Saturday, December 29, 2007

Carry Me Home

"Our precious hearts are all shattered, scattered across the land.
And I know that I'm going back to a place where I know who I am"
-- Susan Cowsill in "Crescent City Snow"

Last night I met the man who brought me home.

No, he didn't carry me on his back like St. Christopher or ferry me home in a boat or even loan me twenty bills. Still, it is because of him that I find myself here on the shores of my own personal Ithaca. The meeting that resulted was not as profound as it sounds. A sideman in the band I was listening to, he was introduced to the crowd and in the moment I knew who he was. Later, I spoke to him briefly like two men who discover they have a common friend or interest, as any two men in New Orleans, given time enough to talk, may likely find. And in that brief encounter, I closed the circle on a journey of 21 years.

My wife and a very old friend and I went to hear Ingrid Lucia sing at the d.b.a bar on Frenchman Street in the Farbourg Marigny just behind the French Quarter. For out-of-towners, this is where the locals hang, where the French Quarter of Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs still lives on just across Esplanade Avenue from the Vieux Carre. For the first set, we sat in a small window seat carrel and listened, having an animated conversation about this and that, a big trip to Europe we were planning. Every now and then, we'd fall silent and listen to Ingrid sing, or the quartet backing her wail. During the second set, we decided to move out into the main room and just listen to the music. My friend Eric and my wife grabbed some seats along the wall, and I settled in on the floor at their feet.

As we watched the group, I kept looking at the horn player. There was something so damned familiar about him, but I couldn't place it. This happens to me all the time since I returned to New Orleans. The city is full of people I knew in passing over twenty years ago, and I keep seeing faces I feel I might have known in the long ago but since forgotten. There was something about the trumpet players that told me: you know him from somewhere. Then the singer introduced him. And now, she said, we're going to feature Marc Braud on vocals.

It was then I knew. The name triggered a flood of memory that washed over me like the warm air from a brightly lit doorway opened onto a cold, damp alley. I was transported briefly from the floor of a small, dark nightclub in the Marigny to an auditorium at the University of North Dakota in Fargo, to late September of 2005 and the first days after the Federal Flood. My wife and I were alone in front. Most of the crowd sat to the back of the room, tentative and polite as any crowd of North Dakotans will mostly be. Like characters from a monologue by Garrison Keillor, they huddled like a herd against the back and side walls: none was going to push up to close to the bright lights in front and call attention to themselves.

My wife is from North Dakota, and we raised our children there. I had lived in that area for over a decade and away from New Orleans for almost 20 years, but remained deep down a Crescent City boy. Clad in a Mardi Gras-colored rugby shirt and clutching a large purple, green and gold golf umbrella, I had brashly marched down to the front and plopped myself center, just one row back from the empty front. In the cold and dark of the north that dreadful September of 2005, I went to this concert like a lost soul stumbling into a church, desperate for some redemption. If there were to be any splash of holy water or waft of incense from the altar, I was going to be close enough to catch it.

I had spent the prior weeks like a man adrift, had been struggling not to drown in tears or burst into flame with anger ever since 8-29-05. I was desperate to escape the television and Internet news, was anxious to hear the sound of a voice with a certain, familiar timber and turn of phrase; to be in the company of people who had moved from rice gruel to gumbo before they could properly say the word; to feel the insistent rhythms of the second line, to witness fingers doing that peculiar boogie-woogie dance that is New Orleans piano, to hear a horn by turns plaintive and brash trumpet the familiar songs. At a time when it was not clear that home would ever be there to go to again, I wanted to be carried home.

The affair was a Red Cross benefit for the victims of Katrina. Someone in the Red Cross had managed to put the Troy Davis Quartet on the road doing benefits, raising money for the cause and giving these displaced musicians a role to play doing what they knew best, playing the music of New Orleans. Somewhere I have a clipping from the Fargo Forum newspaper reviewing the show. Sometime I will pull it out and read it again, but not today. There was only one moment in the show that will remain with me until the day I die and they carry me less than a mile from Toulouse Street to Schoen funeral home, then a few blocks down Canal Street to Greenwood Cemetery.

