International Writers Magazine: Comment
Orleans - One Year On
Mercadel has spent the morning jostling amongst the crowds, enthusiastically
shaking his tambourine in time with the music and shouting greetings
at passers-by. Love you all too, take care of that little
one now, he grins as a smiling pregnant woman pushes past
us. And dont fall! he yells after her, slapping
the tambourine against his thigh in delight as she makes her way
down onto the muddy path beneath us.
been knowin her all my life, she a childhood girlfriend from
7th grade, he confides. He gives the tambourine a final, more
doleful shake and adds quietly: She lost her grandmother due
to the storm.
Were standing on a non-descript patch of grass, gazing out
over what remains of the lower 9th ward. A year ago, the name of
this metropolitan district meant nothing to most Americans outside
of New Orleans; today it is national shorthand for poverty, racial
division and the evident failings of federal government at a time
when its citizens needed it most. Hundreds of people, many sporting
t-shirts or bandanas emblazoned with the photos of relatives killed
by Katrina, flocked here for an unofficial anniversary rally but
they have now moved on, snaking down the crumbling road next to
the canal on their way back to the city centre.
Pic: Allan Mercadel
Row upon row of
deserted, dusty roads spread before us to the horizon. In some places
the vista is sprinkled with the wreckage of houses and the bright glint
of crushed car parts reflecting the morning sunshine. But for the most
part the roads border nothing but emptiness, with grass and weeds having
overgrown the plot where a home once stood. Hard to believe aint
it, chuckles Allan softly. This little bitty ass city is
where the whole world wants to come.
A year on from
Katrinas devastation, New Orleans is apparently back in business.
Restaurants are throwing open their doors, tourists are returning and
in less than a fortnight the New Orleans Saints will begin a new season
in the infamous Superdome an event heavily advertised on local
TV with images of the American football players huddling together in
the venues changing room, repeatedly chanting Theres
no place like home. In St. Louis Cathedral, a beautiful, understated
white brick building at the heart of the citys French Quarter,
the citys political elite have welcomed President Bush to a special
mass, remembering the dead and marking the progress made since rising
waters overwhelmed the creaking levees and flooded 80% of the area.
The signs of progress are not always easy to see, but they are
here, announces Norman Francis, chairman of the state recovery
authority. Schools are in session, people are rebuilding, businesses
are reopening and the music of life has begun to return.
Less than four miles away, with our backs to the point in the newly-rebuilt
levee wall where the Industrial Canal gushed in, Allan tells me a different
story. Maligned by politicians for its crime levels and sidelined in
some visions of the citys rebirth, the lower 9th ward, with its
community scattered across America, is on the defensive. Over
here we all homeowners, there aint no project [public housing]
here, no apartment complexes these are homeowners, explains
the 28 year old, whose family have lived in the lower 9th for seven
generations. Its a majority black neighbourhood and people
didnt deserve to die here and lose everything. These are people
who spent their blood, sweat and tears building their homes and a year
later the place looks like the city dump. A year later, and theres
still debris on the streets.
One year on, and rubble remains
is shared by most of the residents I speak to. Such is the disillusionment
with the city and federal authorities at their handling of the disaster
and the bungled efforts at reconstruction since, poor locals are convinced
that the powerful are mounting an orchestrated attempt to seize their
land. Amidst the bleakness of the lower 9th, the barbed wire and boarded
up windows of the housing projects and the vibrant fury of protesters
in Congo Square, rumours of developers eyeing up potentially lucrative
real estate and forcing out the black community are common currency.
After the storm Donald Trump and his guys were over here buying
shit up and playing monopoly, spits Allan. Whilst services such
as transportation, garbage collection and social services are beginning
to return to more central parts of the city and the whiter suburbs,
the 9th ward seems devoid of any government presence at all save for
the occasional military vehicle patrol. Were being left
behind for a reason. They want this land. I believe theres oil
on this land, hell I used to swim in that swamp over there I
know this is good ground.
In a seemingly inescapable cycle of chicken and egg, the city insists
it cannot begin putting social infrastructures back in place without
people there to make use of them. But, as Collins pointed out to me
yesterday at the St Bernard housing project, how can people think of
returning without schools, doctors and shopkeepers available to them?
Its difficult for underprivileged African Americans not to feel
discriminated against as the city tries to pick up the pieces. Liberal
whites are appalled at the suggestion that the mistakes made during
and since Katrina have a racial element to them one friend at
a party bitterly chastised the British media for framing post-Katrina
reporting in a black vs. white narrative but when prominent politicians
continuously disparage the value of your community to the city as a
whole albeit without directly referring to skin colour
its inevitable that blacks in New Orleans feel as if they are
being deliberately ignored. Allan doesnt believe that New Orleanians
themselves are racist, but he is fiercely indignant at the portrayal
of the pre-Katrina lower 9th in the media. Was there crime here?
