Wednesday, December 18, 2013

NOLA diary: It's complicated

I've been back in cold and snowy Chicago for nearly a week, but my thoughts still return to New Orleans several times a day. I guess the spirits that haunt that city followed me onto the plane and have decided that they'll hang around for a while.

New Orleans is a city populated by storytellers. Don't ask anyone a question unless you've got plenty of time for their answer. While there, I talked to people from different rungs on the economic ladder, and naturally, their stories are different. Some had families that went back several generations. Some were relative newcomers, moving there 10, 20, or 30 years ago. There's a category called the "never lefts". They came to New Orleans for school, or to attend a convention, or for a vacation, and never went back to the grey places they used to call home. Then, finally, there's the post-Katrina boom fueled by real estate and the migration of thousands of young, largely white professionals and creatives lured by the city's many charms.

The total population, according to one of the never lefts (25 years) that I talked to, is nearly back to pre-Katrina levels. In my last post, I mentioned the restaurant boom that is currently in high gear. This growth, of course, is largely powered by these new arrivals, and most of the restaurants and cocktail shrines opening up are mid- to upscale. It's natural, of course, that chefs and mixologists are drawn to this place, with its almost holy reverence for food and drink. I went to a few myself, and let me tell you, they are wonderful.

There's a flip side to this narrative, though. A cab driver that I spoke with, who lived over on the West Bank in suburban Marrero, made it clear to me that almost all of the post-Katrina investment is happening in areas frequented by tourists. There's a logic to this, of course. Tourism was a major segment of the economy before the flood, and its influx of dollars is crucial. As evidenced by the restaurant boom, there are neighborhoods that are wealthier than ever, and business is booming. There are, however, large parts of the city that are a long way from recovery. This is where organizations like Habitat for Humanity and other volunteers work with community groups on the slow, painstaking rebuilding of neighborhoods that were home to generations of working class families. Even in Pontchartrain Park, a middle class community founded in the 1950s by African-Americans in a still officially segregated south, the rebuilding is slow. I read an interview with actor Wendell Pierce, who portrays Antoine Batiste on HBO's Treme and was born in Pontchartrain Park. He's extremely active on the local Neighborhood Association, and in the interview he pointed to the "nearly 30" new homes that have been built. In the 2000 census, the community was home to 2,600 residents, almost all of them homeowners in the suburban-like enclave that included a public golf course. Seven years after Katrina, the population is only half that. In the context of Black New Orleans, this counts as a success. 

And then there's the projects. New Orleans had four large ones that never re-opened after Katrina. On the Sunday of my visit, I joined a second line parade through Central City. As you can likely tell from its name, the area is quite close to downtown and just a few blocks north of the stately homes of the Garden District. Despite this seeming prime location, the area is plagued by poverty. Central City was the location of the Magnolia Projects, an infamous, crime filled place that was nonetheless home to hundreds of poor working class families. (Quick detour: Second line parades are organized by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. They are raucous, fun-filled events led by brass bands [I was especially lucky; the great Rebirth Brass Band was one of two bands in this one] that parade for several hours through the neighborhood. They are also strong cultural expressions of community, a way for neighbors to take to the streets and show solidarity, celebrating traditions that go back hundreds of years. As the event flyer stated, "Please leave your pets, problems and weapons at home. We want to continue our culture without violence or foolishness.")  The Magnolia Projects are gone, replaced by a mixed-income development called Harmony Oaks. It's hard not to see this as a positive thing, yet once again a place that once housed thousands now has room for half that.

On another day, I took the streetcar up Canal past the Iberville Projects, which lie immediately north of the French Quarter. They are in the process of being demolished, and its not clear what will be built in their place. Look, I'm from Chicago, I'm no stranger to how this works. As the Gold Coast expanded westward, the Cabrini-Green projects here became mighty inconvenient, and they were demolished. I understand that the Lathrop Homes at Diversey and Damen are facing the same fate. There is way too much money to be made in the building of mixed-income developments while making nearby upper income areas "safe", therefore paving the way for even more development. New Orleans isn't that different. In that context, Katrina was practically an economic growth engine.

That might have been what a woman I spoke with meant when she said that, in some ways, Katrina was "a blessing".  Her home was on the high ground of Gentilly Ridge, and it didn't flood, though she was forced to evacuate the city for over a month. I couldn't help feeling that she was quite happy that the projects were gone and that thousands of poor people were being replaced by wealthier ones.

Ah, Katrina. One thing that nearly everyone in New Orleans agrees on is that it wasn't the hurricane that almost destroyed the city, but the "failure of the Federal Army Corps of Engineers levees". That assertion is even made in official language, like the sign that greets visitors at the entrance of beautiful City Park. Everyone, even the aforementioned "blessing" woman, just under their Laissez les bons temps rouler exterior, carries a sense of anger and betrayal. From that anger, however, seems to come a new sense of determination and community.

Here's a paradox. The thing that nearly killed New Orleans also revealed it to the world and even, perhaps, to itself. Wendell Pierce again, from that same interview: "We also knew we could possibly lose the culture altogether, which made people keenly aware that you can’t take that culture for granted. So you find people who are New Orleanians, lived here their whole life, coming to their first second lines. I’ve seen people who’ve lived their whole lives in New Orleans decide to come and see for the first time what an Indian practice is all about. People who lived near Treme who had never gone to Treme whatsoever who would say, ‘I would go to the French Quarter and was told never to cross Rampart Street and I never have.’ So the evolution of waking up the cultural fire in people who had never paid attention to this culture is the other side of that two-sided coin."

Perhaps that is the true, hard won blessing of Katrina. I love New Orleans. I had planned to blog about the highlights of my trip, the delicious food, the potent cocktails, the fabulous music. I experienced all of that, and I had a really good time, some of it transcendentally good. (Quick and highly personal rundown for this visit: Herbsaint has the best food, Cane & Table the best cocktails, d.b.a. the best music.) But there was so much more. It's complicated.

I'm beginning to suspect that one day, the "never lefts" will claim me as one of their own.

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