At a point late in the show Marc Braud spoke briefly, looking not at the crowd but at the horn in his hand, of how the Red Cross had arranged for him to get in and out of the city and recover his instrument. Tonight was the first time he would play it since the flood. He said some more words about the city and its predicament, spoke of the losses of so many, but I was lost after he spoke of recovering his trumpet, transported into sorrow, all of the pathetic scenes from TV and the Internet rushed back at me like sudden flood waters. When I focused again, he had called the song and the band began to play "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans".

They played it just a bit slower than the usual tempo, the drummer on brushes playing the soft and respectful cadence of a jazz funeral marching out. Between singing the verses and playing his horn Braud looked not at his audience but down at the stage, rubbing away what I knew were tears in his eyes, the same that clouded my own view of the stage. When he lifted his horn to his lips he played that song with the same sad joy musicians of his father's and perhaps his grandfather's generation had played it. Unlike most of the polite audience, I heard not one but the voice of a hundred trumpeters from New Orleans who were, that night in September 2005, somewhere other than home; I heard them like a chorus of the sanctified in heavenly white robes blowing draped horns to call all the children home; I heard in it the wobbly wail of a late night busker somewhere in the quarter playing the Lincoln Center in his head.

I quietly wept. I don't know about the audience. I couldn't turn my head to look, as I might have with the training of a journalist to sweep the situation and look for the bit of color to add to the story, the picture in words of the crowd that might make the scene. That night I was that bit of color, one of the five men in that room for whom that song on that night in the Fall of 2005 was not just a song but was like the wailing of the apostles after the Crucifixion and the later descent of tongues of fire onto their heads. And I was not the only one who was moved.

Next to me my wife listened and watched as Braud wiped at his eyes between singing and blowing. This Pentecost of the lost reached down and touched her as well. She told me later that in that moment she understood my earlier announcement that I wanted to, no needed to go home to New Orleans, to a city at that time more than still half underwater and in near complete ruin. She understood that my past light-hearted remarks about emigrating to America from New Orleans were not a joke but a way of saying how much I needed to be home, that home was more than just where she and I and the kids lived but a very specific and irreplaceable point on the map. She had watched me the preceding weeks glued to the television and computer, sleeping maybe five hours a night and slowly unraveling in grief, and that night in Fargo saw that grief paraded on stage.

She told me it was then she knew that she had to let me come home.

And that was how I came to find myself sitting on the floor of d.b.a watching Marc Braud playing his horn, just as I had sat in that Fargo auditorium two-and-a-half years earlier; how recognized him as the man who had brought me home. It wasn't as powerful a moment as the one in 2005, but I knew as I sat there and listened that I had closed a circle, completed the journey that began when I left the city New Year's Eve morning 1986. Seeing Braud there on stage closed the chapter that began with a weather forecast one Friday late in August two years ago and which I thought had ended when I crossed the Causeway Memorial Day 2006 with the city skyline rising up from the horizon, but which did not really resolve itself until I shook Braud's hand, told him the story and thanked him for helping to bring me home.

It was a quietly anti-climactic moment. What does one say when a complete stranger comes up to you and says something like, "I just wanted to tell you you're the reason I'm home." He just looked at me with no particular expression on his face, then began to smile a bit as I told him the story in brief--living in Fargo, the concert and his story of recovering his horn and his tears as he sang the song, and how that had moved my wife to decide that yes, somehow, we would move to New Orleans. He was silent for a bit, trying to place my odd story in among the expected things people will say to a performer just off stage. He just kept nodding his head slightly as if I were still taking, until his face lit up with a broad smile and he said, "well, welcome home man!" My own story all told, I couldn't think of another word myself. "You, too" I offered.

With that, I took my drink out into the street for a cigarette, and watched the crowd passing along Frenchman Street. I thought about the long journey to this evening, twenty one year’s almost to the day, to this night in a club listening to fantastic New Orleans music with an old, old friend and my wife the newest Orleanian. As Braud returned to the stage and I heard his horn from inside dueling with the coronet player up the block in the street band, and the music pouring out of the Spotted Cat where later I would catch the Jazz Vipers; while I watched the parade of tourists and quarter rats and people dressed up for a just-once-in-a-while night on the town passing up and down the street and in and out of clubs; as I contemplated a plate of red beans and some fried okra at the Praline Connection to soak up the beer; as I stood there and the music and the scene and the thought of good food contended for my attention, the words from Cowsill's alt-country/folk anthem somehow came to mind. "And I know that I'm going back to a place where I know who I am." I crushed out my cigarette and stepped back into the crowded club and the music to find my wife and friend, the last pieces I needed to put together the puzzle that is home; stepped into the heart of Frenchman Street Friday night, into the heart of New Orleans: home for certain and home to stay.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Farewell to all that

