Katrina Did One Good Thing



New Orleans

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

Downtown in June2

It sounds like Harlem when black people in New Orleans talk, but way more so. They open their mouths and cane syrup sounds roll out. “Awright, Sugar. Heego, dawlin’,” said the steam table lady serving shrimp as I lunched at a conference that brought me recently to this gorgeous, mangled city. I asked where she was from. “Law Naan,” she said.

She meant the Lower Ninth Ward, a historic, working-class black neighborhood that was virtually wiped out by Katrina. White people from New Orleans pronounce it this way: “Lowuh Naynt.’ Perfect Brooklynese – an echo of Bensonhurst or Bay Ridge or Sheepshead Bay. Yo! What’s up with that?

“Yeah, we tawk like New Yawk. I hea’ dat a lot,” laughed a cabbie. With his pink, hard jaw and sandy hair, he could pass easily for FDNY or NYPD. He couldn’t explain the accent, but as he described how his house had blown over in the wind, I had a Pavlovian urge to tell how my teenage daughter watched jumpers from Twin Tower 2. Then he said he has no insurance to rebuild, and the government won’t help at all. The levees broke nine months ago, he’s still sleeping on his brother’s floor, the world has forgotten New Orleans, and what can you do. His talk sounded different from post-9/11 talk. In shame I kept my own mouth quiet.

Conspiracy theory Lower 9th2

“It could be because they’re not just long time Cajun – they’re also Irish and Italian, a lot like New York,” said my friend (also white) who moved to New Orleans a few years ago. She knows a historian at Tulane. He says that way back when, the city’s races more or less got along. A different scenario than in New York, where the Irish rioted in 1863 and massacred dozens of African Americans. “That was from job competition,” my friend said. “But in 19th-century New Orleans,” she speculated, “people were working instead of fighting.”

Not nowadays.

“See dose projects?” pointed out another white cabbie. We were cruising past blocks of low-slung public housing, inhabited until last year by thousands of impoverished – and mostly black — New Orleans residents. Now the buildings were water-stained, moldy, boarded up, vacant. The Times-Picayune had front-page articles about tents pitched at projects like these throughout the city. The tents are full of people who want the boards off so they can come back from places like Houston. But the city says no. So did my driver.

“As bad as Katrina was,” he commented, “it did one good t’ing. It got rid of d’ element.” He waved again toward the projects. “D’ bad element. Dey cawsed all d’ crime. Now dey’re gone, an’ good riddance. Thanks to Katrina we can make a new start. Widdout ’em!”

My friend got tearful that night, telling me over beers that she’s drinking too much. When I saw her a year and a half ago, she was looking for Mary Jane shoes to go with an outfit she assembled for Mardi Gras 2005. She’d been accepted into a parade crew of some two dozen black grandmothers who’d been marching for years in baby doll night gowns. Many were from the Lower Ninth, and many were scattered by Katrina. Only seven reunited for Mardi Gras 2006. Meanwhile, my friend’s neighborhood has lost its bus service, and she spent months without mail delivery or a nearby supermarket. Most houses in her neighborhood still have that ominous, Passover-Angel-of-Death “X” marked on them, with kabbalistic letters and numerals spray-painted in the four quadrants.

We took a walk one night near her apartment. A white, middle-aged neighbor woman sat on a lawn chair by her FEMA trailer – it was anchored on her driveway, beside a house that was gutted. The woman sported the tasteful clothing and svelte habitus of a society matron. She had the mouth of a Long Island mafiosa.

“Wanna see how we fucking live now?” she asked, and led me into the trailer. It was so cramped that her professional-class husband, lying shirtless in the matchbox bedroom, was a dead ringer for what Southerners of his station call “trash.” “Look at this shit,” the lady said, slamming a plywood kitchen drawer that had popped off its hinges. “Goddamned government.”

“Welcome to the insults of US welfare,” I thought, but she didn’t see it that way. “As bad as Katrina was,” she said, “it did one good thing.” And so on and so forth, including that New Yorkese mantra again: “D’ element.”

Close your eyes and it could have been Canarsie years ago, or a more recent Howard Beach. Open them and it was hibiscus and grits and beignets, gentlemen in summer suits, houses with dreamy colonial porticos. The baroque of old Dixie racism, tricked out in newer carpet bag. On the plane home, my seatmate – who hailed from yankee-ized Washington, DC — boasted of having spent the last few days in the Lower Ninth, measuring every single lot for a company that’s amassed $30 billion to rebuild the ward. The plan, he said, is to bulldoze all the damaged, workingman’s dwellings and replace them with new homes in the $100K to $150K range. Unaffordable for former residents, he admitted. But that’s OK, he said cheerfully. After all, “Katrina did one good thing.”

I’d just bought a New York Times at the airport. How timely: A piece on the National pages talked of recent Census data. It shows that since Katrina, New Orleans has lost giant chunks of its black and poor demographic. Meanwhile, the numbers have jumped for whites and higher-incomes.

The whole thing tempted me to bombard my seat mate with more linguistic New Yorkish. “Drop dead,” I practiced silently, but could not say it aloud. After all, our five boroughs constitute one of the most racially segregated areas in the country. But no one here talks openly about kicking out “d’ element.” Instead, they’re dealt with politely, via sky-high rents and doormen. Meanwhile, disaster is an act of Muslims rather than God or the Army Corps of Engineers. With demons like ours, even d’ element gets tea and sympathy.

So I kept my accent quiet, but wonder what New Orleans will sound like in a generation. Will a dark, dialectal molasses still sweeten the ear? Will even the dese’s and dose’s survive? Or will an influx of out-of-town whites and moneyed yuppies turn the whole place to Network Standard?

Hard to say. I guess it depends on whether brave little community groups like Common Ground (http://www.commongroundrelief.org/) and ACORN (www.acorn.org) can get support – locally and nationally – to rebuild for all the old residents of New Orleans and not just for those with wealth. If democracy prevails, that city will still resound with weird echoes of Harlem and Brooklyn. With people who don’t know why we sound alike, but who want to keep talking in the place they always have.

NO White lady etc 2
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