The multiple spotlights on New Orleans during the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina missed some meaningful—and moving—events of the whirlwind week.
Even before the week started, the Community Voices Project brought together a group of residents—the true rebuilders of the city—to discuss the good and bad of the last 10 years, articulating many of the concerns that would be muted during the recovery hoopla and boosterism to follow: the unjust rules applied by government contractors who profited handsomely while citizens suffered; the extraordinary community engagement that for the first 10 years had real influence on the political leadership but now seems to be waning; the recovery’s raised standard of living out of reach of so many.
During the anniversary week, the Creative Alliance of New Orleans, which has been working tirelessly for years to nurture the cultural economy, presented the 9th Ward Improv Opera. In a once-grand church that welcomed a thriving neighborhood before the storm, the opera told the story of the shock, despair, and determination of the past 10 years through song, poetry, and dance. The music was optimistic, triumphant, and celebratory. Locally written and performed, the opera reflected both the perseverance and the continued pain that only squeaked through the big events of the week.
A film, Slavery By Another Name, shown in a neighborhood church, focused on one of the most painful occurrences in the post–Civil War South that reverberates today in the injustices of the state’s nationally shameful prison system.
The Atlantic staged a day-long program that gave the mayor and his administration the opportunity to trumpet the official narrative that “we’re back, we’re recovered,” and “we’re growing for the first time in 40 years,” a message that only resonates with the people who celebrate the tsunami of tourists changing the city and those who can afford the doubled rents and increased cost of living that has followed.
At one panel discussion of that day, Lolis Eric Elie, a celebrated New Orleans writer, noted: “My community does not fit any of the narratives of today.” Many in that African-American community, he noted, “are still traumatized and can’t get access to decent paying jobs, so they say ‘why bother?’”
At a panel on the makeover of the school system, the debate over the virtues of the now almost-total charter system—probably the city’s most contentious issue—continued with one former student asserting: “Who runs the school doesn’t matter; what matters are teachers who care.”
Unquestionably, long-neglected school buildings have seen extraordinary upgrades and some new schools have also been built. However, Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance released a report indicating that public school teachers are more likely to be from outside New Orleans, mostly white, inexperienced, and without formal training. After the storm, all the experienced teachers—black and white—were inexplicably dismissed and the union disbanded. The percentage of black teachers is now 49 percent, down from 71 before the storm; 54 percent of the teachers have less than five years experience, up from 33 percent before the storm; and the number of teachers leaving at the end of a school year has increased. Despite this, the report notes, academic achievements are considerable and teacher quality is not always reflected in formal certification.
At another program, put on by the National Urban League, its president and the city’s former mayor Marc Morial joined Mayor Mitch Landrieu to bring attention to the plight of the city’s African-Americans. The mayor cited a new training program to help blacks qualify for infrastructure repair jobs and Morial called for an increase in the minimum wage. But the attention-getter was an Urban League report released that day citing the growing income gap between blacks and whites, noting that 52 percent of the city’s black men are unemployed and that 90 percent of the prison population is black, while only 59 percent of population is.
At a program presented by the local radio station WWOZ, “Ten Years After: The State of New Orleans Music and Culture,” this theme was expanded upon to repeat an oft-heard observation: The city uses the Mardi Gras Indians and the musicians to promote the city, but the performers can’t make a living in this $7.25 minimum-wage economy and the city does not do enough to support them. “New Orleans loves its music, but not its musicians,” noted clarinetist Evan Christopher, adding that the city welcomes 13 million visitors, but “shows no respect for the musicians” those visitors come to hear.
A barrage of new statistics reflected the mixed story of New Orleans’ recovery. The city has reached about 80 percent of the pre-Katrina population, but an estimated 10,000 of the 385,000 people who live there have moved from more expensive places like New York City and the Bay Area. More than 75,000 African-Americans have not returned, primarily because they can’t afford the doubled rents and lack of decent paying jobs. Sales taxes, business start-ups, and the number of new restaurants are all up. But the poverty rate, which had gone down for awhile, is up again, and almost half the city’s children live in poverty.
