Thursday, August 30, 2007

Reconstructing the Big Easy

New Orleans, August 2007

We took a detour on Jack’s move from Boston to Austin to spend a week in New Orleans where he had lived the majority of his adult life until running from Katrina in typical Jack style—at the last possible moment. Jack had an agreement with a buddy of his that they’d wait out any storm less than a Category 5, at which point they’d call each other and make plans to leave the city. Katrina must not have hit the category 5 threshold by the time Jack passed out on a Saturday night just over two years ago. He woke up to the calls for mandatory evacuation. Not only had the storm intensified, it was spiraling straight towards the Gulf Coast. So he called his friend to figure out their last minute escape.

“Oh, hey Jack…Sorry man, meant to call you…Yeah, I drove up to Shreveport last night...”

By the time Jack got on the road, just before Katrina’s outer arms began lashing the coast, there wasn’t any traffic to contend with. He had a smooth ride up to his parents’ place in Memphis. Displaced from his home in New Orleans, Jack is living proof that one man’s catastrophe is another man’s opportunity. I haven’t heard of anyone who made out better in Katrina’s immediate wake.

Granted, Jack is one of the smartest guys I know, his detailed memories of conversations from half a lifetime ago can be frightening, but for years it seemed like college was something that happened to him while he was busy getting on with the more important aspects of life. Then somewhere along his several victory laps of the undergrad circuit that included stops in Nashville, Tempe, and New Orleans, he caught the academic bug, and decided the University lifestyle suited him just fine. So did the Big Easy. He continued on to grad school where he had finished his first degree at the University of New Orleans, and then Katrina hit right before the start of the school year. A couple weeks later Jack was apartment hunting in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he had been accepted to finish up his Masters degree in high style. Jack parleyed a Blutowski-esque, eight-year undergraduate spree into Harvard University. Not bad, Mr. Troutt.

While the country opened its arms to many of the employable (or in Jack’s case school-able), there were tens of thousands of residents with no ready skills or opportunities that did not fare well in the transition. Houston grumbled about the hundred thousand plus refugees it absorbed (a saving grace for its slack apartment market btw), attributing new gang activity and a spike in crime to the influx of New Orleans’ displaced poor. Given the lack of funds or a coherent plan for how the city’s most afflicted districts will be rebuilt and then protected from future storms, some of the population displacement will be permanent. City officials estimate that roughly 70% of New Orleans pre-Katrina residents have returned. Sales tax receipts are back to 84% of pre-storm levels, and given that tourist sector is still far from its peak, the numbers suggest that the poorest residents have not returned in proportion to the city’s rich and middle class.

The biggest changes I noticed on the ground were demographic. Just off the interstate we pulled alongside a crew of construction workers loaded into the back of a pickup truck and laughing over a Hustler magazine. I asked, in Spanish, if I could take a picture. The driver saw what was going on and held a centerfold out of the window, somehow managing to smile for the camera, give a thumbs up, and keep the moving truck centered on the road. Every fifth person we saw on the street the first day was Latino. The rebuilding of New Orleans is reliant on immigrant labor, and naturally the construction workers doing the rebuilding have relocated to the city. Long term this infusion of fresh blood may provide just what is needed to shakeup the city’s stultified black-white politics.

Big Easy politics aren’t changing anytime soon. Corruption scandals covered the front pages when we arrived, and two high-ranking city officials resigned during the week of our visit. The Times-Picayune provided excellent post-Katrina coverage lampooning the daily shortcomings of city, state, and federal rebuilding efforts. After two years only a fraction of displaced residents have received eligible disaster relief, and a majority of the city owned multi-family housing units are waste pits with putrid refrigerators and rotting furniture, the carpets abloom with fungus and mold.

New Orleans may not have earned any civic leadership awards its past couple years, but City hall should receive some sort of recognition for innovative public relations. Mayor Ray “Chocolate City” Nagin is up for the Marion S. Barry spin for entertainment award. He held a press conference the day we arrived and put a positive light on the second double murder in the city within a week. Addressing the murders of the Phillips brothers, who were linked to 18 murders in the city, Nagin said, “It is unfortunate that they had to die, but it did kind of end the cycle that we were struggling with.” In other words, sometimes the hood has a way of taking care of itself.

Tuesday the paper reported yet a third double murder, and it sounded like a miracle that there were only two fatalities. At the conclusion of a basketball game at an indoor rec. center, 25 players and spectators were filing out of the building when a man carrying an AK 47 burst from the shadows between two shotgun homes and unloaded a magazine of bullets into the crowd.

