On The Road Column #15--New Orleans, Part 1
Trip Start Mar 02, 2006
40Trip End Jun 22, 2006
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On The Road #15
A Column by John Sinclair
(Oxford, Mississippi, February 6, 2006)-Christmas in New Orleans was a sobering experience. I came back from Amsterdam after Thanksgiving to help marry my dear friends Chad Henson & Allison Borders in Oxford, visit my daughter Sunny and her daughter Beyonce in Detroit and spend the holidays with my daughter Celia in the Crescent City, and now I was right there in the middle of the wreckage.
Whole sections of the city-Gentilly, the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans East-had been flattened or drowned when the storm hit and the levees broke. Fully 80% of the city's homes were flooded, and something like 237,000 automobiles had been abandoned by evacuating citizens and then submerged in the floodwaters. Even in neighborhoods where the water damage was relatively minimal, homeowners had to tear down all the inner walls and rip out the flooring that had been contaminated by mold and bacterial waste.
By Christmas time, four months after the catastrophe had struck the city's 462,000 residents, New Orleans was operating at about 25% of capacity, with less than 125,000 persons having returned to try to take up their lives again. Outside the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny, which had remained relatively unscathed, functioning restaurants and stores had to be carefully scouted out, and those that were open for business were offering severely curtailed hours of operation.
If you were downtown by Treme, the French Quarter or the Bywater, you had to go all the way uptown on Tchoupitoulas past Tipitina's to shop at a supermarket. The venerable Frankie & Johnny's seafood restaurant on Arabella ended service at 7:00 in the evening, a typical post-Katrina closing hour. The Café duMonde on the river was open around the clock again, but the former PJ's coffeeshop on Frenchmen Street closes at 2:00 in the afternoon.
In fact, it's kinda hard to find a cuppa coffee when and where you want one. It's hard to get that oyster po'boy you're craving when St. Roch's and Roger's are still washed out. You can't get the fried seafood at all at Coop's on Decatur Street, and when you do catch a restaurant offering an oyster po'boy, now they cost $12.95.
Everything else costs more too. Where an apartment can be found to rent in a more or less intact area, what cost $350-400 a month before the Flood is now $600 or $650, and houses in Treme go for $1200 a month or more. Food and grocery prices are jacked up, and the cost of dining out has nearly doubled.
On the supply side, grocers and restaurateurs are having plenty of problems of their own. They can't get all the food they need and they have to pay more for what they do get, especially in terms of fresh seafood. Their help isn't available to work because there's no place for them to live and no schools open for their kids to go to. Thousands of refugees have applied for FEMA trailers to stay in while they get their housing issues together and try to go back to work, but at Christmas time they're still waiting.
This place is a mess. And the really ugliest part is that it's not Nature that's ruined everything, like on the Gulf Coast where the hurricane hit straight on, but the gigantic human errors and the heartless, repulsive behavior of the humans in charge of our social system. It didn't have to be like this, and it doesn't have to be like this now.
The first thing is the levees breaking. A project had long been pending for redoing the levees and strengthening them to withhold a Category 5 hurricane, but Congress refused to vote the funds for it. So when the storm hit, the admittedly substandard levees couldn't hold the raging waters back, and 4/5ths of the city was flooded after it had escaped the brunt of the storm itself.
In Holland, where the dyke system was built up to modern standards after a massive storm swamped the country in 1953, the man in charge of their flood system looked at what happened in New Orleans and said it was inconceivable that a country as rich and resourceful as the United States could allow something like this to happen.
But there it was: A man-made disaster from the onset, with the city in utter ruin and the population in flight to havens unanticipated or utterly unknown, leaving everything they owned behind for what they thought would be merely a three-day exodus. Now the idiotic machinations of the federal government and the incompetence and greed of the local officials and business leaders have prevented the bulk of the refugees from returning home to try to salvage their lives, their homes and their neighborhoods.
Everybody who could get out under their own power and had somewhere to flee to had evacuated by the time the storm struck on Monday, but the people with no personal transportation, no money to travel on, and nowhere to go for safety were left behind to suffer through the unprecedented flooding and ruination of their city any way they could.
These are the people America and the world saw on TV, crammed for five unbelievable days into the SuperDome and the Convention Center like prisoners of war without food or water or sanitation or any sort of plan for getting them out-already bereft of their homes and cars and personal possessions, no way to communicate with their families and loved ones and nothing to look forward to but unmitigated grief as far as they could see.
Five days and no relief, while the city sat under water and the Federal Emergency Management Agency ignored the catastrophe and the city and state governments fought with each other over jurisdiction, and the people who make New Orleans the unique and crucial force it is and always has been in the cultural life of our nation-the people of Treme and Central City and GertTown and Hollygrove and the 7th Ward and the Lower 9th-the citizens of African descent upon whose backs and with whose hands this city has been built, and who have shaped the music and dancing and public celebrations for which this great city has always been known: These people sat sweltering in their own wastes, sleeping packed together on flimsy cots, no means of personal hygiene, no way to connect with the outside world and absolutely no idea of what horrors they would have to face if they ever got outta there.
Remember those faces you saw on TV from the SuperDome. Those are the real faces of New Orleans, or the face of the real New Orleans: the people who make this city what it is, and always have. The people who were brought to this place as slaves-the people who work and serve and clean up and go home to their families with a little bitty paycheck, or the people among them who don't have a job and won't ever have a job, the people who hustle for a living, or play music, or otherwise entertain their fellow citizens as a means to make a dollar.