Somewhere north of 60 degrees vast sheets of ice break apart into tiny islands, floating baby polar bears and seal pups away to their doom. A vast expanse of rain forest is bulldozed into pulp while displaced aborigines watch stoically, endangered butterflies flittering around them like ancestral spirits. The world is being taken apart like an old baseball as humanity carefully picks and pulls at the seams in our quest to make sure there is not some missed bit of ore, some sparkly jewel we have left undisturbed beneath the surface.

Baby boomers indoctrinated by Marlin Perkins and Euell Gibbons to value the exotic and distant in the natural world are so disturbed by these catastrophes they nearly choke on their organic, free-trade coffee. These Samaritans threaten to overwhelm coastal cities all around the globe with endless crocodile tears of anguish long before the glaciers melt.

Screw the polar bears. If the only habitats you care about saving must involve animals suitable for reproduction in faux fur and stuffing and found in a wire bin at the local zoo’s gift shop, it's over. Your own world is crumbling beneath your feat and you don't even know it. If you will only be bothered about saving endangered Americans if we put bones through our noses and take to living by spearing fish in Bayou St. John, we are not the only ones standing in the shadow of our man-made doom.

Every drop of ethanol you pump into your hybrid car and every gallon of gasoline it dilutes; every ounce of the imported steel that wraps you in the perceived cocoon of safety in your SUV that swallows that fuel; every forkful of food made with mass produced soybeans or corn and every springy blade of lovingly fertilized green grass in your lawn: almost everything you do and touch today in America is systematically destroying a vast and valuable eco-system in your own backyard.

In the process, cultures as unique and valuable as any aboriginal group on the globe -- the Acadians of south central Louisiana, the Islenos in the east, the native Houma -- are left to stare out over the open water that once was the marsh that fed and sheltered their families, to look at an empty net or oyster rake and see there the void they feel inside as their world falls apart. In the distance, vast stands of dead coastal forest stand as gray and skeletal as concentration camp survivors. If you think I am exaggerating, I recommend you take the time to read Mike Tidwell's Bayou Farewell or Christopher Hallowell's Holding Back the Sea. Within this generation it will all be gone, not through an inexorable process of natural erosion--that would take another thousand years or two--but by a combination of choice and willful ignorance of the costs of what man has wrought.

The coast will not be gone by 2080, or 2050, or even 2030. It could be gone tomorrow, with the next storm that comes ashore. It will certainly be gone within this generation if nothing changes to reverse the policies of cheap energy and food exports which, by robbing the coast of replenishment then slashing what remains with oil-and-gas canals that poison the marsh with saltwater, have indirectly expropriated an area the size of Delaware in Louisiana without paying a penny.

What does America care? The citizens of the US prefer their goods shoddy and imported, made with the cheapest labor possible under any conditions that guarantee that the shelves of Wal-Mart and Target remain stocked to the ceiling at a guaranteed low price. The far east will cheerfully supply all the shrimp and crawfish needed, if you're not to scrupulous about being slowly poisoned by it. We're already as enslaved to the Saudi's as any pipehead or junkie, so what's a little more imported oil going to hurt? Or, better yet, grow more row crops for ethanol and poison the Mississippi with more fertilizer, until the dead zone created obliterates all marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sadly, when we are gone most of you won't be able to afford those goods. When the marshes have vanished and the big one comes, it may sweep away the infrastructure from which a quarter of the nation's oil and gas originates, is imported or processed. Or else it may find the entire lower stretch of the Mississippi an unprotected earthen jetty, and sweep the banks away and send the river down a new course to the sea closing all navigation. Crop exports and steel imports will cease and oil prices will spike to the astronomical. How long could your state's economy prosper at 10-cents-a-bushel crops and $10-a-gallon for gas?

