Friday, March 30, 2007

Down the memory hole

This is what they want you to forget. There is no other explanation for Google's decision to remove the post-Katrina images of New Orleans--the city that in many places still shows the ravages of the Federal Flood 20 months later--except an Orwellian willingness to adjust history for someone's convenience.

What might be next: the restoration of the Twin Towers to the New York skyline?

We will never forget. We will never let the world forget.

Wet Bank Guide
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
The Color of Katrina
The color of the flood is not the blue of the Lake waters that innundated the city, or the day-glo orange or red spray paint that make the rescue marks on homes. The color is the brown the water left behind, strikingly revealed by Google Maps now that some areas of New Orleans have been updated with post-Flood imagery.

You can see the stark difference between the pre-flood photos west of the railway line--the sharp, dark green of trees and lawns, the crisp greys of the city strees from before the Federal flood--and the homogenous brown of the Ninth Ward after.

Zoom into highest resolution, then browse to the east past the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (known to most as the Industrial Canal). You can see the homes scattered like an upset Monopoly board found in the mud, without regard for the grid of streets on which these homes once had addresses.

Eight, ten blocks, a good straight line mile in from the levee breach, you can still find houses pushed off their piers by the force of the water. Look at the closest zoom, and you can still see some streets with standing water, the unexpected canal along Jourdon Avenue by the floodwall. The scene most resembles an after-action photo of the dropping of some terrible weapon, one of the arcade screens of modern warfare. Game Over.

Many of us have seen the videos of the 2004 tsunami shot by tourists , have witnessed on a small screen the incredible power of a tidal wave of debris pushing through a crowded neigborhood. There is no such video of the Ninth Ward, nothing like the film shot by a fire department crew in Lakeview shortly after the levee there began to fail.

Anyone in the lower Ninth Ward who did not leave would not have had a chance to aim a camera at the onslought. They would have been desperately fighing to live, too many loosing that battle. There will be no footage of the water sweeping down Dorgenois and Rochenblave playing on television this next August 28, as Anderson Coooper and Brian Williams try to remind America what happened.

All we have is this god's-eye view of the failure of man, the same prospect from the clouds that overlooked the unfinished Tower of Babel, a sight made possible for mere men by a wonder of modern engineering. I think of other engineering wonders; the Great Wall, visible from space without the aid of magnification. How did the Corps' engineers fail us so catastrophically?

As I stare at another little screen, I imagine the last images captured by the eyes of the people who lived on those streets, synthesizing my own memory of these neighborhoods with the videos of the tsunami, running a monstrous newsreel of my own imagining. It is as if the victims of the Federal Flood were reaching across and directing the camera, telling me: this is what it was like, what we saw, what they did to us. I can almost feel them crowd around me, the cliche of a haunting image made palpable, whispering as I type: Remember.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

Today my wife called in a mix of panic and anger after witnessing two men arguing at the corner of St. Ferdinand and Chartres, one of them waving a gun around no more than 50 feet from the entrance to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. She was on here way to drop off dinner to my daughter, who is a dancer at NOCCA.

According to my wife, who was at a stop sign just feet from the altercation, two older men were arguing and one threatened to shoot the other. The second suggested the first didn't have a gun. yelled. Challenged, fellow number one pulled out his gun and waved it around a bit. She didn't wait around to see if anyone was shot, but pulled quickly in to the school yard and told the security guards there. They told her to call 9-1-1 and went back into their cubicle. She she just called me in anger and went back to work. There were no bodies lying on the corner when she went back past.

This kind of altercation is disturbing enough, but what rattled me was my daughter's reaction when she go home tonight. Her friends thought that my wife had completely overreacted. "She must not be from a very big city," she reported was their response. To these kids, some of whom go to very hard schools in the inner city, this was no big deal; just another day in the City That Care Forgot.

There is something terribly wrong with their reaction. The reason the death toll in New Orleans rivals that of the casualty count in Iraq is because too many people just can not get themselves riled up. These kids, some of the best and brightest in New Orleans, think its perfectly normal for two men to get in an altercation on a corner and for one of them to quickly escalate to waving a gun around.

These weren't a couple of gang-bangers but a couple of older fellows according to my wife. It's just as well. If they were the age of the girls my daughter dance with, I'm sure someone would have died at that corner this afternoon. Its a dangerous city, and I am not surprised that some people would drop a gun in their pocket to walk their dog, but the casual way it escalated to a brandished gun, the disinterest of the guards who are there to protect the children in the school, and the callous unconcern of by daughter's fellow students all point to a profound dysfunction.

