This is one of the finest pieces of writing I've read in The Nation in some time. Not only because of its muscular yet sonorous prose, but more essentially its profound understanding of the devolution of American social and economic compassion, spawned in the New Deal, into a kind of present-day Rovian Social Darwinism, where it's once again "survival of the richest" and apparently every man for himself. The benign neglect of "compassionate conservatism" turns out to be not so benign, an empty rhetorical promise devoid of fundamental commitment to addressing, let alone ameliorating the concerns of poor people. Bush's infamous boilerplate speech of "hope and reconstruction" in downtown New Orleans right after Katrina stands as an enduring testament to the flood of hollow inaction that flowed from his administration like raw sewage over the breached levees.
The horrifying deconstruction of New Orleans since Katrina has been a near-perfect symbol for broader government indifference to the rights and future security of its poor citizens, as represented by the black community; it began with the stunning, hellish tableaux of the Superdome and the Ninth Ward, it continued unabated during the past two years of failed reclamation of housing in so-called disadvantaged areas of the city, and it peaked with the cynical demolition of public housing described by Mr. Sothern.
I grew up in a city housing project in Queens, New York, moving there in 1952 with my parents and baby brother from the WWII-era quonset hut community in Rego Park my dad had qualified for as a veteran.
A two-bedroom, one (small) bathroom affair in a standard red-brick, seven-story nondescript elevator building, overlooking other similar buildings, some only three-story walkups, rolling, well manicured lawns bordered by decorative little chained guard fences and sidewalks, a perfectly conceived playground just outside our front door with long benches, monkey bars, skelly courts, a concrete "barrel" playhouse, plenty of trees and grass all around. Across the street a sprawling college campus, just down the main boulevard a brand new public school (that I could walk to every morning), an appended complex there of basketball and handball courts, a softball field, picnic area and wading pool, big new shiny buses running up and down the neighborhood, a supermarket and clutch of stores just a few blocks away, and a large basement laundromat for the exclusive use of tenants. To us, working-class white Jews (we're not all doctors and lawyers) born in New York city of modest means, this gleaming new community was a paradise. It represented all the virtues of decency and cleanliness and comfort and respectability and pride that my mom and dad felt they had a right to expect after getting through the war and starting a family, and even though it wasn't a private house with a yard in some ordered suburban valhalla--at the time, that was the next rung up the ladder, an object of aspiration--it was the next best thing, right in the middle of Queens, only a thrilling bus and subway ride from Times Square. It was a happy place.
To read about the destruction of projects in New Orleans is to know what these homes must have meant to the families that first occupied them so many years ago, and to lament the tragedy that has befallen not only the buildings themselves and their cruelly displaced tenants, but the very concept of government-inspired and realized economic support through housing projects for the poor and working class. The streets have indeed become meaner as time has passed, the commitment to overcome poverty, embodied in the politics of Bobby Kennedy and MLK Jr., a distant echo of another era, when a city project like the one I lived in as a kid could be a paradise, and not as now a razed phantom of failed dreams and hopelessness. In this respect, I'm glad to be growing old, because I see the divide between government and "the least among us" only getting wider and more impassable. Paradise lost.
Port Washington , NY
Aug 17 2007 - 2:21am