Friday, December 02, 2005

New Orleans

New Orleans looks like a war zone.

Better, today across the city from the 17th Street Canal at Bucktown east to the far neighborhoods what you see reminds me of a city-wide eviction. Remains of family life, history, personal treasure--all piled at the curb and covered with the residue of the black water that boiled across the city.

Day before yesterday we toured the devastation. It was a very emotional time. I was startled.

Our tour guide took us through the neighborhood where we lived during the late 1970s. Our old house was destroyed. Around the corner, where two families--our best friends--once lived, the scene was the same, if not worse.

In some yards powder fine silt mounded up against washed out houses 4 and 5-feet deep.

The neighborhoods are deserted. Almost all of the people you see on the streets are disaster relief teams, utility employees and clean up crews. Everyone is working frantically to restore what is in front of them. During the day, the population swells to around 150,000. Each night it dwindles down to much less than half that number.

There are very few places to sleep at night in the city. Businesses find it hard to open because there is no where for workers to live. Banks are closed. Few stores even open.

Most all of the hospitals remain closed.

The public schools are paralyzed with no clear plans about their future.

Utility service has been restored to most neighborhoods, but it matters very little because there are few houses fit to receive the service now.

Of course, the poorest parts of town suffered the most devastation. Fragile housing stock disintegrated in the flood. Roofs caved in. Foundations gave way. Walls collapsed.

Abandoned and totaled cars are everywhere.

It is so hard to comprehend--the scale is unthinkable.

Imagine: 23,000 acres and 284,000 homes destroyed. Seventy-one thousand businesses shut down.

I found the scenes in this city where my youngest daughter was born to be unimaginable, even as I stood taking it all in.

The people who are back, live in a semi-daze. No one knows quite what to do because no one has any real sense of what the future holds in store.

In the Bywater neighborhood we met with Nate Jones. Fortunately, this area, positioned adjacent to the destruction of the Lower 9th Ward, suffered minimal damage. Nate operates a community-based ministry out of a 48,000 square foot warehouse building. Today Nate's digs serve as a staging area for disaster relief teams from across the country.

He hopes to get back to touching the community. The big question today for him is "what community?" Will a community return? If so, how?

We drove by the Desire Housing Development, a Housing Authority of New Orleans property. These are the "projects" I used to walk through when we lived in the city. Thanks to a HOPE VI grant from HUD, the neighborhood had been transformed. Sadly, the flood destroyed the new townhomes here as well.

I am still sorting out my feelings. It will take me awhile, if I ever get it done.

One thing is clear to me. If this city is to be renewed, it will only be as the result of a serious, sustained, national effort. National, state, local, public and private interests must be marshaled and aligned and engaged or this formerly great city is finished.

As my day wound down, I looked across the street from Nate's place. An old man, a young man and a middle-aged woman were sitting on the front steps of an old, frame row house so typical of the neighborhood.

I walked across and introduced myself and we began to talk.

The older gentleman had lived in the house for 33 years. He owned it. He had remained in the house during the storm. He never left. Fortunately, the house had been spared the flooding.

The woman had relocated to Arlington, Texas for about a month, but had made her way back to her home down the street.

The young man had grown up in the neighborhood.

We visited like old friends for half-an-hour. They wanted me to know how much they loved their neighborhood, how much they hoped the city would come back.

I hope so too. I found the reason to rebuild sitting on that front porch.


Anonymous said...

But how does New Orleans come back? We have had a hard time in Beaumont, Texas from Rita. I can't imagine the destruction you are talking about and seeing it "come back." Especially, if coming back is coming back to the 9th Ward conditions. Don't you think most who were there in the 9th Ward have found other living conditions elsewhere? Why would they want to come back to those conditions?

I know people can love their neighborhood~I love mine. But if my were devistated like this, I would not want to return to that mess. Besides, people are who make a neighborhood.

I hope people find other people to build their neighborhoods where they are now because I don't see New Orleans coming back! How can it? Where is the structure and it doesn't sound like they had much leadership to begin with?!? Especially, the lower class income who had no help whatsoever.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, I understand how you can feel that way. But, your comments also let me know you have never lived in New Orleans. Like any other major urban area, people just don't all walk away--that is not how cities work, no matter how bad things are. Consider Berlin, Germany 1945. Why did anyone stay and rebuild? Culture, history, tradition, institutional life--great universities, arts, music--the port, commerce, not to mention the neighborhoods.

It is a mess, but it will be back. It may not be in the form that it was before the storm. The flood plane boundaries will be reconfigured depending on what the federal government does. The Lower 9th Ward may not be back and we need to remember that it has been moved/transported to other cities and those cities need help in managing those unique challenges. But, the city will return.

Across the street from my old church downtown sits Jesuit High School. It will reopen next week.

It will be back. It should be back. Our nation needs this city.