Sunday, October 02, 2005

Wash Your Troubles Away

The vision of the New Orleans Business Council for a whiter New Orleans received an endorsement of sorts from the Black head of the federal Housing and Urban Development agency this past week.

"Whether we like it or not...New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday. "I wish that the so-called black leadership would stop running around this country, like Jesse and the rest of them, making this a racial issue."

These comments elicited predictable outrage in many quarters. They also resulted in some disturbing responses, including from people I know, who suggested calmly maybe this is not such a bad thing. Initially, I had to walk away from the computer to avoid launching into a blistering response.

The sad fact is, this is in some part true. It's not Katrina, however, that caused this problem. It's decades, if not generations, of social and economic neglect exposed by Katrina.

It’s not clear that all of the working class, black population of the city will want to return. The neighborhoods many lived in were a Clockwork Orange-like horrowshow of drugs and violence. When I advised the middle school student newspaper in the Desire neighborhood, the building I visited resembled nothing so much as a prison. It stood behind a double wall chain link fence half again as tall as an adult, toped with coils of concertina wire, a Green Zone in a desperate Baghdad on the bayou.

I had left New Orleans before the descent into the crack-cocaine fueled killing frenzy of the 1990s. Instead, I lived in Washington, D.C. My last house in the district was halfway between the U.S. Capitol and the drug market where Georgetown basketball star Len Bias bought his crack cocaine, convenient walking distance to either. I could sit in my small backyard and hear the slow motion firecracker string of guns battles, the staccato tempo slowly rising until it was answered by a orchestral wail of sirens. At night, police helicopters would nearly graze the rooftops of our low row houses while the powerful searchlight our yards and alleys.

In both places, I had chosen to live in marginal neighborhoods convenient to my life. I was never really afraid until the 1990s. When I lived in the 1300 block of Esplanade in Treme, I would sit on my stoop and drink three-for-a-dollar beer from Egle’s Pharmacy on my stoop, and visit with my neighbors. When my girlfriend’s cat when missing, I didn’t hesitate to wander back into the hood toward Elysian Fields, to whistle and call and knock on doors looking for him.

I had no illusions about the neighborhoods I lived in. But they were, with proper precaution and a willingness to be a part of the neighborhood, livable.

Something happened in the 1990s to change that. My neighborhood on Capitol Hill Northeast was not much different from Treme’. But suddenly, I was afraid to live there any longer. The petty criminals would no just assume shoot you first and rob you second. It was no longer just a matter of walking down the street confidently and making eye contact with everyone who passed, and keeping one eye over your shoulder. You could die walking down the street just the same.

Junko Partner had gone gansta, and our cities might never be the same.

I left for the suburbs of Northern Virginia.

I can well imagine how those who didn’t have the option of opening the paper, finding a new place to live, renting a truck and moving, must have felt. Trapped, fearful of for their lives and the lives of their children, abandoned to a fate they did not understand, they were prisoners more than any resident of Orleans Parish Prison who previously threatened them.

For these folk, the rising water was a change only in the character of the threat to their lives, not to their basic mode of living.

For too many, the storm was an Act of God of a different sort, a Biblical deliverance through the dire Sinai of the storm to the edge of the land of milk and honey. They will not return to the decrepit projects or crumbling backwater neighborhoods of New Orleans, if they can find decent homes and jobs and schools in Houston or Atlanta.

Will their lives really be better in their new homes? De facto segregation is not something unique to New Orleans. It exists through the South and the rest of the nation. There really isn't much affordable housing in most places, or good jobs for those at the bottom of the education and training pool.

A leg up may help for a few months, but as it becomes clear that a job at Wal-Mart isn't going to pay the rent on the new apartment, will these people be allowed to slip below the surface once again, made to vanish so as not to embarass either the city's fathers or the nation's leaders?

Is that, in fact, the plan, the reason for the disperal?

We need to take a page from the survivors of the Jewish disaspora and the European holocaust.

Never Forget.

Never Again. Starting by not allowing the dispersal as a means to sweep the problem under the rug of history, by not allowing the white Uptown and Old Metarie crowd to redesign a city to their own liking, by not letting the FEMA and administration apologists in general rewrite the history of events and make it about "poor, corrupt Louisiana".

We must adopt the Seder reading to our own uses: Next year in New Orleans.

Only a concerted effort based on the assumption that every citizen of New Orleans has a right of return, an expectation that the government that whisked them away from the disaster will help them to return, that the promises of housing for the survivors will be realized in New Orleans, that all reconstruction jobs will go first to the survivors, could make any difference.

Any other solution is nothing short of an ethnic cleansing, and those who advocate it should be treated with the same contempt as we hold the perpetrators of the violent reorganization of the Balkans.

Next Year in New Orleans.

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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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