Sunday, February 11, 2007

I read the news today, oh boy..

For most of America tragedy is something far away, a topic from Headline News for idle conversation at work or supper: what will we do in Iraq? Oh, those poor people in Florida! Here in Debrisville, the sort of ugly that feeds the news wires and satellite feeds may be just up the street or the other side of town. We don't need to look to the distant east for a failed government or ancient hostilities breeding violence in the streets. We understand displacement and expatriation, having gone through the larget instance of it since Europe after WWII. The refugee camps remain just up the road outside Baton Rouge, more than 500 days after the Federal Flood, and large swaths of the east side of town remain the Brown Zone, even as the tulip trees burst into bloom up on the sliver by the river.

Thanks to b.rox for this nice summary of today's news summary from the end of the week that was:

Man accused of robbing, beating elderly women mistakenly released
from jail
and New Orleans’ future bleak, historian says and Mom gave teen a gun for revenge slaying and Many residents of New Orleans consider leaving and A culture’s sad finale?
Cheerful stuff, that. He left off the man accross the lake who held a child's hand to a stove, but that seemed to lack a New Orleans angle.

The residents leaving story is old news, but I presume the reporter is indirectly responding to the chatter on the streets that so many will give up after Carnival. I keep hearing in online postings about these people, but I have yet to meet one. I do know people who are on the edge, but I havent' talked to anyone who's put their house up for sale or started looking for movers. When I hear people make noise about it, I'm reminded of my mother suggesting over 40 years ago that if Barry Goldwater was elected president, the family should emigrate to Australia. I don't believe she went as far as looking into visas. It was just a way of expressing her feelings about the election. I believe some of the chatter is just that: people who are terribly frustrated by the circumstances in which they live, dependent in large part on people in government who don't seem to share their personal committment to the city.

If you count yourself among those people who are actually ready to give up the ship, please drop me a line. I'll understand. I'm not waiting on a Road Home letter, or spending my nights nailing up sheetrock in a house I gutted myself. I've said it before: not everyone is going to make it. Too much is being asked of them.

I have no use for Douglas Brinkley, who's book on the Flood is so sloppy and gets so much wrong I'm still trying to finish it after 10 months. I keep tossing it down in disgust after I finish a chapter. For once, at least in this instance, he gets it right: at every level our leaders fail us. From the President down to the mayor's Loser's Cabinet of also rans in the last mayoral race, they prove themselves either unequal to the challenge, or just unwilling.

The Chicago Tribune story on the future of New Orleans culture is one that has been done so many times in the last 18 months, and this doesn't add much except the quotes of a despairing Tulane professor. I suspect the reporter has heard the rumours of despair in the streets, and went looking for something concrete to hang it on. Of course our culture is threatened, a point Brinkely also makes. The real risk is that much of our culture lived in the working class black neighborhoods, which face the twin risks of the loss of virtually all affordable housing, and rampant crime. Both of these problems are solvable if there were political will, but so far there is none. The greater United States cares not a whit for culture as a people (to the extent they are a people). The unique and the genuine are impediments to modern commerce and marketing, the only thing that still binds the tenuous nation to the north together.

Amidst all this despair, I took my children to their first parade as Orleanians and not as tourists, and as McDonough 35 and the Chalmette High Owls marched by I thought: whatever I've been through these kids have seen worse ,much worse. They are the kids of people who've come back to one of the worst flooded and still most threatened places in the east, the kids of folks who've come to make a try of it in the working class, predominantly black neighborhoods of the wards east of Canal Street.

They are children clearly in harms way, and American (or at least the America of politicians and the major news media) could care less. I want to call up their schools and ask to come speak to their civics class to tell them, know this: whatever nonsense is in your textbook (should you be so lucky to have one), America doesn't give a rat's ass about you. Remember what they've allowed to happen to you and your parents, to your school and your city, when they come to ask you to enlist. When they start to wave the flag and talk about the heroes of Iraq, look around the room and at the teacher who's dared to come back to the 3-5 and remember: the greatest American heroes today are not in Iraq: these are the real heroes. You can be the real hero if you can rise above it and make it here in spite of every obstacle, every bit of debris of the disaster they've allowed pile up in front of you.

