Saturday, January 27, 2007

Meet the boys on the battle front

"Why am I here? Coming back after the flood was a leap of faith. I thought New Orleans had a fighting chance. I thought maybe it could even improve. I wanted to be a part of that ...

"Why am I here?

"An object at rest tends to stay at rest. I still have my job. We still own a house. Starting over is hard. Leaving would entail all kinds of hassles, not least of which is admitting I was wrong. So… there’s a certain inertia that keeps us here."

-- Bart Everson on b.rox wondering why he's here

In the dark of the year with the Saint's frenzy behind us, with the parade all passed an nothing left behind of the brightness and joy, nothing but the litter and the distant wail of sirens we are like residents along the parade route wondering: why, why do we live chose to live here?

It is not simply inertia thats holds us here, Bart. New Orleans captures us in the way planets capture moons: an irressitable force that will grab hold of any body that wanders past, all vectors and velocities altered and so many captured--some burnt to a cinder and others irreversibly drawn into orbit--by a primordial force.

I don't know what it is. The essence of New Orleans is as indistinct and essential as the philosopher's stone: something understood by the adept but impossible to produce. If we were somehow to capture it in a jar it would cease to be, or at least the genuine thingness of this place that brings or keeps us here would not be there. It would be only a Disney golum, a hollow and lifeless shell of the thing we would try to capture.

For hundreds of years America was a patchwork of places as disjointed as the Holy Roman Empire, a true assembly of states both physical and of mind, held together only by our seperateness from our forefathers' homelands. Some people were comfortable with their native state and could remain there, while others set out West in search of something different, and could be fairly certain of finding something that was not what they left behind.

Part of the ugly legacy of the 20th century is the loss of the individuality of place, the homoginezation through mass media and mass marketing of most of an entire continent into a single suburb designed in Long Island, and a single shopping boulevard perfected in California. As children we were indoctrinated in this sameness by television and came to accept the gradual replacement of the local diner and five-and-dime and department store by the national chains. We bought the same clothes and cars and became increasingly indistinguishable except perhaps by accent or license plate.

A few places and their people resisted this, either by isolation or choice. New Orleans resisted better than most (even as our stores vanished we held our restaurants) because of some unique customs that set us apart, like Carnival, and because of a certain cultural and economic isolation. Our days as the queen of the south long behind us, we escaped the fate of Atlanta and Dallas. Even our povery in some sense preserved us. People without cars need their neighborhood stores and restaurants to survive, and no corporation rushed in to exploit that tenuous market. As a result we remained at least in an essential way ourselves.

The flood nearly washed that away, may still succeed in washing it away forever, and it is something that is worth save. I can't tell you why to stay, only why I came back, and it was to be part of that critical threshold of return we need to save what remains of this place and its way of life.

As I was travelling on business this past week and stepped out into the nine degree morning on Long Island, N.Y., the frigid air transported me back to think about North Dakota. In that broad and empty place are vast native reservations that have struggled as we have for generations with poverty and its symptoms, with the threatened collapse of their identity. These people have struggled against the despair of poverty and the homogenization of American culture and the lure of distant, prosperous cities for generations.

With Carnival almost upon us, we need to look to the example of the native peoples, to one of the ways in which they cope and try to overcome their challenges and preserve their essential selves: they make elaborate costumes and they dance. They are the model (from turn of the last century wild west shows) that our own Mardi Gras Indians fashioned themselves from in their own search for their lost culture.

For the pow-wow dancers, these rituals are closely tied to religion and language, to the elements of their culture most threated and which they must preseve to retain their identiy as a poeple. They prepare their costumes and dance not because it will magically transform the alcoholism and unemployment anymore than their father's ghost dances would stop bullets. They do it because they recognize they have to start by recovering their sense of themselves.

If you want to remember why you're here, why we're all here, then lay aside for a day or a week all of the challenges. Make your costume and dance. Preserve that which is essential, without which this is just another East St. Louis on a hell bound train. Remind yourself what attracted you here in the first place, and refresh yourself in the celebration of it. Remember that what we are trying to preserve is unique and important, so that when the parade is passed you are not left with just a littered street and a pounding hangover but with a renewed sense of who we are and why we are here, of why we are struggling so that it might survive.

Keep the fire burning. You said it well, my friend.
Hey! What about the girls?
If I can find a Loki costume, I'll dance...
Maybe it's my mood tonight...I don't know but, as much as I love your writing and usually agree with you, I find this really idealistic. I love Nola but I'm starting to think my love and idealism is nothing before the realism of what it is now. I'm afraid I'm losing faith and I hate that.
I also thought Bart's post was important and that the comments he received, from those who chose to return as well as those who chose not to, were haunting, beautiful and each one deeply personal.

Of course, I don't know the answer, but it seems to me that what is most special about New Orleans is that there is a wider berth, a broader acceptance, nay, an embrace, of the differences among us. I can't remember feeling as comfortable as I feel when I am among New Orleanians.

