. Raised Victorian homes, like those you see in abundance in Uptown New Orleans, line many narrow streets.

But the illusion of being in the past doesn’t last long. New parish government and court buildings nearby quickly bring you back to the present.

The West Bank Expressway that passes through Gretna is dotted with fast-food chains, service stations, hotels and motels. On the other side of the Expressway from the old part of the city, a more-modern suburbia of tract housing rises until finally, at Gretna’s southern tip, you get to the summit of suburban life, the Timberlane Subdivision. Timberlane, which includes a country club and golf course, was annexed into Gretna a few years ago because the city acceded to residents’ wishes to turn it into a gated community, something Jefferson Parish had refused to do.

That’s Gretna: One foot in the past and one in the future. Its politics is kind of the same way. For 80 years, the city’s Police Department was under the helm of either Beauregard H. “Burry” Miller Sr. or his son, B.H. Miller Jr., until the younger Miller retired in 2005. In the 100 years of its existence as a city, Gretna has had only six mayors.

In a couple of months, Gretna will get its seventh mayor, the first woman to serve in that role. City Councilwoman Belinda Constant, who also was the first female member of the city’s governing body, was elected two weeks ago to replace Mayor Ronnie Harris, who did not seek re-election.

Harris’s initial election in the mid-’80s was something of a revolution, since he had to beat out B.H. Miller’s own favorite in that race. And whether it was Burry or B.H. holding the title at the time, “the chief” was always the man to see if you wanted to run for office in Gretna or anywhere close by.

Harris had no political experience before he became mayor. Constant, on the other hand, has two city council terms under her belt. Her first term was a baptism by fire: She took office July 1, 2005. Hurricane Katrina struck before Constant had even finished two months in office.

There’s no way to know if she’ll face that kind of disaster early in her first term. But one thing’s certain: In Constant’s second month in office, the city will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of when three small communities were incorporated into modern-day Gretna in 1913.

When Harris leaves office, he will be joined by another longtime city official, Councilman Vincent Cox III. Cox, who served 26 years on the council and its predecessor, the Board of Aldermen, ran for mayor and lost to Constant. Since Constant didn’t run for re-election to the council either, two new council members will take office in July, joining the three who were re-elected.

The problems the new mayor and the council will confront have been with the city for a while. Much of its infrastructure is outdated. And the city faces a revenue crunch because the major West Bank commercial centers — the Oakwood mall and the major national outlets that have sprung up on Manhattan Boulevard — are outside the city limits. Gretna gets no sales tax income from them.

Essentially, the biggest thorn in the side of the old city now is the modern world that has grown up around it.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.