Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Monday, July 10, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 27

Dear Folks,

Ten and a half months ago, when New Orleans and the world were first starting to absorb the scope of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of talk about how the storm had changed this city forever.

Well, DUH. D’ya think? A major cataclysm, unimaginable destruction, and a government that was at best overwhelmed and at worst clueless (were those two mutually exclusive?)...yeah, do you think all those things could be construed as precipitating ONE BIG DAMN CHANGE?

Okay, so now we’ve absorbed it, or we’re in the process of absorbing it. New Orleans, now five weeks into the 2006 hurricane season, is starting to realize with a dull, constant ache that no, this isn’t going to go away. No, the rest of the world isn’t going to reform and suddenly become more enlightened or more compassionate or more far-sighted. (I apologize here to all the people in the world who ARE enlightened and compassionate and far-sighted). If there are stages of grief, then these may be numbness, panic, determination, anger, and sorrow. You start off in sheer disbelief. This simply CAN’T have happened. Then you’re scared, scared to death, of bogies and real threats alike. Then you set your shoulder to the wheel and become very practical: you do things, make lists, check things off. And you’re mad. Mad as hell. You figure out who’s to blame, and maybe it’s easier if you have a lot of real, viable targets to blame (the Army Corps of Engineers, federal, state and local bureaucracies, cronyism and graft). Maybe that’s better than blaming God or yourself or the thing you lost (whether it was a loved one or a home or a city). Maybe anger’s less corrosive if it can be focused out. And here in New Orleans right now, we can indulge ourselves to the hilt in righteous anger.

It doesn’t do any good, but we can sure do it.

And finally I guess you come to accept the fact that this cannonball of sadness in your gut isn’t going anywhere for a long, long time. I think that’s where a lot of people down here are right now. It’s heartbreaking to see it, but I guess it’s a necessary part of the process. We don’t do our worst weeping right after a tragedy, after all. It sneaks up on us six, nine, twelve months later, and punches us in the heart.

But there are a lot of people who were affected by this tragedy who are still stuck in the first, second, third, and fourth stages of grief while already absorbing the fifth. Those are the people who are still homeless.

I’m wresting with a lot of ideas here. First of all, there’s my knee-jerk liberalism (alluded to in a previous blog) that says everyone deserves some kind of a shelter in the world. Even if you’re broke, even if you’re a dead-beat, one of Shaw’s “undeserving poor”...even Alfred P. Doolittle doesn’t deserve to sleep on the street in a cardboard box. There were a lot of very poor people in New Orleans prior to Katrina who lived in public housing, and yes, those places were generally awful: grim brick barracks surrounded by dirt yards and cracked sidewalks, cut off from the surrounding neighborhoods by an iron-gray force field of contempt and fear. Those places were bad, and they bred badness: crime, drug abuse, gangs, and despair. The storm punched holes in these “poor houses” which only exacerbated the decay that was already present, and there are many, many people in this city now who are begging, pleading that these pest holes be torn down.

Except. Except what do you do with all the people who used to live there, who want to come home? They’re being thrown out of their FEMA lodgings in other cities, they certainly can’t afford to pay the exorbitant rents being charged in this city right now, and even if you give them expanded vouchers, all the money in the world won’t buy the thousands of apartments that simply aren’t there. The bald fact of the matter is there isn’t that much housing stock available in New Orleans AT ALL. We’re in the position of telling these people they’re better off having nowhere to live rather than living in these rat-holes...except these rat-holes were where they kept their clothes and their toys and their photographs and their families. These rat-holes were home. Alright, home was fairly lousy. But at least it enabled these people to have a roof over their heads and a base from which to go to their (probably minimum wage, and still necessary) jobs, and a place to hang out with their friends, and a place to live in the city they dearly loved.

Because that’s the point. The people who lived in the St. Bernard housing project and the Lafitte project and the C. J. Peete project and the B. W. Cooper project loved this city every bit as much as any rich person does. Maybe even more so, since if they didn’t love this city, they had far less incentive to stay here and live like animals.

Alright, a lot of the displaced residents who are barred from returning home may not be valuable members of society. But a lot of them are. And a lot of them are saying that ANY home here is better than no home at all.

And I can see their point.

So what should New Orleans do? As always, there are numerous opinions. There’s a guy who goes to every City Council meeting and decries ethnic cleansing... unfortunately he’s a professional tarot reader who doesn’t live anywhere near public housing. There’s Endesha Juakali, who was briefly the chairman of the Housing Authority of New Orleans under Mayor Barthelemy, until he was accused of mismanagement and forced off the board. He likes to attend and yell obscenities at the people currently trying to sort out this mess. There’s Bob Tannen, an urban planner, who says the Vieux Carre was once considered a slum and is now considered a treasure. He says the public housing complexes also have historical value...although what value those grim bunkers have is beyond me, besides testifying to historical misery. The idea of ghettoizing the poor is one which remains a large, vivid blot on the history of 20th century urban land use, and one which isn’t going away anytime soon.

And meanwhile the housing complexes in New Orleans sit. Empty. Moldy. Rotting. They remain concentrated areas of blight, which, by their very neglect, may be becoming or may already have become unsalvageable.

Which may be entirely in keeping with some people’s secret or not so secret desires. After all, sometimes to accomplish your goals all you have to do is do nothing until the problem goes away.

I think there are more than a few people here right now who wish the problem of poor people, or black people, or poor black people, would just go away. They wish there was some way to staff our restaurants and have our trash collected and have our houses cleaned by upwardly mobile other people with good hearts and a strong work-ethic, without having to deal with...well, THOSE other people. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of how many of those other people who did those jobs pre-Katrina were also hard-working and good-hearted, and had the misfortune to be forced to live in those warrens. And let’s leave aside the issue of machine politicians (also alluded to in a previous posting) who may have had a stake in keeping their neighborhoods as run down as possible. Let's leave aside the whole imponderable of whether the Housing Authority of New Orleans, if it had been run better, would have been able to avoid ceding its power to the federal office of Housing and Urban Development. Or whether HUD really understands or really cares about what makes New Orleans special, and how we can or cannot do right by the people who are still gone.

The fact of the matter remains that THOSE people are eventually going somewhere. The drug addicts and criminals may very well come back here, because there will always be stuff to loot and people to shoot no matter how ruined the city is. Meanwhile the working poor, the barely-working poor, and the out-or-work but well-meaning poor, will be pushed elsewhere, to silt up in some other public housing Houston, or Atlanta, or God knows where. New Orleans will survive, and remain New Orleans, but at a considerable loss.

I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that not everyone in public housing was jobless, or shiftless, or hopeless, and if we let them back they might find a way to contribute to this city, even living in sub-standard conditions. Right now we’re taking away their homes and their hope, and that makes me feel ashamed.




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