Neither victim was a suspected murderer, so Nagin needed to find another angle for positive spin besides hoods ridding us of hoods. Sure enough, at his morning press conference he found the silver lining, explaining how New Orleans’ ghastly murder rate was actually a “two-edged sword.” Huh? The full quote: “Do I worry about it? Somewhat, it’s not good for us, but it also keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs and what we need to bring this community back. So, it is kind of a two-edged sword.”

Good point Ray, you’ve got to keep that New Orleans brand out there. It makes sense to a point. I’ll take my po-boy deep fried with a double on the rocks and a beer back, hell, I might even scrounge a pack of smokes while I’m at it if tomorrow I might be handing over my wallet to muggers who might shoot me afterwards anyway. Let the good times roll.

Given the news reports and my preconception of the storm damage, I was surprised that so much of the city was back to normal. Save a scattering of shuttered businesses, the stretch of New Orleans I am most familiar with, the sliver of Uptown between Tchoupitoulas and St. Charles that runs from the lower Garden District out to Carrollton just past Tulane University and Audubon Park, has almost completely recovered. Magazine Street is livelier than before the hurricane, though the upscale restaurants and boutiques that have moved in are interchangeable with those of any yuppified district from D.C. to Dallas. While this strip of the city sits on the high ground least affected by the storm, it is not the exception. On the other extreme, the Lower Ninth Ward is still something of a ghost town, though even in that neighborhood there are signs of progress. The rubbish and debris have been cleared, and on every other block there is a crew working on one of the gutted houses.

By early August, it appeared quite a few schools, windows still boarded up and walls covered with graffiti, would remain shut down this year, though it’s hard to tell without asking whether a school in New Orleans is closed or merely dilapidated. In my year spent teaching for America, I visited a fellow corps member assigned to an Orleans Parish middle school. Since I arrived late on a Thursday night, I had time to visit her classroom on Friday, yet with my first look at the place I figured I had gotten the address wrong. The grim, cement block building was set behind an eight-foot high fence topped with razor wire. I pushed through a mob of students competing for the attention of a distant eyed secretary talking on the phone at the front desk. I waited for a few minutes to see about a pass or an escort to Emily’s classroom. The secretary made eye contact, put down the phone, shooed away the kids, and then dialed another number. The conversation did not concern me. Apparently a grown man-- unlikely a school parent-- did not need permission to walk these halls. Nor did the children. There were kids running wild in the dingy corridor past the school office where all but a couple of the florescent bulbs needed replacing. The ceiling dripped into puddles that the kids splashed about in a free-for-all game of tag. More kids were hanging on the metal banister at the end of the hall and I saw the shirttails of at least two more hiding under the stairwell. I did not see a single teacher on my way to Emily’s second floor classroom. Two girls and boy, all with their uniforms tucked in and sitting up straight, were waiting on the bench across from her door.

“Where is your teacher?” I asked them.
“Miss went on an errand.”
“Then why are there kids in her classroom?”
“They locked the door so they can play on the computers.”

Her presence did not exactly restore order. When she returned just ahead of the bell the same kids were still locked inside, and now one of them was trying to keep her from unlocking the door by holding onto the knob. Eventually she threatened her way through the barricade. Her fleeting victory was dashed by a girl named Crystal who opened class with a savvy estimation of my relation to Miss that set the classroom roaring right through the bell. She did not seem bothered, as like me she had probably given up sometime before Thanksgiving. I no longer envied her big city placement. Lee High, where I taught special ed in the Delta, was a model school compared to this penitentiary-in-training. And should New Orleans ever succumb completely to its festering urban decay, know the seeds were sown long before Hurricane Katrina.

If not for the staggering crime rate, abysmal civic institutions, and an almost complete lack of vegetarian options, New Orleans is the kind of place I could make home. It is a city abounding in juxtaposition and enigma. There are few places I’ve seen in the world where the streets are so democratic, and where high society is so utterly inaccessible. Where rich and poor, black and white crowd to the same dive bars and tuck in to the same French fry sandwiches, and nearby another world lurks unseen past high walls hedged by orange trees and hanging carpets of Bougainvillea. Where jagged sidewalks rise and fall along streets of antebellum mansions that abut rows of shotgun shacks along the crooks of equally jagged sidewalks. Where wide boulevards shaded by gnarled live oaks and Spanish moss run past blazing neon liquor stores. Where the broiling summer heat stews decrepit sewers into a stench of evil and death that reach your nose just as you pass by the iron gates outside above ground tombs. Where people still practice Vodoun and believe in Vampires. A city so hopelessly broken and corrupt you can’t help loving it.

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