For those of you who live in the new, service oriented America (where row crops and steel are just a box down at the bottom of the page next to where you track your mutual fonds), don't worry. The Acadians may be gone, but we will save the French Quarter and the street car for you. We can contract with Disney to schedule daily parades down Bourbon Street with festive, Cajun themes. The most important parts of our culture--the cheap beads and t-shirts, the high-proof daiquiris and karaoke bars--all of that is high and dry and waiting for you. So come on down. We have arranged for the best garbage service money can buy, standing by to hose your vomit from the street before you wake for afternoon brunch.

Just try not to look out the window of your plane as it approaches the city, lest you be reminded that the cost of that low-fare to the City That Care Forgot is the displacement of a million of your fellow citizens and the destruction of their unique culture, the intentional eradication of an entire, genuine way of life. Forget that someday the consequences of that loss will come home to you.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas wishes and dreams

Ed.'s Note: Dusting off the old chestnut to toss on the fire. Laziness or tradition: we recycle, you decide. Whatever this time of year means to you, I wish you peace and the joy of it.

There is a young tradition in my family of watching the Muppet film The Christmas Toy at this holiday. It was never a popular holiday staple. If you blinked during is television airing sometime in the the early 1990s, you would have missed it. My children, however, still love to watch it. For myself, it is my reminder that Christmas miracles do come true.

I won't need much of a reminder this evening or tomorrow, sitting in my house on Toulouse Street in New Orleans. The first part of the wish I expressed in the piece below came true not a month after I wrote this: we were on our way home to New Orleans. Like most wishes for great things, it did not come without a cost, but on balance we were so lucky: finding a dry house we could afford, children ensconced in Lusher and Franklin charter schools, my daughter Killian at NOCCA. So many pieces fell into place, that the miraculousness of it all is striking.

Much of the rest of what I wished for seems distant, almost beyond hope. My hopes for the rest of the city seem mired in a willingness of us all to slide easily into old ways that could drag us down back even deeper into the old problems, the old divisions. And so I'm going to repost this, as a reminder that wishes can come true if one sets out to make them so. The city need not slide into racial turmoil, does not have to tolerate failing schools or rampant crime, and should not accept that corruption or incompetence are just some part of the natural order.

You have to have faith. Still, that is not enough. The lesson in my homecoming is that faith is never enough without works. If you find the thoughts for the city something devoutly to be wished, then it will only happen if we are determined to make is so. And there is sacrifice. This Christmas post is dedicated to my wife, Rebecca, who took a difficult new job in a strange city, coming here alone six months before the children and I, and found and made the home were we will celebrate our first real Christmas in New Orleans. Her love for me, her faith in my dreams, and her work and sacrifice were the essential components of this wish come true.

Faith, works, sacrifice. If you make it into church today you probably won't here those words. Even if tomorrow is the only day, or one of the few you make it into a church, you will still recall these concepts from other gospels of Sundays long past. You can even be a believer but not a Christian: these are the timeless principles off all faiths. All of them are required of us--believers or not--if our dreams and aspirations are to come true. But on this winter's day we can start with faith, with a willingness to believe in miracles.

Saturday, December 24, 2005
All I want for Xmas is New Orleans

There is an old convention in journalism that we bloggers, as the New Journalists of the 21st Century, will feel bound to observe: the Christmas piece. As a former reporter, I can't seem to resist the temptation. But it's more than dragging out the fir and lights; it's a deeply ingrained desire to say or do something good at this time of year.

All I want for Christmas is New Orleans.

How easily this conventional, almost trite sentiment comes to mind. But it is true. Even for a 20-year ex-pat, there is nothing I want more. Outside of my wife and kids, there is nothing dearer to my heart than the home I left behind New Year's Eve 1986. Like most first-generation emigrants (and I have always considered myself an immigrant to the United States from the Republic of New Orleans), I have never, could never break the ties of place to my only real home.

And since I said to my wife back in late September "I want to move back to New Orleans" and she, instead of spitting wine all over herself in convulsive laughter, said yes, its become even more important to me personally, and not just because I was what Dr. John called traumaticalized in a recent Chris Rose column in the T-P.