It is a love of life, a celebration of creativity and spirit. Dance.

P.S. Atlanta's not as bad as Dallas, is it??? At least we have an excuse, having been burnt to the ground relatively recently. There are some pretty cool places if you'll drive a little bit out of town. ;)
Wow...apparently I'm so out of step with the prevailing opinions in the New Orleans blogosphere. I really don't see a New Orleans that differs in any appreciable way from the New Orleans that existed at the time of the flood as being such a terrible thing as to be equated with Disneyification. Our poverty preserved us, and kept us essentially ourselves?? Am I hearing it being said that if post-K New Orleans is somehow "less poor" than it was prior to the flood that it will be somehow less authentic? It this the thought behind the almost knee-jerk negative reaction I see whenever the word "development" is mentioned?

Maybe my mindset is such as it is because my lifespan (all within Orleans Parish, by the way) so closely matches the peak and then decline of my New Orleans population-wise. I came into this world right about the time the 1960 census was being taken, when NOLA had in excess of 600,000 citizens, and while not exactly the most prosperous city in the country, there was a lot more business going on within the city limits then than there is now...or at least that's the impression I've always had. From that point on we've watched a steady out-migration as more and more New Orleanians found the grass greener elsewhere. Yes, some of that is attributable to the issue of race and the coming of integration...but the numbers continue to fall almost four decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The fact is that so many of our kids leave NOLA after getting an education should make something self-evident--that the City's economy has for decades been too weak to support anything like a half-million citizens...the simple fact that such a high percentage of our 400,000+ population was on government assistance proves that the economy couldn't even support that figure comfortably. I've heard it speculated that based on the economy that existed in NOLA pre-K, but given that it would only be expected to support the same kind of percentage of residents who aren't contributing to that economy as most other American cities do, you could expect the population to settle in at about a quarter million or so.

Now, that's very attractive to some people. A boutique city, with neat things for tourists to come see, and pretty much able to support those residents who "already have theirs" and who can put Junior immediately to work in the family business so he doesn't have to move elsewhere to make a living after college rather than accept an inevitable poor to lower middle class lifestyle based on his earning power in the NOLA market. Maybe I also have that viewpoint because I'm the father of two teenaged boys who (thankfully) are High Honors every semester and who I'd like to think will have some chance of staying in the same city as their family without having to accept that would mean that they'd chosen to forgo the kind of career they may have been able to have in most other "healthy" cities across the country.

Think that kind of thing hasn't always happened in NOLA? Quick best friend from high school graduates LSU School of Journalism and goes to work for the "home team"...the TP. He's there for a number of years, working his way fairly quickly up the ladder to the point where the next logical step is to an editorial staff position. Now, he's been told that (at the time) editorial positions were pretty much reserved for two talent pools...applicants from Ivy League schools, and members of "old money" Uptown families. "No way!" he thought, "They couldn't be that dumb in a competitive field." So he and a number of other applicants applied for an open editorial spot. He was soon told that the choice has been whittled down to him...and an applicant from Cornell. One of the two would be selected for the position the following week, he was assured. The following week, he found out that due to some family tragedy the Cornell applicant had to move back home to the NorthEast. He also found out that the administration of the TP had decided that they would do away with the position, rather than fill it with him. So he joined the ranks of those leaving NOLA for job oppotunities...and was soon an editor at New York Newsday, and is now on the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal. But he wasn't good enough for the Times-Picayune, of course.

If the NOLA that existed just before the storm, or even the one that existed at any point for most of my adult life, is what we're shooting for here, rather than something better than that....then I'm afraid I'm on the wrong team and will have to request a trade.
You're reading too much into that PH. Yes, our poverty to some extent preserved our differences. That does not make it good. Giving people the transit options to not need a car accomplishes the same thing (and we had that before the storm). I'm not romanticizing it, just recognizing all of the factors that allowed us to escape complete cultural homoginization.
Thanks to my fortuitous presence in New Orleans on Twelfth Night, this is the first Carnival season in which I have participated since 1991. The king cake made it official! Thank you once again, Monsieur.

This piece got me to thinking about the two radically different approaches to Carnival: that of us parade-goers, summed up by "Throw me somethin', mister!", and that of "the boys on the battlefront", whose motto is "Let's go get 'em! Gotta go get 'em!".

I have come to the conclusion that the battlefront approach is far more appropriate to our (there I go again with the 'we') situation.

For too long we have watched while the floats carrying Brown, Landrieu, Blanco, Nagin et al. have passed by. Each time we yell "Throw me somethin', mister!", either nothing gets thrown, or some big dude from Mississippi snatches it out of the air.

For this Carnival, and at least the next ten, and the times in between, we should switch our approach to that of the battlefront: "Let's go get 'em! Gotta go get 'em!"
Here, I do not actually consider this will have success.
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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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