My daughter's friends are wrong. We're not innocents, even if my wife is a nice girl from North Dakota. About the time my daughter was born, we lived on 4th Street N.E. in Washington, D.C. just about the start of the crack wars. I prided myself on my city savvy, on the way I sat on my stoop and visited with my neighbors, making myself part of the neighborhood so they would keep an eye on me and mine while most of my yuppie neighbors fled quickly into their houses and locked their barred doors.

At that point in time, in the early 1990s, something had changed. People I once did not fear, petty criminals who would avoid you if you looked them in the eye as you passed and kept your wits about about, became animals who would shoot you first and then see what was in your pockets. At night, I could sit in my tiny back patio and hear gun battles. Police helicopters would circle the neighborhood at roof-top level, sweeping the area with their powerful search lights.

One night walking back form the neighborhood store, I watched a gang of pre-teens walking down the middle of the street. A police cruiser came up behind them and slowly rolled through the crowd, which broke into a chorus of N.W.A's "Fuck The Police". The cruiser just idled on and turned the corner. When two people died withing a block of our house, and an abduction/rape/murder began in the alley across the street, we fled to the Virginia suburbs.

Something in the city had gone terribly wrong. The last sparks of humanity were flickering out in people all around me, people with guns who were not afraid to use them or to die. The manageable Junko Pardner I could stare down had become Alex the Droogie of Clockwork Orange, an immoral golum with a gun. I could no longer excuse living in the city they were taking over like a plague of vermin, not with a wife and a small child.

What shocks me today is not that there are still killing fields in our cities, that children grow up pining for their first handgun. Not much has changed in the America that began to produce these kids over a decade ago, and what has changed has not been for the better, at least not in their lives. We imprison more people than any other industrialized nation, but do nothing at the root of the problem.

What shocks me today is the casual and callous attitude of my daughter's peers. The children who attend NOCCA with my daughter have no excuse. They are kids smart enough to make something of themselves through art and to make the grades in that enables them to split their days between traditional high school and NOCCA. Someone needs to take these children by the lapels, to take all of the children who are not past saving but believe its perfectly normal for people to menace each other with guns, and give them a good hard smack. When they get over that, they need an explanation as to why it is Not OK that people wave guns around in the street at the slightest provocation.

Its bad enough that we've let one set of children become predators in an urban jungle. We must not let our own children think that this is a normal way to live, or the jungle will prevail and there will be no safe place of retreat. Even if we all flee the animals, deprived of prey, will simply follow us. And for all of our fine rationalizations based on prejudice or economics or politics as to why things have turned out this way, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Vast White Ring Conspiracy

Is there any better demonstration of the immense mental health crisis gripping New Orleans than Mayor C. Ray Nagin? His latest public episode is a widely repeated story in the Washington Post in which he trots out his theory of a vast comspiracy to depopulate New Orleans of African-Americans.

It seems fitting that the largest single population of civilian post traumatic stress disorder victims since World War II should be led by a man who is the poster child for our tenuous mental state.

Listen, Ray, I feel for you, man. Remember, I stood up for you when you made your Chocolate City speech, which was not the popular thing to do for a guy as white as a loaf of Bunny Bread. I understood what you meant, and why you said it that way and to that audience. I never forgot Jimmy Reiss' comments to the Wall Street Journal I examined in a piece from Sept. 26, 2005 titled Knights of the Invisible Hand.

The new city must be something very different Jimmy Reiss, head of the New Orleans Business Council Reiss told the Wall St. Journal, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completey different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."
Those people are out there, but they're not the real problem.

I know why you feel this way, while you feel like the whole world is arrayed against you. Hell, Ray, it is arrayed against us all. The Federals, the incomptenents in Baton Rouge, the insurance companies, all of them are in on it. This is not, however, a conspiracy. It is more of a complicity; a willingness to let events run their course.

I don't doubt there are big high fives all around the table at the Republican National Committee when they talk about the positive fallout of having so many of the black and largely Democratic voters scattered to the four winds, but that does not amount to an active conspiracy. It is simple a convenience; no, a great turn of luck for them, like the attack on 9-11 that allow them to reconstitute the Cold War as the War on Terror.