At an age when my kids are more than halfway grown, and I sit and contemplate what to do with the rest of my life, I can't think of anything I want to do more than be a part of the future of New Orleans. Anything else will, for me, be an excuse for a life, the poet's quiet desperation of hanging on until it's over.

That's not a life.

I have no illusions about what was lost. Hell, the city I left in my rear view mirror nineteen years ago was not the city I grew up in. So much had been lost already to the relentless floods of time and American commerce; so much more was swept away between that New Year's Eve when I left and the flood. But the failure of local stores, as dear as they were to us all, was not a New Orleans problem. It was an American problem, happening everywhere. Losing D.H. Holmes or K&B were a disappointment. But that was not the same as losing the neighborhood bars and restaurants and stores, all threatened in the aftermath of Katrina and the flood.

Much that remains the same would not be missed if it could somehow be carried away with the ruined appliances and the moldy drywall: the crime that blossomed in New Orleans just like in every other heavily poor and black urban area, the political division and bickering that separated New Orleanians into warring camps, the corruption of the School and Levee Boards.

And there are the embarrassing headlines about the N.O.P.D. or Bourbon Street bartenders, the remarks sitting in my inbox today from various lists about the people Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris called "the criminal element" in his 60 Minutes interview. You know who I mean. Many of the people I hear complaining the loudest about Mama D must have lost all their mirrors to Katrina, because they could mostly use a long, hard look in one.

I won't accept just resettling, merely rebuilding New Orleans. Somehow, it must be better, fairer, less poor and less divided, and still every bit as much the city of memory and dreams. Not many cities are presented with the opportunity of starting over from scratch on such a vast scale, being given a second chance to do things right.

The New Orleans of my Christmas wish is not just the town I grew up in, or the town I constantly pine for on some level--the city of food and friends, of music and Mardi Gras--it is for a city where people make a decent living and can afford to own and fix up their homes, where the schools and police and the levees work at least as well as most other places, where the unifying spirit of resettlement and recovery breaks down the fear that divides Audubon Place from Almonaster, separates Lakeview from Lafitte.

It should be a place that is rebuilt for the benefit of it's people, and not at the whims of the market-place that's already left so many of them behind, the invisible hand that turned the last jazz club on Bourbon Street into a karaoke bar, the idol Mammon that would demolish everything to rule over a thousand suburban boulevards lined with box stores, that would be perfectly appeased to make New Orleans into an historic shell for upscale boutiques.

Only if a critical mass of people come home can what is good be saved, and what is not be averted. I understand why some people who lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods would stay in their newly adopted homes, why others who sacrificed the high salaries of elsewhere to live in New Orleans might find it hard to return home to sub-market wages and inflated rents.Good luck to you all. But you may find, five or ten or twenty years from now, that you have never really been happy living in your new home. The city’s pull will begin to work at you. You will want to go home.

That’s my Christmas Wish, not just to come home, but to be part of one of the great stories, the one about miraculous births and resurrections. There are so many pieces that must fall into place, so many immense hurdles to overcome--multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, once for each of us--it seems only a miracle will do.

But I believe in Christmas miracles. A decade ago, my three-year old daughter fell in love with a character called Rugby Tiger, from an obscure Muppet’s movie call the Christmas Toy. Having Rugby Tiger was her only Christmas wish, the only secret she had for Santa.

Finding Rugby Tiger proved to be impossible. The Christmas Toy is a wonderful show, but not a spectacular of the sort that generates tie-in marketing. The stores at Christmas are full of great piles of stuffed animals, but none came close to looking like Rugby. We scoured the smallish town we lived in at the time, and all the stores of Fargo, N.D. as well. I dredged through catalogs online stores back in the early days of e-commerce, and called every major toy store I could think of. It became increasingly clear there would be no miracle, that the first Christmas my first child really understood would be a failure, a disappointment that would haunt her the rest of her life.

There’s a happy holiday thought.

Then one day, perhaps a week before Christmas, I went into a little mom-and-pop drug store in little Detroit Lakes, MN, and walked past the big pile of stuffed animals I had twice before torn apart. As I came back from the pharmacist with my little bag, I decided to have one last desperate dig. And that’s when I found him. His tag didn’t say Rugby Tiger, but he was a perfect replica, the very image of the television tiger.

Christmas was saved.

