Thursday, July 19, 2007

Signs and portents

Note: I don't know how many people saw this over the weekend. In light of yesterday's meeting on Eddie Jourdan at the City Council, and the way the crowd broke along racial lines, I feel compelled to re-push it in hopes a few more people see it.

It is possible to live in a New Orleans unmarked by disaster, to limit yourself to the circumscribed island of high ground along the river and avoid the streets that stretch block after block into mile after mile of persistent ruin. Confine yourself to downtown, to the French Quarter and CBD, or stay Uptown below Prytania Street and it is pretty much the city a half-million fled in August 2005.

Even the so-called Isle of Denial along the river is hardly a perfect place. It's littered by neglect: neglected streets littered by garbage, neglected houses and buildings, neglected people. People live so close together in the older parts of the city that even a sophisticated Orleanian will find themselves in one of these blocks. Except in the richest blocks around Audubon Park, the pattern of settlement was never so segregated as the New South. Drive down a street of large bourgeois homes, not mansions but clearly the residences of the prosperous, then turn a block and you will find the closely spaced shotguns and cottages of the servants just around the corner.

In spite of our tremendous architectural heritage, perhaps because of the richness of old homes amidst so much poverty, many of these buildings--manse and cottage alike--have fallen into decay. Most neighborhoods in the narrow slice of city that was unflooded have their share of empty-eyed buildings sagging behind a patch of weeds like tired old men. One thing these wrecks lack, that the unflooded part of town in general is missing are the spray-painted rescue marks that tag most of the buildings to the south toward the lake.

During New Orleans' transformation in 2005 into Venice-On-Hell, a search of the city was conducted by boat and aircraft. There was no other way to travel except to swim or wade. As each house was visited to check for survivors needing assistance, the searchers blazed in paint what has come to be called a rescue mark. In the most deeply flooded areas full of one-story ranch homes, the marks were made on roofs.

The typical mark is a large X with a circle at the center, although sometimes there is just a long stroke and a circle. In the four quadrants inside the strokes of the X are a date, some indication of who searched a flooded homes in the weeks after, and on more than a few homes a number at the bottom indicating the number of dead. These marks are as much a part of New Orleans after the flood as the ubiquitous fluer-de-lis.

Everyday as I walk to work I pass a reminder of the chaos that was the downtown hospital complex in 2005, a marking on the wall at Loyola Avenue and Gravier Street reading "EMS Out" with an arrow pointing up Gravier toward the river. It is paired with a similar spray-painted mark further up Loyola at Julia Street reading "EMS In" with an arrow pointing up Loyola. These hermetic traffic guides only make sense when you visualize the scene just north of Tulane and Loyola, the hectic evacuation of two large downtown hospital just over a block away in the frantic days after the Federal levees failed

Given the scale of what happened and the poverty of areas of the city, markings like these will likely persist for years, for decades, for generations. These painted postcards from a time just passed remind me of the handful of painted Jim Crow signs that still linger in corners of the city, fainter and more distant reminders of a more distant past. Colored Only. Colored Entrance. If you know where to look, you can find the faint remains of these marks that were once as common as shop signs

Like the rescue marks of Katrina, they are an emblem of a point in history that defines much of who we are today. The Jim Crow signs evoke not just the segregated past. They quietly speak of the tremendous bravery of the civil rights movement, of desegregation and white flight, of the self-imposed divides that separate us to this very day. I was born in 1957 and don't clearly remember the ugly television scenes of desegregation, the angry mobs in the Ninth Ward. Still, like everyone else here I am imprinted with the history of that time, my mind's inner voice forever marked by the telltale shibboleths of who I am: white, from the lakefront, a catholic school graduate. I can still, if I concentrate, call up the sound of an elder female relative saying"nigrah".

Our legacy remains, represented by those faded Colored signs, no matter how hard we try. The socialization of our childhoods is burned into us like the scars of some terrible accident. To this day I can recall snippets of racist rhymes I learned as a small child. We are all here the children of masters and slaves, and the sins of our forefathers haunt us even unto the seventh generation. The man that childhood training sought to create lives somewhere inside me, even if it is not the person I chose to be today. I think of it as akin to alcoholism, something inherited that can't ever be eradicated, simply overcome day-by-day.

