Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The New Face of New Orleans?

It is hard to imagine what New Orleans will look like once the last of the debris from Katrina has been swept away, the waters have finally receded, levees are repaired and people once more fill her streets. But, who exactly will those people be? Many will be the old guard who were happily ensconced in a relative's home, or a vacation home out of state, with no particular concern about their property as it was heavily insured and sat in a desirable area, i.e., not too close to anything liquid.

And so, people have started to return, at the urging of their mayor, a black man, who is anxious to have his city repopulated. This, on the surface, is a good thing, to see a city revitalized, at least with her people. But so much of what made New Orleans, New Orleans, is not capable of making a return. They are the ones who were in the service industries, the wait staff of the restaurants in the French Quarter, the maids, bellhops and cleaning staff of the hotels, those who worked in the refinery industry. The people who worked the docks, and filled a myriad of positions, handling the cargoes of approximately 5,000 ships from 60 different nations, which dock each year, at one of the busiest, and the 4th largest port, in terms of raw tonnage, in the world. In short, those who have nothing to return to.

Mayor Nagin has apparently made it clear that city officials will carefully monitor those who are returning so that no "scum" is allowed back into his city. He continued, "Now that the storm is over, we have a city without drugs and violence, and we intend to keep it that way" A local, unscathed by the hurricane has stated that "...the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they do not come back." This resident has gone so far as to suggest that "Katrina" was a cleansing, sanitizing storm which has purged New Orleans of all except it's purest elements (read white), and that "The party is finally over for these people and now they will have to find someplace else to live in the US" Even the Times-Picayune, New Orleans major newspaper has mentioned the idea that some want a different sort of city but that will come down to a question of race and a major public debate. This should not be allowed to happen.

It is a problem, no doubt, with thousands wanting to return to their homes, albeit homes that no longer exist, or are so damaged that they have to be demolished. The most heavily damaged areas are those which were predominately African American neighborhoods, and any hope of reconstruction will take years, not months. But then perhaps Mayor Nagin need not be so cautious, or the racist so worried, about who returns to the city. Most of those surveyed at emergency shelters do not plan to return and they are mostly African American and poor. But some will return and return they should. This has been their home, probably generationally, and it is their hope to see their neighborhoods reclaimed. Whether that is at all physically possible remains to be seen. But is still their city and their home.

So, will the reconstruction of New Orleans be a major demographic one? Going from a city that was predominantly black to one that is perhaps predominantly white? If this in fact is to be it's fate, the city which was New Orleans will be as washed away as were the levees and those poor neighborhoods who's residents really represented the heart of that city. What will be the fate of French Quarter? Upscale piano bars where no more is heard the wail of the blues and cacaphony of the great jazz bands which were so identified with the city? Mardi Gras will no longer be what it truly was, the spirit of the city, without black marching bands which sprang from the poorest of black neighborhoods and lent such color and panache to the celebration.

With all his talk about specific programs for the poor, Bush has not addressed the issue of race, and a shift in the demographic from black to white may be a boon to the Republicans. This should not become a political football, but a commitment by all to see that what is necessary is done to reclaim all areas of New Orleans. It especially behooves the dominant Democratic party to make the best of every opportunity to keep this possible new demographic from happening. Every chance should be taken to create the new housing and neighborhood's for those who have suffered the most from this tragedy...those who truly have nothing left to lose. Promises have been made and they must be followed through. Promises to lessen the gap between black and white, the poor and the more well to do, by putting the billions promised into rebuilding a city where there are better schools and improved neighborhoods. It is Mayor Nagin's job, now to see that, that happens and to give New Orleans a new lease on life.

Let us hope that soon, the unofficial motto of "N'awlinz", "Laissez les bons temps, rouler", will again echo through the Crescent City.

Susan Goodwin