I’ve told this story to my children, when they finally asked me about Santa Claus. Yes, I can tell them with a straight face, I do believe in Santa Claus, because once when I truly needed a miraculous Christmas present for someone I loved, it happened. Perhaps I’ve used up my quotient of miracles. But I know that belief is more than just a bit of sustaining psychology. I am a poor excuse for a Christian, probably not one at all at this point in my life. But I know there is a power within us and without us that, sustained by belief, can work miracles in this world.

Most miracles are small and personal things: two people meeting and falling in love, a child’s face on Christmas morning when they find a dream come true, the birth on a winter’s night of a child entirely ordinary and no less miraculous. My Christmas wishes for myself and for my city may seem as improbable as the sentiments of a beauty contestant, but they’re not. My wish is for the thousand tiny and entirely human miracles I know are possible.

My wish is that at this holiday, somewhere in America, the separated parts of a family come together in exile--a little more complete—and begin their plans to go home; that somewhere in a line at a government office, two people discover that the other is not a greedy white boss or a scary black criminal, but someone with whom they share memories and hopes; that someone will come home today and, when the tears have finally stopped, they will begin again their life in New Orleans.

I'll see you there.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

House Burning Down

Well someone stepped from the crowd he was nineteen miles high
He shouts we're tired and disgusted so we paint red through the sky
I said the truth is straight ahead so don't burn yourself instead
Try to learn instead of burn, hear what I say, yeah, yeah.
-- Jimi Hendix, House Burning Down
How could any educated person not approve of tearing down the city's four largest public housing complexes, a fellow blogger on the New Orleans blogger mailing list asks? In that question lives every ugly and sharp edge that glitters about this question like a field of broken glass.

My education was tutoring fourth graders at St. Alphonsos, a Catholic school at the edge of the now demolished St. Thomas, to escape high school catechism class. It was continued in college one semester mentoring the middle school newspaper at the Carver Complex in Desire. Complex was an apt name: it was a place that looked more like the prisons my father once built, surrounded by a tall, razor-wire topped fence and patrolled by armed guards.

These were not bad kids. Given the circumstances I knew they all lived in, I think they were in fact superb. Based on the kids I met, I knew their parents were not bad people. Perhaps I was just lucky to encounter children whose parents gave enough of a damn to insist they go to St. Alphonsos, children who grew up in homes in or around Desire where reading was not an alien concept, who could conceive of being on a school newspaper.

Perhaps they were the exception. I have a good friend who spent the last year coaching the most hopeless kids in the St. Tammany Parish Schools for the state's LEAP exam. These little golums were the future headlines and the future shooters and victims, and they scared the shit out of him. The kids I know were not those zombies, the walking dead. They were just like ourselves at that age, full of life and curiosity. These kids were an eduction for someone who who grew up on the privileged lake front, my exposure to people of color limited to Sylvia the maid or my father's handyman. They taught me that the people in these neighborhoods were not some Dark Other, but people just like everyone else.

Why tear down the projects? Why not tear down the projects? The arguments fly back and forth, but I have to ask this: We don't have projects now, not really. There's just Iberville and a few score units off Earhart. Has that reduced the crime and murder rate? Has that turned around the schools? Has it brought an economic miracle? How will tearing down these buildings do what the flood could not to clear out generations worth of mistakes?

Perhaps I am foolish to think, to hope that the largely working population (I include among the working the retirees and disabled who provided the free child care that freed up mom to work making beds downtown); to believe that these people might have some opportunity to return. Without them, the city will not grow back into something recognizably New Orleans. If we let the working class be replaced by hordes of undocumented Latin Americans, people who's fear of La Migra makes them more like the docile black working class of two or more generations some people seem to yearn for, it will profoundly transform the city. I welcome the new comers, without whom we would not be as far along as we are. But I want to add them to the mix, not replace the people who were here before.

Let me be clear, as I have been in the past. I have no use for stoop sitters and corner idlers. If you're not coming home to work and be a part of the massive task that still lies ahead, then don't come. I don't want you to come. We don't want you to come. You don't deserve to be here. To generalize and tell everyone who ever lived in public housing that they are all stoop-sitting, soap-watching losers is wrong. It's a lie, and that fact so many don't know that is perhaps the biggest problems of all: we really don't know each other.

