May 14, 2006

Took a while to get my wireless connection straightened out, but The Great White Shank is up and blogging from “The Big Easy” – a little sleep deprived due to work, but alive and kicking nevertheless. Some impressions of my first 24 hours back here in The Big Easy:

The French Quarter seems pretty crowded, and the folks I’ve talked to say the visitor traffic continues to grow slowly but steadily with each passing weekend. You had your Bourbon Street crowds (not as big as I’m accustomed to on a Saturday night, but substantial nonetheless) bathed in the garish lights and deafening music pumped from cars and bars as I headed into work last night, and the Cafe du Monde at 11 AM on Sunday was its usual bustling self. The hotel I’m staying at – the Prince Conti – is, I’m told, filled to capacity for the first time this year, and the foot traffic around Jackson Square, with families arrayed in a wide range of colors and dress perfect for attending Mass or a Mother’s Day cafe/restaurant jazz brunch was pleasing to the eyes. Were one not so intimately familiar with the area, it would be easy to be seduced into thinking today was just another Sunday during the latest of visits to the Crescent City.

But it isn’t, for ghosts abound everywhere. Sometimes these ghosts are obvious: the “For Sale” and “For Lease” signs reflecting phantom shops, businesses, and restaurants (some of them, like the Old Nawlin’s Cookery, that were here for decades), or the phantoms of once-vibrant and more carefree times as reflected in “post-Katrina menu”s posted on various menu boards, the lack of wait staff in restaurants, or the garbage piled up on street corners everywhere (the city has run out of money for trash collection).

Other times, they are in people, places, and attitudes more difficult to see unless you are a regular visitor or seasoned observer: the locals who complain about the lack of affordable rentals and property (some businesses provide hotel rooms for their most-valued employees), the once-almost total Asian wait staff at the du Monde now replaced by a 50/50 split with African-Americans, a friendly black guy walking along the Moonwalk thanking visitors having coffee, reading, or contemplating life by the River for coming to the city and telling everyone who cares to listen that “not all black people here are bad”, or the palpable unease of the locals knowing another hurricane season is near-upon them.

This man’s opinion, from talking with various locals, bartenders, and wait staff in just the short time I’ve been here, is a fear that people have generally forgotten about New Orleans, and that unless things change drastically around here politically, a true recovery that benefits not just the tourist industry but the locals who call this area home is impossible. While an increasing number of strip clubs on Bourbon Street may in some small way attract a certain kind of valuable weekend visitor, there are four other days where people need to work, eat, start and increase families, and build communities. Most seem willing to give things a little more time and hope the upcoming elections will re-energize a populace tired of the usual bullshit from every elected leader from District A to the White House, but they also have a sneaking opinion that New Orleans’ window of opportunity to be something other than just a quaint, 12×10-block tourist destination is in real danger of closing.

Viewing the world through a piping-hot coffee au lait down by the Mississippi, nothing seems to have changed – the river flows and churns as brown and restless as it always has, the barges sneak their way towards parts unknown, and the downriver wharves sit quiet and unused in the sun and humidity, another year older like all of us. Hearing the bells of St. Louis Cathedral signaling the end of Mass, I couldn’t help but wonder if their somber tone didn’t in some way issue a warning bell to all who love this city, this area, and this River, that those who continue to point fingers and bicker about who did and/or should have done what in the post-Katrina meltdown are risking valuable time and energy, and this area’s hope and future, if significant changes are not made in the way this city and state operates.

As several people (both black and white) have told me, Louisiana cannot continue to operate like it’s still the 1960s. This city’s and state’s political leaders and cultural forces must learn to operate in a new and radically-different 21st century mindset, for it is in clinging to the old and tired political and socio-economic ghosts of the past that the very existence and future of the historical and cultural marvel that is New Orleans and the Louisiana Gulf Coast is threatened.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 13:35 | Comments (4)
  1. Glad you saw some of it but The French Quarter was hardly touched. Get on I-10, travel east a mile or two, and get off at any exit.

    What you’re referring to has been called Katrina fatigue. A lot of people outside of the region have moved on and are tired of hearing about the problems of the Gulf Coast, particularly the problems of New Orleans. Fair enough. The people in the region are pointing fingers and bickering on the vision of the area and that’s to be expected. There’s a lot at stake and they were told to present a single voice. Not an easy task.

    I have to take Washington to task for this, too, though. They’re also pointing fingers and scolding the people of the region, their choices of residence, their elected officials, and their lifestyle. There will be lots of time to do that but why don’t they maybe get people out of tents first? By the way, Mississippi has been spared all of the scolding from Washington. Having a former RNC Chairman as Governor has helped that state but only in appearance. Their recovery is not any further along. I drove the coast last weekend.