What's happening here is not happening to you in particular, or to the people you believe you represent. Listen, man: you're not Moses, the annointed leader of the Children of Isreal. The entire aftermath of the Federal Flood was not Pharoah out to get you and your people, and acting like that's the story line isn't going to bring about biblical miracles to restore the city to what it was. That's the PTSD and whatever else you have going on talking. Somebody who cares about you needs to take you aside and talk to you 'cause your messed up, and every time you open your mouth you mess us all up.

It's not about you. It's about all of us, the 200,000. Its about everyone who's picked themselves up by their bootstraps and made their way home, all or at least mostly at their own expense because they love this city. I don't have a demographer on retainer so I can't tell you what the current population is. I can only tell you what it looks like, and with every passing day I travel the streets it looks more like New Orleans, the New Orleans you and I both remember. The vast conspiracy hasn't blocked the people I see.

It's not everybody, but its everybody who cares enough about New Orleans to find someway, anyway to come home. We are black and we are white, and we're all New Orleans. It's a start, enough of a nucleus to grow a new city like the sugar crystal a child grows around a string in science class. The 200,000 care enough about this place that they are going to make a new city here, one we will all recognize as New Orleans, but only if we can overcome.

We have problems, but your crazy-ass conspiracy isn't one of them, and as long as you keep talking like this, you're one of the problems, too. Our problems are no place to live and ridiculous rents for what there is. Our problems are no insurance or insurance so high we can barely afford our houses. Our problems are the people we all hoped wouldn't come back, and the people at the top who are failing to protect us from them.

Your crazy talk isn't solving any of those problems, and only makes the work we are all doing around you and in spite of you to solve them that much harder. If you want to save yourself, you won't do it by going on some messianic trip to try to climb up to the next rung on the political ladder. By doing that, you put yourself smack dab in the same class as those high-fiving suits at the RNC and the developers salivating over the projects and all the other soon to be empty property in the city.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Insurance "market" in collapse

I have harped endlessly on the collapse of the private property-and-casualty insurance market, but nothing sums up the problem better than Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon's warning to the Associated Press:

Shopping around can also be a risky strategy, because homeowners in
Louisiana who switch are no longer protected by a state law that bars insurers
from canceling policies that have been in effect for three years or

“Do not shop," said Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon. "That
protection outweighs the advantage of shopping, in my opinion."

Any business model in which we are not free to shop around is no longer a market solution.

The insurance companies recognize this and appear to be setting their prices accordingly. My own policy, purchased for $1.85 a square foot in February of 2006, I considered to be the price of living in the post storm world. (No, my Midwest friends, that is not a typo: 1-point-8-5). It was so high I could not imagine it would go up much more without some reason, such as a catastrophic claim. I was wrong. It went up to almost $2.25 a square foot. (Thanks Republic). So I was forced to shop around, and give up a year's protection under the law.

While Louisiana politicians dance politely around the issue in apparent fear of the insurance lobby, Republican strongholds like Florida and Mississippi are moving ahead with radical changes to address the issue. If Donelon's warning weren't enough, the fact that Republican strongholds are moving away from the pretense of a functioning market toward government intervention tells the same story: private insurance no longer serves our needs.

Worse, it is increasingly clear that the insurance companies have grown into something approaching a criminal enterprise, willing to commit massive and obvious fraud in Louisiana and Mississippi in the pursuit of every higher premium collections with little or no payout. We not not just dealing with a market in collapse, but a market run but companies that are increasingly the largest form of organized crime in America

If the market is in complete collapse the economic future of an entire region is jeopardized by that failure. Without affordable insurance, there will be waves of bankruptcies as home mortgages are called, and banks will collapse. It's time for government and citizens to act.

It's time for a radical change of some sort, such as abolishing private property insurance, or banning the sale of auto insurance by carriers that won't sell home owners insurance. At a minimum, there needs to be a national or regional pool for wind damage as there is for flood to spread the risk over a large population,

Without some drastic measures, the storm that will finally clear the Hurricane Coast will be one of home repossessions and bank failures. If the government (both state and federal) waits until its time to bail out their good friends the bankers, it will not just be an industry that is in failure: it will be any remaining pretense of government of, by and for the people.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Too little, too late

By the time there was a Friends of Cabrini Church, it was too late.

First there was the complete neglect of the site by the Archdiocese, in spite of a multi-million insurance policy carried by the parish (which owned its church), money that will now likley default to the Archdiocese to spend as it sees fit.

Then there was the neighborhood frenzy to see the church demolished, as desperate homeowners fed on the rumors that their properties would triple in value if Holy Cross School came, forsaking its historic Ninth Ward location for the site of Cabrini and Seton High School. The school insisited, however, that the church be demolished so that they could build a modern campus with all of the ameneties tuition-paying parents expect.