I still think my great gift to this city is not this blog or any little thing I've done here or there in town to help others or my neighborhood. My real gift is my family. My wife and children were raised in the Mid-West, in an environment without the dark shadow of southern history hanging over them. My son and daughter attended an elementary school with the children of a dozen nations, courtesy of Lutheran Social Services efforts to bring refugees from central Europe and Africa to a new life in Fargo, North Dakota.

The place they group up was not idyllic. When I first arrived to a town near a Native American reservation, I heard people say "the Rez" and immediately recognized the tone used to say "the Projects". I watched other parents yank their children away from the young Roma who sometimes came to our playground, listened to the ranting on local talk radio about the influx of foreigners. We shielded our children from that, and as a result they carry none of the baggage my generation of southerners were saddled with.

When I came home to New Orleans I hoped that the Federal Flood would overturn some of what we were before, that an event that massive and shared by all would give everyone a sense of commonality stronger even than the Saints. The city's first election proved me wrong, as the voters quickly divided along racial, class and ward lines as they have for generations. We are like breeds of dogs trained over generations to some task, ltrained over generations to the task iable to neurosis if deprived of sheep to herd.

An acquaintance who is not a native recently had an ugly encounter with a woman from Lakeview over race. She was angry at the increasing return of black people. Black people was not, however, the term she used. She suggested to Bart that he wasn't from here and just didn't understand, in particular he didn't under "them". I drive my daughter to the west bank and see the men on the General De Gaulle approaches to the bridge in bow ties and Malcom X glasses selling the Nation of Islam's Final Call newspaper who will not make eye contact with me, a white devil. These are the extreme examples. Not everyone in the city thinks this way. But there is a divide as profound as the distance that separates De Gaulle from Lakeview.

I haven't given up hope, in part because of the children. As my own spawn's circle of friends and acquaintances grows, I find that those too young to vote in that last election do not carry the same baggage as the survivors of desegregation. The parents of my children's black friends do not treat me like the drones of the Nation of Islam, and I do not treat them as the woman in Lakeview would. In the middle is a body of people who treat each other with respect, and in the case of the children a color-blindness that is startling to me after 20 years outside the south.

I ask those who are not in that happy middle, or not lost to the extremes, to contemplate those rescue marks they see as they drive through town, to note that as they traverse the checkerboard proximity of neighborhoods that the water did not respect race or income. The rescue marks of the City Park end of Mid-City are the same as those of the Seventh or Ninth ward. As I wrote almost a year-and-a-half ago now:
The Bitch didn't care. Her waters came up the MRGO and took the paint-bare, black-eyed-pea shotguns of the Lower Nine the same as it took the Bunny Bread, virgin-in-a-tub brick ranch houses of Chalmette. Claiborne Avenue or Judge Perez Drive, they cried and struggled and drowned just the same. The waters that swept up Canal Boulevard and Paris Avenue didn't stop in at the Hibernia to check antibody's balance. They took everyone in their path, no checks accepted.
As the monumental task of reconstructing a city bit-by-bit unfolds, those rescue marks will slowly disappear from the city's streets as they have in the block I live on. I think some should be saved in every neighborhood, walls torn if necessary from homes to be demolished and and the paint stroked bit of wood staked to the ground. We need a constant reminder of what we all now share that those who came before us did not: a common experience, a common enemy, a common task to accomplish. I want these marks to linger just as those colored entrance signs do, but instead to remind us we are all Orleanians and all the survivors of the Federal Flood. We are all in this together.

Do you have any doubt that the happy middle is growing, and will never shrink? This may not be satisfactory, however. The words of those at the vanishing extreme are amplified by their very rarity.

To this end, we do as we must: take the bad along with the good from our parents, and do even better by our own children.
Well said, Peris. I was terribly disappointed by the press conference yesterday by the Baptist ministers. I've been reading Naipul's A Turn In The South and plan to post one what I'm reading there soon, in the early chapters about his visit to Atlanta and his meetings with black leaders there.

So little has changed...
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"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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