Monday, October 08, 2007

The City That Care Forgot

I just got back from a four-day trip to New Orleans a few days ago. I've long wanted to go there, even before Hurricane Katrina, but more recently I've wanted to go there to see how things have changed, or not changed, in the past two years. One of the other nicknames for the city is The Big Easy, which seems somewhat fitting with its long and not so crystalline history, but The City That Care Forgot may perhaps be the most fitting of its many nicknames right now. I was prepared for some sense of devastation in at least parts of the city, from following accounts of the rebuilding process going on in the media. What I was not really prepared for however, was the scope and extent of the damage that still remains, even two years later. Even in the so-called more developed parts of the city, it seems that every time you turn a corner, or come upon the next block, you still see the remnants of Katrina. Roofs partially collapsing on apartment buildings. Walls on buildings and shopping centers, collapsed. Entire shopping centers, boarded up. Grocery stores boarded up. And the famous red X's, listing the numbers of bodies found in houses, are still found on houses and buildings throughout the city. Some of these, I believe, are left in place, almost as badges of honor, in effect saying, “Yeah, we survived Katrina. We are still here”. Some are still on buildings long ago abandoned now. This, is the “better” part of the city, or more specifically of Orleans Parrish proper. As you travel out to the Ninth Ward, the now famous Lower Ninth Ward, and adjacent St. Bernard Parrish, you see that the Ninth Ward has partially come back, (but seems still poverty stricken, with many abandoned homes, in a tightly packed and at times, dangerous area), while The Lower Ninth, which has now become infamous, but seems to have been at least at one time a decent working-class area with small homes and lawns (and less cramped than the Ninth Ward), is now 90% abandoned, with its former residents strung around across the country today. The Lower Ninth is probably the most impacted and affected area of New Orleans as a result of the devastation of Katrina, and it looks there as if the storm and flooding had went through mere months, and not years ago, now.

St.Bernard Parrish, adjacent to the Lower Ninth, is a predominantly white community, which although affected in much the same way as the Lower Ninth was, seems to be in a better state of recovery, even though many abandoned homes still exist in neighborhoods there as well. This is most likely because these people had things like insurance on their homes, whereas in the Lower Ninth (as I was told by a resident) many homeowners had passed down their property from generation to generation, which presumably has led in at least some cases to lack of paperwork on home ownership, which is needed in order to receive government as well as non-profit aid and assistance. Combine all of this with the infamous political and power structure of New Orleans and Louisiana, something that did not just arise, but has long been an intrinsic historical component of this area, and you have, big big problems. I asked a Lower Ninth Ward resident at a local market still running, what, in his opinion, could be done. He looked over his neighborhood, taking several seconds, to say, “I don't know, I don't know...”. In being there, I knew what he meant. The scope and extent of the destruction seems so large, so incomprehensible in many ways, that one is just struck dumb as to what can really even be done. My own suggestion was that what was needed was a massive, Federally-centered rebuilding project; something on a scale never seen before in out country. I truly believe that such a project could serve as an economic stimulus to the city and the region, and that the Federal government is the only entity large enough to undertake such a project. It would be on the level of how our national highway system was built, a large, centrally planned project aimed at rebuilding one of America's greatest cities. The Lower Ninth resident responded that this would be wonderful, but that it also in fact, was only a “a fairy tale”, something that is not going to happen. The political will is not there for what is really needed, and I'm afraid that the man was devastatingly right, in his assessment of the situation.

I bought some t-shirts in the French Quarter in New Orleans, on Bourbon Street. I was the only person in the gift shop at the time, except for the store clerk. I picked up a t-shirt that said, “Rebuild New Orleans” on it, inside of a fleur-de-lys symbol. As I held up the shirt to look at it, the female clerk behind me began to sob, and then cry quietly. It took me several seconds to be able to turn around myself, after this, and face her in order to pay for my items. It seems that emotions are running quite high, even still, in the city that care forgot.