By the time the Friends of Cabrini first met in the cold, windy parking lot next to the church, the demolition was already underway. Workers had removed the single-piece, eight ton Carerra marble altar imported from Italy, dropping and breaking it into pieces in the process. They tend proceeded to strip the asbestos insulation from the interior, in the process demolishing mosaics and tossing them into debris piles, and scrapping away the gold leaf on the ceiling which the building's architects had voluntarily purchased and applied when the building fund ran short. They then began to remove the imported French stained glass--made by the descendents of the window makers of Chartres--breaking some of that as well and discarding some as debris.

What remained was the shell of a building and not a church. It has ceased to be a church by fiat of the archdiocese months earlier, an archdiocese that saw it only as real estate and sent in a clean up crew that tossed the parish's vestments into a debris pile from which one parishoner rescued them. A decision had been made with profound implications for the future of the neighborhood: this place shall no longer have a church.

The law governing historic preservation carries a strong presumption that ecclesiastical property is exempt if the church so decides. Without unified support from parishoners and the preservation community, saving the church was always a long shot, particularly for a building shy of the 50-year marker used as a baseline for historic status. FEMA's decision to step in and and consider if recovery money could be used for the demolition and school relocation offered a glimmer of hope, but the tide had already turned.

And so St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church will not survive the recovery. Its demolition will be fixed this week. What remains of a building that received top honors from the Church Architectural Guild of America and National Council of Churches will be reduced to rubble not by the flood but by the confusion and contention that have come to characterize the recovery.

The neighborhood will win a school, but it will lose its church.

Fr. Paul Watkins, the parochial vicar (associate pastor) of St. Dominic Catholic Church in Lakeview, told Brian Denser of WTUL's Community Gumbo several weeks ago that "we have spearheaded the recovery...everywhere the priests were allowed to return those neighborhoods have come back. The parishes that were closed...the neigborhoods are all exceptionally grim."

I don't wish the Oak Park or Vista Park residents ill. I want them to be able to come home. I want everyone to be able to come home. I sincerely hope that Holy Cross School will help anchor a recovering neighborhood.

The next qustion the neighborhood should ask itself is the one raised indirectly by Fr. Watkins: how much further along would Oak Park and Vista Park be with a functioning parish? What will happen to the insurance money? Will it be used to build a new neighborhood church, to further bolster their recovery?

They should ask the archdiocese: Fathers, why have your forsaken us?

The Celtic Way

I've been sick this week and slow to post, so I'm going to cheat again and dredge up a post from last year at this time. As the Federals continue their programs of social experimentation in lieu of relief, I want to remind everyone there is another way.

If I should fall from grace with God
Where no doctor can relieve me
If I'm buried 'neath the sod
And the angels won't receive me
Let me go down Let me go down
Let me go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry
- Shane McGowan of the Pogues

On a day when many New Orleanian's thoughts turn to Parasol's and the pubs scattered across town, my mind wanders over to the great monument to the Irish in New Orleans, the New Basin Canal, which ran from about where Union Station stands today to Lake Pontchartrain. Most of it's gone.

All that remains are the right of way of the Pontchartrain Expressway, the great neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain Boulevards, and the small basin that runs the last half mile or so to the lake.

If you say Irish cemetery to someone from New Orleans, they'll think of St. Patrick's on City Park Avenue, but the great burial ground of the Irish is the New Basin Canal route itself where the remains of somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 Irish laborers lie buried in the spoil banks, near where they fell. Stand anywhere along the route of the expressway, and you stand on the bones of the Irish, people hired at a dollar a day to dig the canal so that the wealthy of New Orleans need not risk their slaves in the dangerous work.

Today, all that stands in remembrance of the Irish who built the canal is a Celtic cross in Lakeview near West End Boulevard and Downs Street. I didn't even think to check on it when I drove around Lakeview when I was home Mardi Gras week. It's fitting there should be some remembrance, in a city famous for its cemeteries, for the jazz funerals, for the way we have come to very public terms with death.

That the cross stands in Lakeview is a fitting reminder that The Flood was not the city's first experience with mass death or with disaster. Our entire city is a monument to death and disater overcome. The area of cemeteries where St. Patrick's and all the other cities of the dead stand was once the back of town, where the remains of the yellow fever victims were kept away from the living.

