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.


Blogger GC said...

oh gosh

thanks for that post
read another one today
this is definitely something that has been forgotten
now what to do?

2:04 PM  
Blogger willowtree said...

Wow Frank, I'm not even sure what to say. It sounds like visiting New Orleans would cause profound speechlessness once you realize the scope and depth of the disaster. I’m not even sure that we who have not gone through it can ever really realize. I mean we can empathize, we can sympathize, but I’m not sure if we can realize. Most of us get to stay home, or go home, but for many people who went through Katrina there is nothing left to call home. Not just a physical building, I mean- home the feeling, the familiarity, the roots. They’re just gone, just a memory. What do you do? What can you do when so much has been altered? So much has been lost.
I think my reaction would have been the same as the man at the market. What can we do? I don’t know. Does not knowing justify doing absolutely nothing at all? Why is New Orleans a forgotten unless I'm on the campaign trail city?
I suppose if you don’t have anything to offer, and the gov has nothing to buy, to invest in, to profit from, or to care about, they don't.
I think maybe regular civilians have done more to bring 'life' back into the city than the government has. I heard someone on a talk show say that the governments of yesteryears were "grown up". They could put things together with a bit more success than mess. While past governments were not by any means perfect- far from it, I’m not sure if this government could do anything on such a large scale which required so much commitment, focus, and attention yet manage not to make a huge mess of it.
This is a different generation.
Why don't they bring back all the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and station them in Louisiana. Let them spend the time rebuilding, instead of killing and getting killed.
I think maybe it’s a lot easier to type that statement than for it to come true.
Thanks for sharing your experience with us Frank.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

It's such a unique city, Willowtree and GC, with so much culture and history there. And so much of that comes from those people who in many cases have become displaced across the country. Family and community seem almost more significant there than almost any other place in the country, and now as Willowtree has pointed out, those networks have been altered, perhaps forever. I told at least one person there that America just does not realize how things still are down there; we think things are largely back to normal. Well, they are not, but people do the best that they can.

There is a lot of crime there it seems, and you watch the news and see yet another young man being taken away on murder charges. To me, it seemed that many of these young men were really no more than children, and one begins to think of the hopelessness of growing up there with so few options. Katrina has intensified all of this, which was still there before the storm, and more so now. Still, underneath exteriors, you can sense the charm and dignity of people from the South there, mixed in with that cultural gumbo that only New Orleans can contribute to.

I wrote to Jimmy Carter concerning my idea of massive Federal response, with him potentially heading up the project as a "Katrina/Rita" lobby to the Congress, to get the issue back on the front pages, and to begin to do real rebuilding once we have a new President. Don't know what else to do, other than to say to keep talking to all of your friends about New Orleans; keep it going as a topic of interest and concern, until such time hopefully soon when the coming change in national leadership might lead as well to a new perspective on the issue.

12:20 AM  
Blogger willowtree said...

Frank, I do hope you hear back something from Jimmy Carter- if even just to know that someone laid eyes on your letter and made a copy of it.
He's helping to fight the war of the atrocity in Darfur, Im thinking he might not mind starting at home??
Let's hope

12:59 PM  
Blogger GC said...

where u at?
it's been a month

9:44 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

Hey, "where u at?"

Did you know that is a New Orleans thing, or were you just saying that?

It's also written (spoken?)as:
Where Y'at?

Check out the Wikipedia entry on the New Orleans dialect known as "Yat".

I'm in the middle of comprehensive exams right now in my Master's program,until Monday. And, I think my laptop died last night, so I'm doing work at the school. Believe me, I'd rather be blogging, but I'll be back soon, hopefully!

10:22 AM  
Blogger GC said...

I had not a clue
people around here say that sometimes but I think maybe they have some roots near there.

9:43 AM  

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