I spent three days in New Orleans, courtesy Newcomb College Institute’s Inaugural Summit, where I was a speaker.
New Orleans is a beautiful city. It is alive, but it is also devastated.
I flew in Wednesday night, getting into a cab some time around 1130 PM. I remember driving past a cemetery and seeing the above ground level tombs, but it was the empty shopping malls, with their boarded up stores, that made me think not of Kabul, but of Baghdad.
On Thursday, I took a tour of the city, hosted by Newcomb College. We spent much of our time in the Lower 9th Ward, which was behind a “levee” that broke. I say “levee” and not levee, because it wasn’t a levee. Levees are massive structures, with a hopefully impermeable stone or concrete face, backed up by cubic yard upon cubic yard of earth to absorb the massive water pressure. (And that’s the visible stuff.) The “levee” that broke, devastating the Lower 9th, was a concrete wall, perhaps a glorified concrete wall, but it was not a levee, and it had been replaced, not by a levee, but another concrete wall.
I know. I spent much of my girlhood, 800 miles upriver in Quincy, Illinois. I know what a levee should look like: you don’t have to be a civil engineer, all you have to do is think about containing water pressure. And think, wherever people are most concentrated, there should be the greatest degree of protection. Whether levees or floodgates are a better solution for New Orleans is not a question I am equipped to answer. But I looked at that wall, and then I looked at what was left of the Lower 9th War: brick and concrete piers to raise houses above localized flooding and groundwater seepage, here and there a bit of ironwork, or a gutted portion of wall, and an image entered my head that I have not been able to efface:
The following day I was driven around Hamburg and given a tour, particularly of the bombed-out areas. The spectacle was not a nice one to see, not a nice one to think about. Here was sweeping devastation, down to the ground, mile after mile…
…[P]oor old Hamburg: this comfortable, good-humored, seaport community, dedicated, like so many of our own cities, to the common sense humdrum of commerce and industry–for Hamburg, it seemed a great pity.
(George F. Kennan, Memoirs: 1925-1950 [Little, Brown & Co.: Boston, MA, 1967], pages 436-7.)
The Lower 9th, Black and mostly poor, was not all that was devastated. Across the street, it was clear that St. Bernard Parish, poor and working class white, had also been hit very hard. There were middle and upper class districts that I have not seen, but in which I was told their mostly white residents had lost everything. I have been told that inland Mississippi is simply gone.
All of this, I expected.
What I did not expect was the sheer contempt our tour guides described. Much of it was directed at poor black people.
The black people, evacuated from housing projects that are still sound, forbidden to return. Their homes, to which I suppose they are leaseholders, not owners, are secured, their personal property inside. The black people from the Lower 9th, forbidden to return to their homes, many of which they owned, some of which had been in their families for generations, while people from other neighborhoods were allowed to return, and used that time to go to the Lower 9th and loot the ruins of whatever was valuable. Herreast Harrison, the beautiful widow of Big Chief Donald Harrison, and co-founder with her late husband of the Guardian Institute to promote literacy and cultural traditions, driven by her home–people in other neighborhoods suffering more damage had been allowed to return home, not just driven by under guard–but prevented from entering it and rescuing her dog, with whom she’d left plenty of food and clean water. First responders broke the dog out later, then placed him; when Mrs. Harrison finally managed to trace her dog, she learned that the woman who had “adopted” him wouldn’t give her dog back to her. That’s theft, pure and simple, and bad enough if they’d only been together for six months, but I believe they’d been together for twelve years, common sufferers of arthritis.
