21
Jul
08

Notes on New Orleans

I just got home from six nights in New Orleans – a mix of business and pleasure (the city would have it no other way).  On my first morning there I joined several residents and activists in solidarity at another’s hearing at NO’s Criminal Court.  Some thoughts on that are here.

My relationship with New Orleans is a tense one – the intensity of the inequity is something this uptight, machine-politick-reared New Englander cannot abide.  My work there takes me through a morning at the Criminal Court, and I pass another listening to another former resident weep over the loss of her home and sitting with her through one family crisis after another.  In an effort to escape from the despair, I trundle over to Magazine Street and spend hours wandering the boutiques full of relatively inexpensive, funky and fun dresses (I marvel at the affordable and independent designs they have down there – I’m not aware of any equivalents up here in MA).  But it’s difficult to overcome the cognitive dissonance of watching families cope with trauma and injustice and then pay an excessive amount for two sandwiches and glasses of wine at an overpriced (if delicious) bakery shop decked out in fantastic pinks and blues.  Surreal is often a word folks use to describe their experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans, and they’re not wrong.

I finally verbalized that one of the things I can’t stomach about the city is its lack of government – I live in a city with a strong mayor and a city and state with a long history of liberal patronage and paternalism (we have our own public housing up here, for example).  This sentiment, of course, made me feel both like a loser and a teeny bit fascist – but at every turn it seems like there’s a new outrage – and the civil and non-profit sectors can only do so much.  I hope Pelosi et al. are listening slightly more carefully than they’ve been during this whole FISA nonsense.

But despite my links o’ grief above, with each passing day I relax a little bit there.  Drinks with friends help.  As does excellent food.  And hot, humid weather (I may be alone on this one) and lush parks and foliage.  And the endless little new stores opening up here and there.  And the sheer breadth of experience I have there, in a way that my rather cloistered world here in MA cannot match – for better and worse.  It’s a rarefied city, and writing about it off and on for three years now (I know, I’ll never be from or of there!!) – well, I’m starting to feel a little cliched.

August 29, 2008 is the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  The city is slowly returning, but unevenly and precariously.  The Democratic Convention ends on August 28. Gulf Coast organizations and their national allies are pressing Sens. Obama and McCain and the Democratic and Republican Parties to prioritize Gulf Coast recovery in the upcoming administration.  Because while the scale of Katrina’s devastation is exceptional, its physical and social aftermath is strikingly less so.

I leave you with an excerpt from a Times-Picayune piece on New Orleans volunteers helping out after the Iowa floods:

Unlike the brackish water that surged over the New Orleans area, the Cedar River’s fresh water spared the green grass and flowers. Except for the vegetation, though, the vacant neighborhoods could be Gentilly or Old Metairie or Meraux after Katrina.

In the Cedar Rapids neighborhood of Time Check, named for merchants’ 19th century practice of honoring the postdated paychecks of railroad workers, references to the 2005 hurricane are ever-present.

“I sat at home. I watched TV. I saw the pictures of Katrina. But you just don’t get it until you’re actually living it,” said Janette Schorg, who drove last week from Davenport, Iowa, near the Illinois border, to help her parents muck out their two-story home of 40 years.

It just angers me every time I drive into Cedar Rapids that it goes from beautiful to a war zone,” Schorg said.

Some residents admit the recent flooding has forced them to reconsider their notions of New Orleans.

“We all watched during Katrina and said, ‘Why would people live in a bowl?’ ” said Bill Polton, whose 85-year-old father lives just three blocks from the levee that runs along First Street Northwest, on the Cedar River’s west bank.

“Well, here we are sitting in almost the same scenario,” Polton said. “Nobody realized how far the flood plain would go.”

– Excerpted from original post at NYC Weboy

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