Waldlaw Blog

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

And More Thoughts on New Orleans

I've mentioned my brother several times in the last few weeks. Well, he lived in New Orleans last year (although he is now in Los Angeles) and has many friends down there, so he's been very concerned with the situation following Hurricane Katrina. He has written an article for the Post-Gazette that I found both provocative and informative, so I'm sharing it with you here: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05247/564859.stm Forum: The tragedy, and glory, of New Orleans The city that has always defied reality, says Elijah Wald, will find a way to endure Sunday, September 04, 2005 The news stories paint a picture of unrelenting horror: streets floating with bodies, armed gangs roaming the few dry areas, desperate people sweltering on elevated highways and starving in supposed places of refuge, while aid workers struggle with a combination of overload and incompetence, and police are redirected from saving lives to protecting businesses. It is slight comfort to remember that New Orleans has always been a mess, and its city services routinely disgraceful. But that is the only source of optimism available: The memory of a place that has not only survived but flourished in conditions that were crazy, oppressive and impossible, and where the worst misfortunes have been transformed into music, laughter and a fierce, strange joy. In New Orleans, the surreal has always trumped the real. Driving southeast of the city, you could run your eyes up the grassy banks on your right and see ships passing along a river that was higher than the road. It was terrifying and magical, an awesome feat of engineering that defied logic and good sense, but had the weird beauty of a dream. Living just east of the French Quarter, a year and a half ago, I stood in the rain outside the double shotgun house I was renting and watched as the water backed up from a non-working drain and filled the street, overflowed the sidewalk, made it to my first step, then gradually receded. A dozen years ago, I weathered a storm where the water ran waist high in some streets near the French Quarter, and friends who had gone out for a night of music were stranded in the Snug Harbor nightclub. The management kept the club open and they staggered home mid-morning, tired, tipsy and hoarse from hours of singing. That was always part of life in New Orleans. The water defines the city, and instead of east, west, south and north, the four cardinal points are upriver, downriver, riverside and lakeside. Streets curve to match the snakey bends of the Mississippi, the city's main artery and its reason for being. It is an odd poetic justice that, today, the old areas near the river are among the driest and least damaged. The flooding came from the lake, the broad, boring mass of water where the rich escaped for sailboating afternoons away from the leaden heat and humidity of the riverfront. New Orleans is overwhelmingly a poor city, and a black city. It was settled by Spanish and French Catholics, and its music, architecture, cuisine and morals have more in common with the culture of Cuba or Haiti than with that of the Protestant, inland region a few miles north. Like the islands, it remains intensely African, keeping old gods alive in its own version of voodoo, and old rhythms alive in its music -- blues, ragtime, jazz, funk and pulsing, brass-band-driven hip-hop. It is the music that brought the legend of New Orleans to the world, and music flows through every aspect of the city's life. Music, and the languor of the hot, muggy summers, and a relaxed attitude to sex and alcohol and crime and poverty. It is a city of smells and dirt, glittering masks and brightly colored beads, and like the Bourbon aristocracy it has always preferred perfume to bathing. Now, tragedy has struck, but reading the news reports last week, amid the panic and misery were occasional gleams of the city I know. In the New York Times: "One woman swam from her home on Monday and then walked through the night to take shelter in a 24-hour bar in the French Quarter." The bar, naturally, was open. Maybe it is wrong to treasure such moments, surrounded as they are by death and destruction, but the New Orleans I love has always managed to grab scraps of humor and joy from the bleakest horrors. It is no accident that its most gloriously typical music is the sound of funeral parades. It is a town where life is hard, and pleasure is embraced where and whenever it can be found. So people march solemnly to the funerals, but dance home behind the bands, and total strangers dance along with them, and they all hope that a good crowd will be dancing when they go themselves. I have seen no pictures of people dancing in the waters that now fill the streets. I have seen only pictures that fill me with sadness, familiar neighborhoods ravaged and underwater. Some friends have called, safe with relatives in Alexandria or in Texas. Others are still missing, and I can only hope to hear from them soon. And no one has yet begun to schedule parades. But they will, as soon as they can. That is what makes New Orleans strong, and great, and passionately loved. By every normal measure of urban comfort, it was a collapsing wreck long before Katrina swept through, but it is a city of people who stay because it is like nowhere else on Earth. Most of them are poor people, with African roots, and they have made New Orleans a world of their own, and they know that even if they have no jobs and their houses are decrepit and their civic services are dreadful, this is home and any other place would be a place of exile. Very soon, they will try to get back, to see what is left and rebuild what they can. They will not trust the warnings and assurances of a city government that has never given them their due. Even now, the real estate sharks are undoubtedly circling, hoping that the poor neighborhoods that surround the French Quarter can finally be condemned, flattened and turned into neat blocks of new, clean yuppie condominiums, creating a safe buffer for a restored French Quarter that will be a tourist theme park rather than the heart of a bizarre, rotten and magical city. I hope the brass bands win out over the developers. Right now, New Orleans needs them more than ever before. Because there is something precious and rare about that city that no hurricane could destroy. It is not something that will show up on newscasts, and it is not always pretty or pleasant. To an outsider, it may even look like fatalism, which most Americans regard as weakness and surrender. But New Orleans long ago made a choice to confront and accept death and misery as inevitable, and to celebrate life while it lasted. Soon, over the sounds of the helicopters, the pumps and the clean-up crews, the trumpets and trombones will begin to call, and there are going to be some parades like no one has ever seen.


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