These regular people of African descent in all their diversity are what the real New Orleans is all about. They are the heart and soul of New Orleans, and the heart and soul of New Orleans can't come back, the city cannot resurrect itself, without putting their lives back in place and insuring their survival for the future. What happens to them in the current recovery period and in the brave new world the powers that be are busily planning for them now will be the bottom line issue and the central focus of the rebuilding process-whether anybody likes it or not.
Right now the developers and bankers and social planners in charge of things are pretending these people don't exist, or rather calculating that they probably won't present any sort of formidable challenge to the realization of the White People's Dream. In their zeal to seize this miraculous opportunity to redesign and rebuild the city in their own image, the power brokers have an altogether different focus indeed.
I'll just say it right out: They don't want the black people to come back to New Orleans. They don't want them going back to their neighborhoods attempting to rebuild them-not even Gentilly, not even New Orleans East-until a new social framework and a shrunken physical "footprint" of the city can be drawn and established in fact by the developers, the bankers, the utilities and the political power brokers.
In their wildest dreams, as a Brown University study reported by James Dao in the New York Times summarizes, "New Orleans could lose as much as 80 percent of its black population if its most damaged neighborhoods are not rebuilt and if there is not significant government assistance to help poor people return.... For similar reasons, as much as half of the city's white population might not return."
New Orleans has been shrinking for some time. The population peaked at 630,000 in 1960 and had declined to 462,000 before the Flood. That's a 27% shrinkage, one out of every four persons disappearing from town. The most optimistic post-hurricane projections posit the return of 250-300,000 people, or 40 to 48% of the peak population, but the Brown University study concludes that New Orleans could "shrink to about 140,000... and the city, nearly 70 percent black before the storm, will become majority white."
There it is: The White People's Dream--a city of 140,000 with a white majority, the absolute minimum of poor black people to be accounted for, and the chance to rebuild the desirable sectors of the city while the former ghettoized areas are bulldozed and quarantined against repopulation by the undesirables who used to live there. Former Mayor Marc Morial, in town in his capacity as national head of the Urban League, took a look at the initial White People's Dream proposal and snorted something like, "It's nothing but red-lining wrapped around a massive land grab."
The current mayor, a clown I call Nay Reagan and some call Mayor White, gained office as the white people's choice to "reform" city government. Formerly the local Vice-President of Cox Cable and owner of the New Orleans Brass hockey team, Nagin is himself a member of the business elite and staunch front-man for its transformative efforts. His redevelopment committee is headed by Joe Canizaro, a powerful real estate developer, and is heavy with bankers, corporate executives and other agents of the White People's Dream.
On the other side of the socio-economic fence stand the people we're talking about, the African American citizens of meager resources who are desperate to get back home from wherever they have fled and resume their existence as key participants in the cultural life of the city they love despite the paucity of reciprocation from the people in power.
They've always had it hard, and it's going to get even harder. "Of the 354,000 people [82% of the population] who lived in New Orleans neighborhoods where the subsequent damage was moderate to severe," the Brown University study found, "75 percent [255,000] were black, 29 percent [103,000] lived below the poverty line, more than 10 percent were unemployed, and more than half were renters." [New York Times, January 27, 2006]
This is a troubled population. They were in trouble before the Flood, when they were living in their homes and working their jobs or their hustles and trying to pay their bills, but now they've lost everything they had and the city planners don't want them to come home at all. The social mechanics want to make a new city without them-a city made for white people, locals and tourists and transplants alike, enjoying urban life in the South without the pesky presence of all those people of color and the politicians they elect to represent them.
I hate to be the one to break the news, but this is not gonna happen, no matter how hard they want it. It's not going to happen. Even after all these years, the people at the top simply do not understand the people on the bottom of their social order and the depth and passion of their love for the city they have created for themselves to live in.
The African American culture of New Orleans which sustains them was formed out of hardship and pain as a means of survival and resistance and as a celebration of the power of the human spirit to overcome every obstacle in turning the people's suffering into brilliantly expressive forms of music, art and public activity. These people and their ancestors have struggled hard to create and maintain the high level of culture they enjoy, and believe me: They are not going to give this up. They are going to come back to New Orleans and make it happen again, no matter what it might take.
Right now I'm just a week away from returning to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, and it's my feeling that this will be the greatest Mardi Gras of all time-maybe not from the viewpoint of the white people who are having to curtail the scope of their spectacular public celebration, but certainly from the perspective of the back street culture where the brass bands and the Wild Indians hold sway on Mardi Gras Day. Like they say in the 6th Ward, "Guess what? It ain't gonna be nothin' nice!"
The day before I left New Orleans after the holidays to begin my residency at the Two Stick in Oxford, the first irrefutable sign that the regular people were coming back to the city in style was seen on this beautiful Sunday afternoon when 5,000 jubilant citizens of the old New Orleans took to the streets on Martin Luther King's birthday for an unprecedented All Star Second Line sponsored by fully 27 of the city's parading black Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs. We started in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum and followed the three brass bands out to St. Bernard & Claiborne, back to Rampart Street and up to Canal, then back down Ramparts to Basin Street and out Orleans Avenue past the still-shuttered projects-a triumphant tour of Treme and Back o' Town and a big shout out to the 6th & 7th Wards and everywhere around: "Look out now, we comin' back better than ever!"
January 30-February 6, 2006
© 2006 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.