Perhaps the people I care about, the ones who really helped make New Orleans with city we love, the ones who lived in what were arguably hell holes at times and yet got up and somehow got the kids to school and themselves to work, perhaps they have already begun have come home. I work at 1111 Tulane on the back end of the CBD, where people who ride the bus to-and-from work wait, the people who work the downtown hotels and clean the streets. I eat at the McDonalds on Canal every now and then and the Real Pie Man stops at my corner. The people of color who made up the core of the New Orleans working class are home in ever increasing numbers. Perhaps all the truly hard working folks, whether they lived in HANO housing or in the rundown rows of doubles that fill stretches of the city, perhaps they have already made it back. At the very at least as many of them are back as a percentage as anyone else in the city. The downtown where I work looks a lot like the downtown of the past, just with fewer people.

But that's not what this is about. The battle over the projects is just another skirmish in the centuries long struggle of race in the South, and in New Orleans. To the white community the projects represent every stereotype and social dysfunction and fear--fears real and ignorant--that result from every mistake we have made since Reconstruction, perhaps since the first slave ship landed on the river.

The projects became a hellhole because we all chose to let that happen. Building Bantustan on the Bayou did not solve the problems of slavery, or reconstruction or desegregation. It just attempted to push "the problem" into manageable blocks that were easy to avoid. Now we hope to push the problem even further away, onto another city, by tearing down the largest block of affordable housing with no plan for its replacement. That's not a solution. That's another attempt to escape the responsibility for the last several hundred years.

We're not going to escape that much karma that easily. People have told me that the association of the projects with all of the ills that might be found there is called a "spatial fetish" in social science. The brick buildings under discussion are truly a fetish, something meant to represent the unseen and powerful. Burning the fetish will not kill the spirit it represents, or the responsibilities that spirit places on us. That spirit has been fed on tears and blood for too long, has become too powerful. The projects are just a thing, not The Thing.

By insisting that the projects be demolished without confronting all of the real problems that animate the boogieman the folks I grew up with call "The Projects", we almost guarantee another generation of the same old racial shit. We will simply have found another way to dodge the real problems and leave in place all of the anger, dependency and despair, the suspicion and dishonesty and fear. It will breed more bulgy-eyed "civil rights" activists who will necklace anyone white or black who doesn't follow their line. It will push to the front people in the white community to answer them, people who are the other side of the same cheap brass coin, people whose white robes are plush like those of the best hotels, people who share Jimmy Reiss' vision of an ethnically cleansed city.

Is that where we want to live, in Rhodesia-turned-Zimbabwe? In the Balkans?

I don't want to save the projects. I want to save New Orleans. Tear down the projects in the current atmosphere, without confronting what those buildings truly represent to both sides and we might as well tear down the levees because I'm not sure what there will be left to save.

Edited at 12:45 to fix the "bad" words the child protection software stripped out. If it happens again, find the missing instances of shit, death, dead, murder and fetish and win a prize TBD.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A light in the east

Ah, the holidays: that festive time when Orleanians celebrate by driving our cars willy-nilly up onto the curb and demolishing more than our usual number of stoplights. One of my busiest neighborhood corners, where City Park Avenue crosses under Interstate 10, was without any stop lights for over a day where I routinely exit southbound then turn east toward City Park and home.

Thankfully, the cheerful red and green have returned to this corner and it is safe once again to come in from Metry to tour City Park and enjoy the light show of Celebration in the Oaks, to sip lukewarm buttered rum in the steamy 70-degree December while wandering over to visit Mr. Bingle. To those of us who live by the park, the trees are full of the ruined reminders of the drive-through Xmas lights that once adored the south end of the park. Bits of wire and metal still hang from the trees like apocalyptic moss. The remains of a display in the lagoon where City Park meets Carrollton and Wisner Avenues look like the skeletal outline of some vague sea monster revealed by low tide. If you don't visit the park often but come for the Celebration, as you travel between the lights and your car look up to the trees for those remains of the celebration that was. It makes the celebration of lights that is that much more precious and important.