There was a showing of the searing film, Big Charity, to remind the world that the new, partially opened University Medical Center came at the expense of a vibrant, diversified neighborhood of 250 homes and 50 businesses. An alternative, fought for by preservationists, would have upgraded the cleaned-out historic 1930s hospital building at half the price and half the time.
A day-long program, Rising Tide, gave voice to the blogosphere challenging the mayor’s theme of “one city, one voice.” The “keyboard gangstas,” as they are sometimes called, made sure issues ignored by the mainstream were heard and debated, including the city’s diminished transit services, still disappearing wetlands, and the impact of an estimated 1,700 dwelling units off the market for AirBnB.
Before the week started, the participants in the Community Voices Project took the stage at the Ashe Cultural Center to present and discuss some of the interviews that journalist Deborah Cotton and civic activist Linda Usdin gathered from New Orleans residents after both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. Before the storm, Ashe Cultural Center was the anchor of an almost-desolate but once-thriving commercial corridor in the heart of one of the city’s African-American neighborhoods. After Katrina, it became a beacon, leading to a full-blown renaissance with new institutions and businesses, adding to the unique assortment of neighborhood main streets that distinguish this city.
Ashe is an intimate performance space with African art on display. The filmed interviews reflected deep concerns remaining in both the white and black communities. Jamilah Peters-Muhammed, a registered nurse from Central City, noted: “People want to rebuild but can’t afford to come home and many are not prepared for the jobs now flourishing here. Neighbors who made their community what it is can’t afford to live here. This is a real lesson on how not to treat people.”
Several participants spoke of the promises made by the local housing authority and HUD, “promises that have not been kept,” according to Sandra Reed, board chair of Central City Renaissance, referring to four demolished public-housing projects. “People were disrespected when not allowed back in the homes that were not even flooded.”
“Those were good solid brick buildings,” observed Phyllis Jordan, founder of PJ’s coffee houses. “Those were neighborhoods too.”
After Katrina, Reed added, as if to strike a chord that would reverberate for the week, “We really had to take a hard look at racism and economic prejudice, things that long happened in this city that we chose to accept as normal.”
Richard Cahn, of Mid City/Bayou St. John, noted that one of the best things to happen has been the “new, young people” who have moved in and the “lively entrepreneurship.” But, he cautioned, crime is creeping up again, the infrastructure has a long way to go, and, he added, “I’m concerned that we are losing our cultural essence. The culture of New Orleans is very fragile and we are in danger of becoming homogeneous.”
New Orleans is still a work in process. There are surely some substantial advances to celebrate: Several thousand homes have been restored by an assortment of nonprofit, non-governmental entities and small developers; thousands of volunteers came from all over the country to work with local groups and are still coming; a significant greenway along the Lafitte corridor is underway; elements of a forward-thinking Urban Water Plan, a multibillion-dollar proposal aimed at improving drainage through green building techniques, are being implemented; small, local landscape adjustments are being made to minimize flooding; a splendidly restored Beaux Arts 1918 Orpheum Theater reopened, adding to the amazing array of restored landmarks along Canal Street and throughout the city that give it character, all of which led the physical revival of the city more than the mayor is willing to acknowledge.
And while crime keeps fluctuating, police harassment of the Mardi Gras Indians has almost disappeared, arrests of street musicians have basically stopped, and only a random curfew for street musicians is enforced.
Brass-band parades marked the week, as did art exhibitions, festivals, installation of historic markers, and volunteer projects—the kinds of things that remind one they are in a vibrant, rebounding city.
Yet, it was New Orleans native Chuck Perkins’s poetry, used as the libretto for the 9th Ward Improv Opera, that resonated most powerfully. The final words of one poem expressed best the rebuilding spirit after the devastation:
We were unnerved by the silence
Because the eulogizers were beginning to eulogize.
We saw your tambourine shake
And we heard your drum beat
And when we felt the hot air
Streaming from the fat end of the brass—
We knew it was the breath of this city
And it was the confirmation we were looking for
So we shouted out to the grave digger,
“Hold on to your dirt pa’tner—
‘Cause we ain’t dead yet.”