The great fire of 1788 that ravaged the old French city left the French Quarter a monument to Spanish architecture. In Christopher Hallowel's book Holding Back the Sea is a plate of a lithograph of nineteenth century flooding in the downtown area reminiscent of recent news photos. New Orleans sprang back from these previous disasters, just as Chicago rebounded from its great fire, and San Francisco from the famous earthquake.

Still, some commentators wonder if New Orleans can recover once again. They point out that in other citywide and famous disasters of the past, the damaged cities were on the rise, not yet at the peak of their potential. New Orleans before the levees failed, they argue, was a city past its prime--shrinking in population, losing company headquarters, mired in poverty and crime. They suggest that New Orleans is a city that has been passed by history, and that this will make a difference in with city's ability to rebound.

Perhaps we have been bypassed by history. But history is written in mud by the marching boots of armies, scrawled in slag left by the great engines of industry that tear nations apart, remake them in ways their people do not understand.

Perhaps it is a good thing to be left behind by history, a place at the margins, inconsequential to those who measure the world in divisions of troops and the splitting of stocks. If we are of no consequence to the legions of fanatical Christian and Islamic warriors who would destroy the world lest if fall into the wrong hands then maybe, just maybe we have a chance to save ourselves.

The Irish are no longer at the center of history. The great moment of the Irish people is chronicled in the book How the Irish Saved Civilization, which argues the Irish preserved learning and culture through the Dark Ages, then sent out legions of monks to restore that heritage to Europe. That golden moment was a millennium ago.

Today's Ireland, while not a nation at the center of events, is a thriving place sometime referred to as the Celtic Tiger. It's economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe, with a robust high tech and medical sector, as well as strong legal, accountancy, finance and call center industries.

This Celtic Tiger is not like it's Asian or American counterparts. It is not a place of glass skyscrapers and souless modernism. People live in the old houses, and follow the old ways. They did not have to give up the leisurely lifestyle perfected over generations to achieve prosperity, or remake their landscape in the image of Dallas.

Most Louisianians would feel immediately at home in Ireland, as I did when I visited over a decade ago. The joie de vivre of music, food and drink are so like those of Louisiana, it's as if you discovered a new parish, a lost part of Acadiana. Fiona Ritchie, host of the Celtic music show Thistle & Shamrock, once endorsed my own personal view--the Acadians are the lost tribe of the Celtic race. After a day in Ireland, you would understand why.

I think we can learn a lesson from the Irish, should study their ways as we are studying the dikes of the Dutch. To prosper, we don't need to give up the life that makes New Orleans and Louisiana the place we all love, the place we all insist we will come home to, the place that must live again. Prosperity is possible in a town where most of the buildings are generations if not centuries old, where a pint at lunch is as common as coffee in Kansas, where people live for the craic, a Gaelic word best understood as what happens in a Irish pub when the good times roll.

I think it's possible to be bypassed by history, and to prosper in spite of that. I think success--which for us is not just rebuilding, but rebuilding better--are possible without giving up what we love about this place. We have only to look to the Irish for an example.

So, as we celebrate the unique American holiday of St. Patrick's Day, let me lift a glass to the forgotten thousands of the New Basin Canal, and to their cousins who never left the old country. You made this city what is is, and can teach us what it can become. You show us that we can embrace and celebrate our past and ourselves while we make a new future. And that there's no need for the music or the drink to stop to make it happen.

"This land was always ours
Was the proud land of our fathers
It belongs to us and them
Not to any of the others
Let them go, boys Let them go, boys
Let them go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry"

Friday, March 09, 2007

Last Call, America

The New Orleans Times-Picayune's provides an excellent three-part summary of what those paying attention to coastal erosion have known for decades: the last chance to save the coast (and New Orleans) is fast approaching, with no sign of action.

The problem is that the rest of America could probably care less. They're getting their oil and gas, the crops go out and the steel comes in, and Chinese crawfish are cheaper. To that end, I will dredge out an analogy of a sort from a post I wrote in June of last year:

Like the levee failure in New Orleans, the collapse of the coastal environment in Louisiana is largely man-made catastrophe, the outcome of a series of choices made for the benefit of the entire nation at our expense. Yes subsidence plays a part, but only a small one in the vast losses of the last half century. What has occurred has been the theft of land from Louisiana, without compensation, in order to provide additional agricultural land elsewhere, and to produce oil-and-gas.