Yes. But I tell you what the biggest crime is and its not done
by the people of this city. Its injustice you take a group
of people and put them in poverty, dont give them jobs, dont
give them food, well then you take a pastor, a preacher, or a god damn
rabbi and let him watch his wife and children starve then watch
him go steal. Everyone is a product of their own environment.
is stuck on the Claiborne Street bridge, caught behind the parade
to the city centre. As Im weaving in and out of the cars on
foot, a woman winds down the window and offers me a lift, clearing
a load of papers from the back seat so I can get some respite from
the exhaust fumes. Her name is Janet and she used to live just over
the canal in the upper 9th. Like Allan, who was evacuated to Houston
(although he prefers the term kidnapped), the mother
of three has travelled hundreds of miles today to commemorate the
anniversary. We swing off the main road and she shows me her house,
to which she returns from Arkansas (an eight hour drive) once or
twice a month to work on rebuilding. I met President Clinton,
I got pictures! she beams, keeping one eye on the derelict
side road whilst fumbling around in the seat pocket for evidence.
husband, a forklift tuck operator, was trapped in the Superdome
after the flooding; it took two weeks for Janet to discover he was
alive. Despite being fearful of another hurricane, she has thrown
everything into reconstructing her home, even though her chronic
asthma makes it hard to stay in the house for long. They have gutted
one half of it and hope to make habitable again within three months.
Most of the homeowners I talk to, they wanna come back,
she explains, exhibiting that same pride that Allan burned with
that this was a house they owned themselves instead of relying
on government handouts; a pride fuelling disbelief and resentment
that so little is being done by the authorities to help them rebuild.
But her anger lacks
the ideological edge that Allans contained a sadness at
mismanagement and bureaucratic incompetence rather than a sweeping vision
of oppression and inequality.
By the time we catch up with the others in Congo Square, a man is hollering
to the crowd from a stage in the blazing midday sun. Brothers
and sisters, you are making a statement by being here today, and by
being there at the levee, he shouts. Say it: We wanna
come home! he cries, and the crowd dutifully returns the
call, surging forward from the isolated spots of shade under the trees
and by the sno-ball van. The proof is in the pudding, murmurs
Danatus King approvingly, President of the New Orleans branch of the
NAACP. And what you see in this pudding is the actions of the
people not the federal government, not the local government,
but the people themselves. His words reflect a righteous excitement
at the rally; the city aint doing nothing to help us but look
what were doing by ourselves. I think what we see now is
a stirring of the people, the beginnings of a fight back, adds
Leon Waters, curator of the flooded Louisiana Museum of African American
History, just a few blocks away. But this is not enough. I see
this as a period of gathering the forces.
That evening, Janet has got her hands on tickets to the days big
official event, an all-star remembrance concert at the New
Orleans Arena. The glittering stage is a million miles away from the
simple apparatus at the gatherings in Congo Square and the lower 9th,
but strangely the mood is somewhat similar a joyful triumphalism,
with genuine mourning shot through with a determination to make the
city great again. This city gonna come back stronger, yells
one of the comperes, and the fans lap it up, screaming their approval
as the spotlights roll over them. But there is a moment of uneasiness
as the crowd awaits Stevie Wonder and the same compere makes a plea
for residents to get involved with the latest incarnation of the citys
recovery plan Mayor Nagins Unified New Orleans
proposal, which gives each neighbourhood a chance to input their own
strategies for regeneration. This is important, pleads the
presenter as he vainly tries to make the website address heard above
chants for Stevie. The Mayors in the house tonight and I
know youre gonna wanna show your appreciation. After a few
seconds of doubt the crowd do break out into enthusiastic applause.
He tried to do his best, said Janet. Cos this never
happened before and most people, they not giving him credit.
One anniversary, but a myriad of different commemorations, each reflecting
different priorities and alternative mindsets as the city moves into
its second year of recovery. Tomorrow some members of the public housing
projects will burn effigies of Nagin and other dignitaries, like HUD
Secretary Alphonso Jackson. The message of unity in progress propagated
from City Hall has little resonance in Iberville, or CJ Peete, or on
the other side of the Industrial Canal. Everywhere there is the same
determination to come back stronger, but in these areas the determination
is all the more potent, borne out of a feeling that residents are fighting
a second battle after the storm: first they had to survive the waters,
now they are resisting the citys attempts to abandon them.
Of course were gonna rebuild, concluded Allan as we
left the levee wall behind us and went our separate ways. We could
rebuild with a fraction of the money thats been misappropriated.
But its the citizens keeping each other together, no one else. We saved
each other with stolen boats, now we saving each other again.
He looked down at my ticket for the evenings concert and smiled,
shaking his head. Just dont believe the hype, he said,
and walked off into the emptiness.
© Jack Shenker Sept 1st 2006
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