Good Bye Old New Orleans/Hello Old New Orleans:
By: Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Hurricane Katrina washed away much of what made New Orleans New Orleans. (I would promise that this is the one and only water-related metaphor I’ll use in this essay. But that would be a lie.) A raft of legendary restaurants never returned: Barrow’s, Bruning’s, Bella Luna, and even a few spots with names that didn’t start with “B” like the eastbank Pho Tau Bay or Dunbar’s on Freret. A number of schools that held special places in the hearts of their graduates (like John F. Kennedy and Alcee Fortier) simply evaporated. FEMA, insurance companies, and many other institutions hung Katrina survivors out to dry. Over 95,000 African-Americans didn’t get to come home.
Yet, it’s also clear that some wonderful happenings are afoot. In the bad old days, corrupt politicians were mostly too powerful to send to prison. Now, we’ve put enough dirty pols in the slammer to put in a jailhouse production of Cats. Pre-Katrina, we had our traditions: red beans on Mondays, flags at Jazz Fest, crater-sized potholes. Now, we’ve developed new traditions—like our local running of the “bulls” and a po-boy festival. We even fixed some of those craters. And as a native, I recall turn-of-the-millennium lamentations about the brain drain—smart, young people leaving the city in droves for Houston, Atlanta, and points north. Now, we’re usually at the top of lists of places folk under 35 are moving to. We’ve got brand new condos, high-end wine shops, and, like, 75 places to hear indie rock on a Tuesday night.
But some things, for better or for worse, are the same today as they were on August 28, 2005. What follows is a non-scientific, completely arbitrary list of the top ten things that are unchanged about our fair city. They prove that sometimes we just go with flow.
School Segregation – Prior to Katrina, you could pretty much bet the house that white kids and black kids attended separate, but equal schools. White youth often attended overpriced private institutions. Black youth usually went to underfunded public schools—considered the worst school district in Louisiana by some. This system was a disservice to everyone. Today, New Orleans’ schools are as racially divided as ever. But wait, you say. What about Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court said that segregation wasn’t kosher? And what about Ruby Bridges, the six-year old girl who single-handedly desegregated the New Orleans school system in 1960? Well, we kinda forgot all of that. But apparently we’re not alone as much of American has similar educational divisions.
Go Cups Forevr! – New Orleans is more civilized than most of the country. I’ve heard tell that in many American cities one can be arrested for walking out of a bar with a strong beverage in one’s hand. Irredeemable savagery. Bad manners. Probably unconstitutional, too. But we’re better than this. Always have been. During Mardi Gras you’ll find literally thousands of people happily wobbling along the streets, open containers proudly in hand.
The Police Department is a Mess Y’all – A police officer killed several people during her psychopathic rampage at a New Orleans East Vietnamese restaurant. Another cop preyed on and raped women following traffic stops. A man, searching for help, was shot, beheaded, and burned, purportedly, by patrolmen. These were just some of the light-hearted shenanigans our beloved NOPD got into before and during Katrina. The Feds placed the department under a consent decree following the storm, so our law enforcers have been somewhat less like an occupying force lately. But no one thinks the work of reform is anywhere near complete.
Grub – Food is different here. Other people in other places eat because it’s a biological imperative. We eat because food, when prepared with creativity, passion, and love is the ultimate proof that we’ve evolved far beyond the primordial swamps of our past, proof that we have souls. To that end, many restaurants closed due to Katrina. But, like the mythical Hydra, new restaurants opened, sometimes two in one location thanks to the pop-up phenomena. We even have food trucks now. And just last week, while strolling through the French Quarter, I bought tamales from a nice fellow who couldn’t break a twenty and probably didn’t have a food service license.
The Primordial Swamps of Our Present – Land loss is a decades-long problem for our region. We lose a football field worth of terra firma each year. Did I say each year? I’m sorry. That was a typo. We lose that much each day. Although some well-intentioned efforts are underway to keep New Orleans from relocating to the center of the Gulf of Mexico, some people who understand this issue much better than me because they have Ph.D’s in being smart think that our town is likely to become the next Atlantis. So it goes.
Colorful Characters – God rest Ruthie the Duck Girl, Emperor of the Universe Ernie K-Doe, and many others too numerous to name here. New Orleans has more in common with Narnia than any other city in history. Some of our most, um, unique personalities are fictional like Ignatius J. Reilly and Davis Mcalary. But you can see plenty of flesh and blood scofflaws, iconoclasts, and girls-on-roller-blades-bearing-weaponry just about any time.
Mommy, why does the water task like toejam? – New Orleans’ water-delivery system is massive, antiquated, and loses about as much to leakage as arrives at your spigot. Same as it ever was. Which raises a disturbing question: if all that water leaches out into our lead and pesticide-contaminated soil, what leaches in? We may never know. *wink* But our confidence in our ability to drink H2O without risking death is sorely tested by periodic emails from our local government warning us not to drink the H2O because doing so is risking death.
Respect for the Past – While some cities bury their history under sleek, metal skyscrapers and acres of concrete, preservation has always been important to us. Yes, Katrina reminded us that those old buildings—the ones that did not collapse or burn—are special because they’re ours. But we already knew that. The TV show Treme put a spotlight on Mardi Gras Indians and told us to pay homage to these beautiful warriors of the spirit. But we already knew that, too. And we even helped Mr. Okra get a new truck! It’s kind of funny for a city with the word “new” in its name to be so protective of what was. Then again, we love to laugh.
Mass Incarceration Machination – In this respect, New Orleans is so far behind, we’re ahead. We didn’t invent mass incarceration, but we perfected it. NOLA is a city that prides itself on locking up disadvantaged black males. Doubt this? Well, one of the first things tourists see when they cross the parish line is not our bling-colored Superdome or spires of St. Louis Cathedral. They see a looming, state-of-the-art jail. By some estimates, one out of seven citizens have spent some time in that gilded cage. And once you visit that country club, it gets hard to find a job because why would an employer ever want to hire someone who was arrested for smoking marijuana? We know that 52% of black males in New Orleans are unemployed. (The national unemployment rate is slightly lower at 5.3%.) We also know that poverty breeds crime and that police are more likely to arrest minorities for minor infractions that are overlooked in others. Locking up a large segment of our population hasn’t worked out so well for us in the past. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped trying.
Basic Human Kindness – Despite our hang-ups, we haven’t lost our humanity. People in New Orleans say hi to one another in the street. Strangers share recipes in grocery store lines. Everyone goes nuts when the Saints score a touchdown. On any given day we do the following: We sing. We dance. We celebrate. And we do it together—the old, the young, the wealthy, the poor, the conservative, the guy in the gorgeous dress. We can’t forget that New Orleans was essentially cleared out by the storm. This means that everyone here and now had to either (A) come back or (B) come down for the first time. No modern American city can make this claim. It means that we fought hard to survive and have a very real sense that we’re all in this together.