Imagine this if you will: Los Angeles is the city most closely associated with America's lust affair with the personal automobile, and production of the oil necessary to make that lifestyle possible is in large part responsible for coastal erosion.If we applied Louisiana's coastal erosion rate to the L.A. coastline (which Google tells me stretches 76 miles from Malibu to Long Beach), the city would have to move back from the sea a little under one mile a year. Would the Hummer continue to be so popular in SoCal if it were their land they were giving up at such an alarming rate in the name of cheap gas?

Somehow we should find a way to place this entire series as an insert to USA Today, the New York Times and the LA Times. Hell, why stop there. I suggest Le Monde as well (because we know the French love us second perhaps only to Jerry Lewis). Everyone in America and the world. needs to understand the danger here.

Forget al-Qaeda. The Gulf of Mexico is the enemy at the gates. The country to the north thinks Katrina was The Big One. They do not understand that it was a glancing blow to the city and that what happened to New Orleans was The Federal Flood, a failure of engineering. When the real Big One comes, it may sweep away the exposed river levees in East Plaquemines, and the river might decide to take another path to the Gulf. Without the flow of the river to keep the channel open, there would be no outlet for ships. No agricultural products would leave the Midwest. No bulk cargoes of steel and other products would enter. In short order, the economy of the central United States would grind to a halt.

Or perhaps the storm will come ashore in south-central Louisiana. How much oil-and-gas infrastructure built to sit safely inside the protective marsh is now exposed in open water? The glancing blow of a mere Category 2 storm named Katrina wreaked havoc on 1/3 of the nation's oil and gas supply (a figure that includes the off-shore super port for tankers). What will happen when a true Category Five complete destroys that infrastructure. How many years could the people to the north survive at five, six, seven dollars a gallon. Two years? Three? Five? Where will the people who can't afford oil to hear their homes go? To the warm winters of the hurricane coast?

The sad part is that I wrote stories on the same subject almost 25 years ago for Guide Newspapers. The only details that have changed are the few tentative steps taken to reverse this entirely man-made disaster. The handful of projects so far put in place were already on the drawing boards back then. What has changed are the lines on the map showing the losses that have occurred since then, and the project future rate of erosion.

It is an entirely man-made catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. As the article points out, the historic coastline could have persisted for another several thousand years, even with the channelization of the Mississippi. The root cause is oil-and-gas exploration along the coast. America has chosen to sacrifice an entire city and region in its quest for the longest commute in the biggest car. There was an ugly joke on the far left as we went to war in Iraq, asking how many dead Iraqi's per mile a Hummer H2 gets. I thought that was a bit outre.

It is, in the context of Louisiana, a question we can fairly ask of every American. How many lives will you willingly and knowingly ruin to keep the vehicle and the habits you have today. If asked, will you answer "yes, bulldoze Louisiana into the ground..."? If I lined up 1,417 Louisianians on the street between you and Starbucks, would you run them down?

I don't think the tens of thousands who have come down here to volunteer would answer in the affirmative. I know how the people America sends to Washington will answer because they already have: they do not care so long as they can have their oil-and-gas and access to the sea. The question is, do you care? Do you? Really?

This is not some insignificant if rare fish or butterfly whose habitat you are destroying, not the homes of some to you benighted tribe of third-worlders whose home you're denuding to redo your cabinets, people you may feel would be better off relocated to some nice cinder-blocks homes with a new well provided by Operation Blessing. We are people you may have gone to college with, people you've passed in an airport or sat next to a long flight, people you might run across a Disneyworld or the Mall of America. It is their homes that are being destroyed, their lives that hang on the brink of ruin to keep the price at $2 a gallon.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

That voodoo what we do so well

The world is not after Haiti as so many of us feel. The cold truth is the world’s indifference, and if there is one thing a Haitian hates it is to be unconsequential. It does not matter what is said about you, as long as you are the subject of conversation. Perhaps at some international soiree idle chatter passes to Haiti, but I doubt it.

–The mysterious stranger on the hotel veranda speaks to author Wade Davis in Chapter Six of his book on voodoo The Serpent and The Rainbow.

As I went to update the Technorati blog tracking services about my last post, I noticed that the service's count of links into Wet Bank Guide had plummeted again, down below 100 for the first time in months to a mere 93. Ah, Vanity, that longs for the days when I considered membership in the top 25,000 out of millions to be a badge of some sort. My own descent from the golden hilltop reflects the way Technorati ranks blogs, and the way the modern world is most concerned with the current, the up-to-date. Scores of old links into my blog back when people outside cared about New Orleans have scrolled off Technorati's radar.

