A New Year in New Orleans

[Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Campus Progress.]

Christmas in New Orleans. Mumbled profanities were all I could muster as a good friend and I drove through the newly plowed streets of his 9th Ward neighborhood. This used to be civilization. This was his existence for a solid 19 years before he moved to another part of the city for college. But still, he was lucky, unlike many of his neighbors whose homes wore spray-painted badges signifying body counts.

Some houses were atop cars, some were piggybacked on other houses. Other houses lay in shambles. Some houses, however, still stood. These were the testaments to human architecture. All were surrounded by testaments to the floodwall's inability to fight off the deluge. How many millions spent in the name of the public good lined the pockets of politicians and contractors? And what would've been the fee to keep these streets debris-free? New Orleans has been relegated to Third World nation status, the public's modern-day Babylon and our leaders' favorite political talking point.

Entering the fourth month of the Katrina aftermath, I looked everywhere for tangible evidence of improvement. The streets were changed, though barely improved. Even in the French Quarter, the epicenter of the tourism industry, life continued beneath an ominous cloud. Day and night, you see the bustling of "contractors," following the smell of money, anxious as sharks sniffing out blood. There's an eerie stench of opportunism in the air, mingling with the odor of uncollected trash, stagnant water and old refrigerators shut with duct tape to contain the rotten food from months prior.

My Christmas tour of New Orleans was my second trip home since Katrina. During my first trip home, or to what used to be home, I went from room to room trying to find what remained in my waterlogged house. Still, I was thankful that I was far removed from my old first-floor apartment on Napoleon Avenue -- in the middle of a flood zone that was then under 10 feet of water. The treasure that I found were photographs, lots of them. They were mostly ruined. Browns and blues, hues of greens and yellows created psychedelic swirls -- vivid colors that once captured moments in my family's past. I even ran across an absurdly ironic page from the local Yellow Pages, stuck to a photo album, that read "How to Stay Safe in a Hurricane."

Before my family emptied out our house that day, before we sat down to a donated Thanksgiving meal of turkey and various canned goods, I drove around town. My grandmother's house -- where I used to go for my pre-Catechism breakfast of butter and toast -- was a ruined shell. The corner where my cousin told me there was no Santa Claus was cluttered with rotting and moldy pieces of wood.

Now, on Christmas, one month later, though life for New Orleanians is barely improved, the city has a very different feel to it. The French Quarter's atmosphere is now very reminiscent of the West during the era of expansion: Locals work the taverns and hotels for gold miners entering the newest Yukon town, wild-eyed with dreams of riches, gambling and a good show.

This carpetbaggery is a threat to all that is New Orleans. My home was the starving artist of this country. A poor port city with a large black population, its people a tribute to its history, New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz music, French-Southern cuisine and the almighty Italian-American muffuletta. Struggle tends to spawn some of the greatest art, and New Orleans saw struggle. And with a single storm, the question that we're left asking is, "Will New Orleans ever be able to assume its identity again?" And with the city's less than pristine political history, there can only be uncertainty in response.

Gentrifying a city without residents is relatively simple, especially when most residents aren't homeowners. Trem, the Marigny, the 7th Ward and neighborhoods closest to the French Quarter and business districts are the obvious targets for neighborhood redevelopment. They were the foundation of the city's "laissez faire" attitude, the places where musical talent simmered beneath complex socioeconomic underpinnings -- where class, race and family name meant everything. But where are the people who lived in these areas? Houston. Atlanta. D.C. And many of them aren't coming back -- either afraid of another Katrina or feeling that there may be nothing to come back to.

Frankly, I'm not sure when I'll be back either. But for those of us who got to experience New Orleans as it was, we're just thankful for the time we got to spend with her.

Speaking to other professionals who had to leave the city to follow their career paths, most say they'd instantly return if they could simply get a job. And now, when rebuilding is so vital, the most important element -- people who really care about rebuilding, living and working in New Orleans -- is a scarce resource.

The human element is required for every level of New Orleans' rebuilding. Professionals are scattered throughout the country, the working class is dislocated -- and all that is left is a crooked system, little by way of real political constituencies, and millions in federal funding up for grabs. New Orleans needs a stalwart leader to coordinate the rebuilding effort and provide a way back for those scattered souls who are ready to rally to the ultimate cause -- home.

But driving through these streets, all I see is politics as usual.
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