Much ink has been spelled about the unevenness of recovery in New Orleans from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Just yesterday, Bush wrapped up a NAFTA summit in the Crescent City, where the Central Business District (CBD) is intact and a few miles away there is still wreckage everywhere. Despite the platitudes he might have offered, I don't suspect he made a trip this time to New Orleans' other half. It's not far, difficult, or dangerous, and many people I encountered expressed how vital it is for any visitor not to see the city with rose-colored glasses.
I did my best last month to take in something besides the usual tourist axis of the CBD/French Quarter/Garden District, all of which have their charms, granted. But there is an aching, suffering city where the notion of recovery seems intractable. For one, I spied a sprawling shantytown under an I-10 overpass near Tulane Medical School downtown (didn't have the heart to photograph it myself). American favela?
Like the impulse to favela tourism, visiting New Orleans is an increasingly awkward experience. No one with a conscience really wants to indulge in the Big Easy and engage in willful self-deception about the reality outside the tourist pleasure sites. There's a Hurricane Katrina Tour, a suspicious enough commodification of the disaster. But going out on one's own and gawking at the I-10 shantytown, or driving through the 9th Ward, the locus of devastation, what does that do? In Rio, I had research and volunteer work that brought me into favelas to stay and hopefully better the community. Am I no better in NOLA than the favela tourists I scoffed at? It's surely easier to volunteer in New Orleans than to get down to Rio to do the same if you live in the U.S., and that strikes me as the best answer. But, I'm afraid, circumstances didn't allow that for me.
The 9th Ward, the worst hit, then. By my rough estimate, I would guess less than half of the homes there appear reoccupied, debris covers countless lots, and the stigma of FEMA spray paint scars nearly every one. Date the house was checked, number of dead bodies, number of dead animals, and condemnation codes.
This house, while chained and boarded up in front, looks reasonably intact and freshly painted, but the morbid tag persists. I saw folks on their front porches, rocking back and forth with the ugly numeration behind them on the wall. Do they leave it up as a reminder? Warning? Public display of wounds? It seems too indelicate to ask anyone about.
One of the bright spots in the Upper 9th, however, is the Habitat for Humanity Musicians' Village. Among the countless great works Habitat is doing, this one is turning 8 acres into 72 single-family houses to provide a home to musicians who fled the city.
It's an endlessly admirable (and beautiful) housing project, hopefully a model as the city struggles over plans to raze older public housing. The subject of housing in New Orleans also calls to mind a provocative perspective raised by New Urbanist Andreas Duany that is worth quoting at length:
The lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure.
There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.
The link to the full article is dead, but more excerpts (including Duany's proposed solution) here. In Metropolis Magazine, he paraphrased himself by urging us not to think of New Orleans as the worst-managed, poorest American city, but as the best-managed, wealthiest Caribbean city. While Miami usually gets the nod as the American metropolis most tapped into the Caribbean network, one cannot ignore New Orleans' vital historical role, from the slave trade to fleeing French planters from Saint-Domingue (Haiti). It's a vital part of the world that made New Orleans, a scholarly approach I'm hoping to dig into soon (thanks w&w for the suggestion).
This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.
What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated...the professionalism of it all—eliminates self-building. Without this there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn’t mean just owing money—it is the elimination of the culture that arises from leisure.
Fortunately, these Musicians' Village homes are a start at providing the necessary leisure time to NOLA's lifeblood. Like this rough-and-tumble old bluesman, Little Freddie King, who I chatted up as he enjoyed a fine spring day on his porch. He was kind enough to show me inside, which had the fine smell of a brand new house. He couldn't be happier.
That Saturday night on Frenchman Street, I saw a sign advertising Little Freddie King in one of the countless divey jazz clubs. I hopped in and caught a luscious set of funky blues that set the dance floor ablaze. He was glad I dropped by.
Too rich in music to cover much at all here, but I hope New Orleans' Caribbean leisure time will return enough to allow some more of these sounds to percolate:
Second Line brass bands (parallel to minor samba schools, perhaps?) -- i.e. Free Agents - We Made It Through That Water
Nawlins bounce (heavy club choons post-Saints games) -- i.e. DJ Black'n'Mild - Beyonce / Work It Out (rmx)