Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Rebuilding New Orleans Right

After some looking around, I wound up giving to Habitat for Humanity, at least for now. This is a bit odd, but I've always loved that scene in theHarrison Ford movie "Witness" where the Amish community gets together to raise a barn. Ever since, I've had this vision of community-based American utopia that includes pitchers of lemonade, people rolling up their sleeves, and then returning the favor, say as opposed to finding someone to blame.

This got me thinking about the whole reconstruction of New Orleans as opposed to New Orleans during reconstrcuction after the Civil War. As Barbara Bush accidentally put it, living as a refugee in the Astrodome may be doing "really well" compared to how some of these people were living before and during Katrina. Should we just fix the holes in the levee, pump out the water, and put up houses and businesses, we might be recreating the same race-poverty scab that Katrina tore open so painfully. What would it take to rebuild or recreate New Orleans right? What would happen if we dedicated ourselves to building a better city a la Marshall Plan or landing on the moon?

There is no question that the mouth of the Mississippi will need a port city of some kind. In addition, there is no question that New Orleans has a special cultural place in America. Should there be a New New Orleans, it would be some sort of moral crime to replace the city of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Scott Joplin, and Paul Prudhomme, and Henriette Delille with Starbucks, Wallmart, and thousands of masonite clad houses. When business and politicians get involved in this sort of thing it tends to turn out more like Beale Street in Memphis, rather than something vital and actually communal instead of commercial. If 10,000 people really did die in Katrina, our vision for the rebuilding of the city should be a monument to what we have learned from the tragedy. Is there a way to rebuild or build anew that might promise the following?

If we rebuild or recreate, the new city should
1) Be safe as in have state of the art emergency systems and facilities
2) offer open opportunity for all of its citizens
3) continue the role of the old city as a unique cultural center not a an extension of strip mall America
4) Be environmetally conscious
5) Be energy and transportation efficient for the coming century
6)International and multicultural
7) Have a decent football team

While it goes well beyond a patch and fill rehabilitation, I believe six of these goals are doable. The football team may be a bit tougher, I still have too many memories of fans with paper bags over their heads. To do this, however, would take unprecedented commitment of resources and ultimately a community vision that hasn't existed much in America since the Puritan city on the hill, the Shakers, the Amana community, and other groups that saw America as a canvas for perfectability of the soul as well as the wallet.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about some details of New Orleans history. A few things stick out. The city was built where it is by the French because in those days, it stood on high ground above the Mississippi. One reason New Orleans is American at all is that Napoleon, after reqacuiring it from Spain, sold it to us so he could pay for his wars in Europe. (Strange, how circular history can be). Second, much of the city's rich cultural mix is rooted in sadness. The city served as a center for the slave trade. The Cajuns started out as "Acadians" who were more or less ethnically cleansed from the British parts of Canada. The French planters who came to New Orleans itself had been driven out of Haiti by one of history's few successful slave rebellions. One odd result of all this was that New Orleans developed a unique culture around race built around the emergence of the Creoles, people of mixed black and European heritage. Henriette Delille, one of the first American Saints, was Creole. Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate but equal case, was Creole as well. One of the interesting things about the case was that Plessy was only 1/8th black, but still fell on the other side of the line, a small blow to the Creole sense of difference. When Chief Justice Rehnquist died, he was one of the last people who had in early career actively opposed Brown v. Board of education,(as an overextension of the 14th amendment) the case that formally overruled Plessy. So there's another bit of circularity.

Clearly, there are two strains of New Orleans that must be saved. American food and American music would have been far blander had it not been for New Orleans. Yet, the paradox is that the city's musical and culinary greatness is rooted in its own tortured past. Joplin's ragtime was a serious music forced by the color line into the city's brothels. King Oliver and Louis Armstrong would likely be sitting in the Astrodome today. Actually, Armstrong might have been one of the "looters". One of my saddest thoughts is about the trumpeter Buddy Bolden the jazz pioneer who did not quite make it to the age of recording. Not only have we lost his music, we may have lost the place that made it possible. I haven't even gotten into the city's role in zydeco, the blues, rock and roll, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Nevilles

I am not so sure about the whole strata of race culture that New Orleans embodied. I don't know that anyone's dared to comment on this, but one thing I noticed about the pictures of the vast majority of the refugees is that as a group they are much darker and therefore much poorer than many American blacks. It occured to me that the parallel world of the Creole still exists in New Orleans and in America for that matter.

Culturally and poltically with a line running through Huey Long, New Orleans has caught many of the deepest paradoxes of our history. It was even part of the first county in America with a Chinese sheriff, well before it ever got a black sheriff. The Creoles were perhaps the largest and most successful communities of free blacks in pre-civil war America, yet they are also a symbol of how brutal and hypocritical the color line was since the Creoles were as European as they were African.
Should we rebuild or replace New Orleans, will there be a way to preserve its cultural greatness, while eliminating so much that is painful about that city's history? This is a great opportunity to ask ourselves what our vision can be not just for that region, but for the future of this country as well.

The cynic in me says we can't do it. The American in me says that we must. What became of that dream of America embraced by Martin Luther King, RFK, et. al.?.


At 9/06/2005 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...

A rebuilding the way RFK spoke of in his plan for Bedford-Stuyvesant would indeed be appropriate. Excellent thought.

At 9/06/2005 01:52:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Mitchell.
I'm hoping we find the leaders who do step forward with some kind of vision.
What Barbara Bush said was testimony to what comes out by accident is often much more truthful than what we say carefully.
We saw 2 disasters in the Gulf, one due to the weather and oen due to longstanding social neglect that had nothing to do with hurricanes.


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