And some of it is not. The insurance companies, fighting claims and settling them selectively, rather than saying, Private companies simply cannot indemnify against losses this huge: we can only pay, say, 50¢ on the dollar. Then settling across the board and without delay, while FEMA picked up the slack. People stuffed into FEMA trailers, rather than FEMA leading an aggressive attempt to involve local people, including local poor people, in rebuilding and redecorating their own homes. Schools that are still closed, rather than open even in trailers, hundreds of thousands of dollars of good equipment thrown away, not by the teachers and principals who had worked so hard to obtain it, but by contractors of various sorts who declared sound buildings and shrink-wrapped computers mold-contaminated, and who threatened to call security on teachers trying to retrieve their own personal belongings. I heard of teachers and principals going dumpster-diving in an attempt to salvage what could be; I heard from other teachers of packages and packages of school supplies showing up, far in excess of the school’s needs, clearly purchased under nepotistic arrangements. Their fury at the waste was palpable.
It was wealthy white legislators in Baton Rouge telling wealthy white women pushing for levee board reform that they didn’t know what they were talking about because they were women: these legislators wanted the same old corrupt, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours system that had allowed Katrina to devastate New Orleans. It was white Northerners telling white folks from New Orleans about the Super Bowl: We’re gonna finish what Katrina started. As if you would dare tell a New Yorker that you were gonna finish what the Taliban started.
Although each story I heard and each site I saw was bad enough, taken together, they amounted to a degree of contempt towards a great and important city that is unfathomable and irrational, a contempt that is slowly killing New Orleans.
I pondered that. Even granted that New Orleans is very black and very poor, it is still just that: a great and important–and hardworking, as every port city really is, underneath it all–city at a place we must have such a city, the mouth of the Mississippi. Andrew Jackson knew what he was doing. As for being a party city, New Orleans is not Las Vegas. Las Vegas grew up around gambling. New Orleans grew up around various forms of work, even if slave and indentured labor is profoundly corrupting to all involved.
And New Orleans residents know their city is being allowed to die. I talked to a retired cop who told me that the next major storm would turn New Orleans into little more than a port, and the only after that, into little more than a buoy marking the mouth of the river. I talked to women from old New Orleans families who told me that they wanted a Federal takeover. One woman from such a family told me that even the soil was dying, because of the salt, the oil, and all the other chemicals that had leached into the ground. New Orleans was green, she mourned to me: we had palm and banana trees, and the oak leaves were large and green, not small and grey. (I had known better, but the size and color of those leaves nearly convinced me that the trees were olives, not oaks.) A woman from New York whose grandmother had survived the bombing of Hamburg asked me if it was my first time in New Orleans. I said yes, and she cursed me and she cursed her city. Me for having seen her city like this, for the first time, she said, because it was as if I (and anyone else) saw her grandmother, dead and naked. Her city, because she loved it, and knew she could leave, and could not bear to, not yet.
I pondered this, on my walks. I stayed in the Garden District Hampton Inn, and from th
ere to Tulane University is 2 miles. Walk out the front door, turn left and start walking. It will take you thirty minutes. Because I do not know the city, I stayed on St. Charles Avenue, and I was awed by the absolute beauty of the homes. But it’s not just the wealthier quarters that are beautiful. There was beauty even in the wrecked and damaged homes: everywhere, there is carved trim and splashes of color under the low delta sky, and here and there ironwork turned into lace, floating over the ruins like a mourning veil.
And I thought, not of Hamburg, but of Leningrad, another great port city, the Venice of the North, beautiful, aristocratic, intellectual, and allowed by Stalin almost to be starved into extinction in a siege of 900 days during World War Two. I am not comparing the slow death of New Orleans to the slow death of Leningrad, or FEMA to the NKVD, or President Bush to Joseph Stalin. I am saying that if you know how to look, you see how French and Spanish, African and Caribbean influences have combined into something flawed and heartbreaking, that is being allowed to die because it is so beautiful, because it belonged to many people we do not associate with great beauty, and even greatness itself. By this I do mean the descendents of slaves and indentured servants, but I also mean the descendents of slaveholders, not just the poor but also the wealthy, who despite a very real underclass of both white and black, as well as real black crime and real white racism (and vice versa!), have insisted upon beauty and grace and pride.