Lights are important to us this time of year. It is not just the ancient act of turning the solstice, the universal myths of darkness and light in every culture north of the Tropic of Cancer, the stories and re-enactments and sacrifices to turn back the wheel of the year and return the sun. The primordial fears and hopes that fuel Hanukkah and the bonfires of my own Cote des Allemandes people and even my personal, petty desire to buy just one more string or twinkly thing for the house, all are inescapably imprinted on us not just by the collective unconscious but also by the events of the Federal Flood.

I searched and searched in vain for an online copy of the the photo taken from near where the 17th Street Canal intersects Veterans Boulevard, the one that shows the spared suburban streets of Metairie brightly lit and contrasted with the abject darkness of the West Lakeview neighborhood just across the canal. It is startling to one who knows the area. Many know the skyline of the city from football coverage and other event. And that is what makes the picture below so disturbing: a major American city in the dark not for hours but for days, then weeks. If you find yourself watching the Sugar Bowl or the BCS championship this year, you will see this vantage at some point, I am certain . When you see the city festively lit for New Years, remember this picture. Remember how it was.

I was not here to see my city entirely in the dark. I could only watch in near paralysis from more than a thousand miles away as days turned into weeks and weeks into months and still much of the city was a dark wasteland. This was not some transient outage, an inconvenience to fill a few minutes of the evening cable news. It was the loss of a key piece of what makes us modern. It was the breakdown of all of the infrastructure of post-industrial revolution life and the social contract it supports: a vision of what the end of America might be like, a dystopia that before was safely trapped in the covers of pulp novels and the reels of Hollywood movies. It was a darkness that was more than just the absence of light. It was the absence of civilization, its collapse in miniature.

I remember when the President spoke in Jackson Square and they fired up generators to light up Jackson Square, even as the local utility Entergy was saying it was too soon to restore power anywhere. As the square lit up I swore a solemn oath that violates several laws of the United States even to utter aloud, regarding what I would do to George Bush if he burned down the French Quarter for a photo op. In the end, he did not. For all of his efforts, he has been as powerless to destroy us as he was to save us.

For us the diminution of the light is not simply metaphorical. The fear that some power has stolen the light and that the world has turned for the last time, that there will be no return to the life of years past, such a fear has an immediate meaning to those who have seen their entire world upended, who have confronted the reality that they may be witnesses to the end time. And yet in December of 2005, just up the river from the darkness and disaster, the bonfires were built to light the night at the turning of the year as my people have done for almost 300 years. The persistence of life is its more important characteristic. A forest the size of Delaware can burn to the ground only to erupt again in wildflowers and saplings.

I lost my faith in the conventional divine long ago. Still, the universal festivities of this season are inescapable, and they call to all of us--even the unfaithful--in deep ways tied to childhood and our collective human soul. After my decade in the far north, when I might enter and leave my basement office in bitter cold without a glimpse of the risen sun, I was reminded why this season is sacred to all cultures. To survive the darkness that threatens to swallow us we must light a candle rather than curse the darkness. We must huddle together with the rest of our kind, remind ourselves as best we can that this season will pass. We must band together and be merry. This last part I understand deeply. It is the core of the only religion I have left, the civic religion of being an Orleanian, a part of a people that parades in the face of death.

Even as we decorate the tree in our house and I string the lights across the front, I cannot ignore the fact that there are still endless city blocks to my east, stretching for miles, where the darkness still reigns after two-and-a-half years, anymore than I can ignore the shortening of the days. That is my reminder even as the temperatures hover in the seventies by day that this is still the time of darkness. Even as the city comes slowly back to life, so many remain unredeemed, as displaced as the people of Israel marching from town to town at the command of a foreign government for purposes they barely understand. Here in the birthplace of their fathers and mothers, the city they would call home, they cannot be truly at home for there is no room in the inn.

For their redemption, for the redemption of us all, I can offer only this: somewhere tonight in the East there is a light to light the world. In a neighborhood where the only other illumination is an irregular constellation of streetlights, in a place where the blocks are still largely dark and the vacant and the empty homes stand like rows of tombs: even there, a home is lit for the season and shines as brightly as the mythical winter star of two millennia ago. This light will lead the faithful and perhaps the odd wise man to a place where there is a miraculous rebirth, if they will only choose to follow. It is the light that can save them, that can save us all.

Hosanna, hey!

"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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