Will all these kids and their families be here a year or five or ten from now? I have no way of knowing. Still, I think anyone who has what it takes to even try in this environment is tougher than anyone looking in from the outside can even begin to imagine. Whatever stereotypes of the lazy-and-shiftless southerner, of the indolent Orleanian you may carry around my distant reader, are wrong. Whatever troubles you in the comfortable cities of the north is a triffle compared to life in New Orleans. And everyday the 200,000 get up and carry on through another day.

Me, I came home after. I didn't have to gut and don't have to fight with Baton Rouge. I just got the insurance renewal bill from hell, but found another company writing in New Orleans that wasn't there before and is writing cheaper. It's a small thing, but its a signal that things can still turn around to the good. And of course, there's Mardi Gras. If you're far away and don't understand how the home of the headlines Bart collected above can still celebrate, then you don't quite understand us. We've got a full week left of Mardi Gras and the hotels aren't full. Come on down and see. It's not all the despair you'll get from the papers or the cable new. There remains in us all a kernel of hope, a funny kind of hope that masquerades as an insAllah resignation, but it leads people to climb up on floats and throw beads to adoring crowds that assemble in all weathers to see the parade.

There is another story here, one that's lost in all the headlines above, the story of the 200,000. Thank you Poppy Z. Brite, who sees the hope through some of the most deservingly jaundiced eyes I know of in New Orleans today:

Wouldn't It Be Nice ...... if for every story like [those above] there was a national news story about those of us who've bought new homes in New Orleans? Or the people who've fought to repair and keep the homes they already had? Or the young couple I met at my reading Tuesday night, new in town, who'd been planning to move here for years and finally decided to go ahead and do it because they realized the city needs people? Or my friend who thought for months that she wasn't going to be able to come back at all, but returned last week with her husband and 17-month-old baby? The national media can try to bury us all it likes -- this seems to be a bit of a trend right now -- but we ain't dead and we ain't dying.
No, we're not dead and not dying. Every sub-krewe of Krewe du Vieux was staffed by a brass band. An old friend's wife is having an art opening this week. The marching bads of 3-5 and Warren Easton were filled with kids who are at least getting a crack at learning a brass instrument (at least one band's courtesy of the Tipitina's Foundation). I spole to someone last night who had been trying to buy costume beads, who spoke of the Mardi Gras Indians she ran into at the same store, working feverishly to finish suits when all their materials were lost.

I said this several weeks back, when I wrote about the Ship of Theseus (and I've said this so many times since the flood and the start of this blog: "The city I left in 1986 was not the city of my childhood. The city I returned to last Spring was neither the city of my childhood nor that of 1986. All are recognizably New Orleans. " We're not over yet. Some things will be lost and others gained, but the 200,000 are enough I believe to make sure that the city we shall build here is again recognizably New Orleans.

Your last paragraph made a great point, Mark. Change is part of the definition of living. I have no doubt that New Orleans will live, because of New Orleanians.

I thought Brinkley made some interesting points that were covered in the Hattiesburg American article. The first being, "The act of not doing enough is a policy; it's a decision," and secondly, his hopes that this is an issue that will figure prominently in the 2008 presidential election. I believe it will.

Great post.
Dude, you are the King of the Faithful Remnant. Thanks for reminding us who we are.
Happy Mardi Gras no matter what! I want to move back!
"The real risk is that much of our culture lived in the working class black neighborhoods, which face the twin risks of the loss of virtually all affordable housing, and rampant crime. Both of these problems are solvable if there were political will, but so far there is none. The greater United States cares not a whit for culture as a people (to the extent they are a people). The unique and the genuine are impediments to modern commerce and marketing, the only thing that still binds the tenuous nation to the north together."

This is what REALLY shocked me when we moved back after four years in NYC, and six months after the storm. I drove in with my family and drove on through the heart of literal and cultural darkness, since all the lights in NO East and everything up to the high rise and a bit beyond were gone.

And damn it, it's tough getting most of this world to really care. I wish it were easier, but nothing that's absolutely worth it to your soul is gonna be easy.
Great post Mark.
I was glad to see you use the phrase "working class black neighborhoods" when talking about New Orleans culture. I'm really growing weary of the contention so many seem to be making since the flood that unless the post-K New Orleans has just as large a percentage of it's population living in poverty as it did beforehand then all of the New Orleans traditions will be lost. As though holding a job disqualifies you from contributing to the New Orleans culture. LOL
what we doing in Iraq? Oh no
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