    Comment by Rob — May 14, 2006 @ 6:50 pm

  2. Hi Rob –
    Thanks for the comments, you make a lot of valuable points. I enjoy and respect your viewpoints greatly! I think the problems are really two-fold, and both are causing the tide to run against New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the grand scheme of things.

    First of all, our country has the attention span of a freakin’ gnat. When major cable channels choose to dedicate the majority of their time to a story as ridiculous as the Duke Lacrosse team rape story, it tells you everything you need to know. Frankly – and people can draw whatever conclusions they want here – I find nothing either interesting or sensational about a stripper being raped at a party attended by a bunch of testosterone-crusted male sports jocks. I’m not saying she had it coming, because, regardless of the circumstances, no one does. But what I am saying is that if you want to plaster misery across the cable airwaves you can do a hell of a lot better than the family of Natalee Holloway and a NC stripper – cause it’s all right there across the MGC. But that’s not what the people want – the good folks in LA and MS had their time in the spotlight, but after the last African-American got airlifted off that overpass, the mainstream media said “sayonara” and the country moved on. Sad, pathetic, and reprehensible.

    Second of all, having politicians as blatantly incompetent as Blanco and Nagin appear to be do nothing to counter LA’s popular image as a corruption-ridden state where you can be almost 100% sure that valuable donations of time and money will simply be wasted. Whether that’s fair or not, I can’t say because I don’t live there. But, coming from Boston (home of the “Big Dig”), I know corruption exists wherever politicians can be found, but for God’s sake, no other place has seen the displacement of so many people as LA, and you’d think these idiots would understand the criticality of getting their act together if for no other reason than the welfare of the people they’re supposed to serve. The fact they cannot can’t help but hinder the recovery effort. And time is one thing LA doesn’t have a lot of right now.

    I’m not saying the Feds don’t have a share of the blame, but one look at today’s Times-Picayune and the articles about Nagin and Blanco being at odds over recovery aid, and a Blanco hurricane evacuation plan that looks suspiciously like last year’s version with no firm locations where people are to go when the next hurricane hits illustrates the depth of the dysfunctional environment in place here.

    Maybe things are no better next door in MS, but at least there the destruction was caused by a bonafide wind/rain/storm surge event, not levee failures caused in large part by poor design, planning, inspection, oversight, and response at every level of government. What I saw yesterday made me sick, and the fact that the leading two players on the local and state level still can’t get their act together to give people confidence that it won’t and must not happen again sickens me even more.

    You’re right, of course, that finger-pointing and conflicting voices are part of human nature, but there ought to be some occasions where human nature is given a boot in the a$$ and pride is swallowed to do what is right, just, and honorable. I wonder if our country is even capable of producing leaders like that….

    Comment by The Great White Shank — May 16, 2006 @ 11:52 pm

  3. The levee failures is the whole ball of wax. If not for that, Louisiana is well on their way to recovery without any assistance or need for it. The bad blood between Blanco and Nagin (He crossed party lines and endorsed her opponent for Governor) don’t come to light, the bad blood between New Orleans and the rest of the state don’t come to light, the performance of their emergency plans don’t come to light, businesses and homes aren’t wiped out, there are no displaced residents, and the destruction is minimal.

    There is genuine disagreement about the emergency plans. Evacuation cannot be the only component. Setting aside that not everyone can pack up and go, how many people can pack up and go for weeks or even months? Still, 92% of the residents did heed the call in spite of the fact that even more of them heeded the call for the false alarm that was Ivan the year before. Takes some gumption to get into a 10 hour traffic jam a year after you got into a 10 hour traffic jam for nothing.

    The bad blood between Metro New Orleans and the rest of the state is legendary. Outside of Metro New Orleans, Louisiana is not much different from any other state. Plop New Orleans in South Dakota and you get the idea. Nothing but resentment and suspicion.

    The Army Corp of Engineers was responsible for the planning, design, and building of the levees. They were built to withstand Category 3 hurricanes, which Katrina was when she made landfall. Better oversight might have helped, might not have. Suppose a local levee board had said they don’t think the levee will hold if a hurricane comes and it’ll cost $3 billion to fix it? Then what? Suppose some of Louisiana’s Congressional delegation had said coastal restoration would help Louisiana hurricane defenses? They’ve been saying that for 50 years but nothing was done about it. Do it right this time and there shouldn’t be any problems next time. Adequate levees are going to be expensive but inadequate levees are more expensive. If it was a good idea to build levees in 1929, it still is. New Orleans is a great city. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t think that. It should be saved.

    Comment by Rob — May 17, 2006 @ 4:58 am

  4. Couldn’t have said it better myself, Rob. Thanks so much for the comment.

    Comment by The Great White Shank — May 17, 2006 @ 1:37 pm

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