New Orleans: Raze or Rebuild?
The water in the lower Ninth Ward is thickening into a glassy, fetid slick as the gasoline, oil, solvents and sewage from thousands of submerged vehicles and homes leaches out. Some rescue crews can stay out on their boats for only an hour before getting light-headed. The water's blue-black sheen casts back an almost mocking mirror image of the horrible devastation and incongruously beautiful blue sky above.
A tour from Houston to Gulfport and into New Orleans for several days revealed not only this type of weird physical destruction but also a landscape of raw and tangled emotions, ranging from open fantasies of an impending race war to inspiring, ad hoc experiments in interracial mutual aid and grassroots organizing. This mix of the best and worst in American culture suggests the widely divergent political possibilities left in Katrina's wake. The storm could become an excuse to banish the African-American poor in the interests of the private redevelopment of New Orleans, or the city could become the geographic center of a progressive program of urban revitalization.
In the lower Ninth Ward, controlled breaks by the Army Corps of Engineers have dropped the water by several feet, opening an archipelago of scum-encrusted islands that can be navigated by way of partially open streets. Late in the second week of the disaster a colleague and I made our way through this eerie and desolate maze.
Though the area is routinely designated a ghetto, the homes of the Ninth Ward are mostly beautiful, century-old capes and bungalows, some with ornate wooden detailing reminiscent of old homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. "They'll have to bulldoze it all," says a visiting New York City cop, surveying the damage from inside an NYPD van.
Is that option--the right's much-touted tabula rasa--inevitable? "They don't have to tear all these down," says Joe Peters, a Ninth Ward tier repairman. "Under that siding, that's all cypress frames and barge board." Peters seems to think that the more solid homes of the Ninth Ward can be saved. Increasingly the holdouts here see the mandatory evacuation order as part of a huge land grab.
I track down Mike Howell, a Nation reader I'd met several days before. "Yeah, this could be their dream come true," he says. "Get rid of all the poor African-Americans and turn the place into Disneyland." After camping on Howell's roof, my colleague and I leave him and his wife our extra water and gas and push on.
At Kajun's, one of only two bars open at the end of last week, a bacchanalian, slap-happy air prevails among the handful of drunk and adrenaline-pumped patrons. A big man with a ponytail is weeping--he just put down his dog because it was biting everyone. A wide-eyed young woman named Caroline is changing the bandage on a dog-bite victim and talking a mile a minute. "I am a massage therapist, but I am not licensed. I am giving garlic and herbs to everyone, even the soldiers."
Outside, a man slips two bottles of cognac in the back seat of a police vehicle. The officer isn't harassing the patrons to leave. Someone brings him a big plastic cup of something iced.
"The evacuation order is just trying to get out the criminal element," says the cop in the classic flat, nasal Yat accent common to the Irish- and Italian-Americans who make up much of the city's white population. He explains how the military is mapping the city for holdouts using helicopters with infrared, and how troops on the ground mark the suspect building with a system of Xs and checks, a code that indicates to the police how many people are inside. The cop finishes his drink, shakes a few hands and rolls off.
Facilitating the tabula rasa agenda is an increasingly militaristic attitude that borders on boyish fantasy and seems to pervade the numerous federal SWAT teams, out-of-town cops, private security forces, civilian volunteers and even journalists. There are exceptions: The young soldiers of the 82nd Airborne and First Cavalry seem much less caught up in it and are quite generous with their ice and MREs.
When an APC full of federal marshals passes deep in the Ninth Ward, a journalist in a camo floppy hat riding with them glares at me and demands, "Who are you with?" For a second I think he's a cop.
Downtown, a man on a bicycle wearing a pistol and carrying a medical bag says he's an emergency medical technician. "I had to shoot one guy in the arm," the man explains. "He was going for the bag. They think it's full of drugs."
Elsewhere, two vehicle convoys from Blackwater USA--one of the biggest mercenary firms operating in Iraq--cruise the deserted city, their guns trained on rooftops ready for snipers, who have recently shot at a cell-tower repair crew.
It seems the rescue effort is turning into an urban war game: An imaginary domestic version of the total victory that eludes America in Baghdad will be imposed here, on New Orleans. It's almost as if the Tigris--rather than the Mississippi--had flooded the city. The place feels like a sick theme park--Macho World--where cops, mercenaries, journalists and weird volunteers of all sorts are playing a out a relatively safe version of their militaristic fantasies about Armageddon and the cleansing iron fist.