Back when people outside cared about New Orleans: that's not an entirely fair characterization, but at the level of the central government and its mostly obedient national media, it is true. It is neither true nor fair to the thousands of college students who are preparing to flock down here to help at spring break as they once might have volunteered to serve in Haiti, to the churches mentioned in smaller papers to the north announcing the return of a mission trip which has spent its time gutting flooding homes (yes there are still tens of thousands of houses just to gut after all these months) or hammering together new homes for the displaced.

The President just came and spoke of the mythical $110 Billion in Federal assistance, but the truth is that New Orleans is largely being rebuilt by volunteers, and we welcome and thank them. Still, it rankles that we have become a backdrop for fundraising by Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing, another benighted place where Americans can watch Good Christians Like Themselves dispensing five gallon buckets of paint (a very nice color--deep tan, the press release I just read informs me) to the unfortunate heathens.

That is what we have become: unfortunate heathens in a benighted country, lacking only the example of industrious Northerners to teach us how to better ourselves, to put aside our foolish ways and join the community of globalized markets. From Queen of the South in the early nineteen century, New Orleans has descended in the nation's eyes into a northern Haiti, a place of strange and barbaric custom, where poverty breeds corruption and corruption poverty in an seemingly endless and unfathomable cycle.

New Orleans has an old attachment to Haiti. Many of the French planters who fled the Haitian revolution over 200 years ago settled in then French Louisiana. Two of them are my ancestors, and small painted portraits of them hang near the door to my home, one with wisps of brown hear sticking out from beneath his 18th Century wig. My children jokingly refer to them as Lewis and Clark. If they have the names wrong, they have correctly guessed the era.

If you wonder why we stay here in an old and ruinous city plagued by 21st century problems, perhaps my Haitian ancestors the Tetes are a clue. We've been here a long, long time. Johann Jacob Folse stepped off a ship from Germany onto this land over 70 years before the Tete's fled Haiti. I expect to celebrate the tricentennial of my people in this place before I'm to old to make a proper party of it. This is not some passe' suburb we would leave for the latest new construction a few miles further out, as people constantly seemed to do when I lived in Fargo, N.D.

Ours is a way of life as old and as close to this ground as the moss-bearded live oaks just up the street in City Park, some of them 600 years old. We are as implacably rooted in this earth as those ancient trees, as impervious in the long run to storm and flood and the trials a long history has put us to, as insistently evergreen in all weathers. We could not survive elsewhere as Orleanians, except in a hot house specimen sort of way, any more than those trees could transplanted to the blizzard-blasted steppes of the Dakotas. I know because I tried for almost two decades, and discovered there are many kinds of poverty in America, poverties of spirit almost as debilitating as that of material want.

We are closer in space and spirit to Port-au-Prince than we are to the Portlands of either coast, and we persist in spite of the poverty of so many or the corruption of those who govern us or the disregard of the great governments of the world for our plight because we are proud: not of the poverty or the corruption, but of the way of life we have built in spite of those things. It is a laissez-faire not of the sort loved in the great money markets of the north, but that of the bazaars of the far south, a laissez-faire of the soul; an ease in all things that may contribute to our ills but at the same time makes those ills bearable.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Troubled in Paradise

Is New Orleans the most backward city in the United States, or the most advanced city in the Caribbean? Its a provocative question without an easy answer, as Matri pointed out in her indirect response to Da Po' Blog's enthusiastic gloss on the Andrés Duany's piece in Business Week and my own brief reaction to it below.

I have taken some grief in these columns for my earlier suggestion that an economy which did not, for example, provide every city resident a car made a profound contribution to the City's ability preserve a level of neighborhood economic activity and culture increasingly disappearing from our Neighbor to the North. I was accused of celebrating poverty.

One of the earliest posts in this space was on the very subject, titled A People Apart. I wrote:

In spite of the crushing poverty, New Orleans is not some Disney production. The joy of life is real. It is how everyone copes: the poor with their poverty, the middle class with the heat and humidity and mosquitoes, the rich with the rest of us. We love life, whatever it deals us. You can hear it in the music, taste it in the food, imbibe it as we do with a European gusto in your daily drinks. The spirit of this place is as strong as the coffee, as thick as the humidity, as hot as the spiciest food.

In that piece and one as recent as last week I found a parallel between poverty and the preservation of culture in New Orleans and on the native American reservations of the upper Midwest, not far from the city I spent a cold decade living in. Marginalized by a culture (if we can call America that) and an economy that had no use for a people or its ways, the reservations had one positive side: far from the cares of those who run the U.S., remnants of the old culture survived as it would not elsewhere.

That is not an excuse for what is allowed to transpire, either on The Rez or in The Bricks. Still, what was preserved by isolation and poverty should still be preserved. The question before us is how do we do that here in New Orleans, how do we recover from the greatest disaster in American history and preserve who and what we are?

Duany is dead on when he suggests that the conventional answers to that question are as dangerous as the failed attempt at social infrastructure that produced the housing projects.

"[The New Orleans way of life] which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.

This is a radical and dangerous assertion by North American standards, but entirely true. It is not, however, our greatest problem. As I pointed out as far back as September of 2005, we are both a Caribbean city and a Latin one. It is the latter that troubles us, our unflattering association with the Americas to the south.

This thought returned to me Mardi Gras morning, when some very thoughtful and intelligent people whose tongues were loosened by cocktails at breakfast, suggested that what we increasingly needed as a Strong Man to lead us out of our current predicament. Where, I added , is our Huey Long when we need him? In the cold light of Ash Wednesday I found myself revisiting this conversation and thinking if the plague of crime had finally lead us to the ultimate Latin American response?

That people might propose such a solution should shock no one when we are plagued by so many of the same problems as our cousins to the south. Our city is plagued by a government of oligarchs, from the White House down to Perdido Street. The money America thinks they sent to help us was mostly diverted into the pockets of the oligarchy that currently controls the White House in vast no-bid contracts that merely trickled a bit of the money down to us.

What did reach us was filtered in the same way through Baton Rouge, which contracted out our aid to incompetent and dishonest contractors from elsewhere who are spending money hand over fist on themselves without directing any to us. What does reach the city goes into the hands of Perdido Street, where new and expensive contracts for city services are let in secret.

This is not the way government is run in much of the Caribbean, where the English and French with their vast experience of colonial empire left behind a functioning if not always efficient government by bureaucracy. Ours is the system of corruption founded instead by the Spanish throughout the other Americas, one our current President seems to have discovered and become enamored of as the Bush family moved from New England to colonize Texas and Florida, one which we in southern Louisiana have been perfecting for centuries.

The idea that anyone might endorse this is what I think rankled Maitri in her own response to what da po blog and I wrote about Duany's piece. I don't think anyone who has read Wet Bank Guide for the last year-and-a-half would think that I celebrate or endorse that sort of corrupt ineptitude. More than half of what is written here in driven directly by scorn for it. We deserve better.

The two issues are really separate. Duany is right that the best of intentions among the legion of planners who have descended to help could destroy us as easily as the corruption at every level of government over us. We are being saved from the first so far only by the ineptitude of our own government and that of our neighbors to the north.

In the end it is best that the city regrow organically, without the heavy hand that made such a mess of concrete blocks out of the reconstruction of post-World War II Europe. To succeed at that level we will have find a way to put in place an administration that can succeed against the crime problem and fix the streets, that can somehow manage to dole out what little remains unlooted of the mythical $110 billion to attract and keep the critical mass of citizens that will make us viable.

The challenge is enormous. Here in New Orleans we are divided by racial and sectional tensions as profound as those that tear at Iraq, and building a working civic infrastructure for the city will be almost as large a challenge as the think-tank utopians in Washington found in the in Bagdhad. The current crime wave is both a symptom of our dysfunction, and exacerbates it, inflaming those same racial and sectional divisions because virtually all of the violence is rooted in one community.

I do not believe that it is beyond us. The 200,000 who have come home have shown a willingness to throw over the past, as evidenced by the overturning of the old assessor system or the tossing out by neighborhoods most fully returned of their old city officials. The real trick of it will be both to put in place some sort of local administration that would in fact by the envy of the Caribbean and the rest of our kindred Americas--even if it falls short of the expectations of the America to the north--without succumbing to the demands that we model our economy and society on the utopian fantasies of Republican think tanks and the dystopian model portrayed in American advertising.

A way must be found to end the crime wave and fix the streets, to fully restore basic first world services such as water and electricity at rates that won't bankrupt us all. The city is only worth saving if we can remain a people apart, poorer perhaps than the industrious thralls to our north but infinitely happier. If we can only save ourselves on the model of Atlanta or Dallas, I have to hope that it succeeds only so I can sell my own fabulously mortgaged house for enough to afford something to my taste further South.

"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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