Jackson West’s Obsessive Compulsion

And Love is Bloomin’ There All the Time

Posted in Commentary by Jackson West on September 6, 2005

New Orleans\' Southern Decadence Parade 2005
Photo of the 2005 Southern Decadence Parade by Eric Gay for the Associated Press.

I was lucky enough to have visited New Orleans, albeit briefly, before this catastrophe. Of course, I visited as a tourist, but I’d like to think that I’ve traveled enough to be able to catch a fleeting glimpse of the soul of a place. Sometimes, as it was for me in Jerusalem, it is a dark, disturbing, conflicted soul with open wounds. And certainly the same can be said of my experience with New Orleans, as happy a face as they can put on things for the crowds of rampaging tourists and, I imagine for the locals, the festival season. Where Jerusalem takes its solace in reverence, New Orleans seemed to take it in reverie.

It is no surprise that the festival season in New Orleans involves costume and masquerade — better to hide the profound social disparaties of race and class. Of course, Katrina has torn away the mask of exoticism and ‘laissez les bon temps roulez’ marketing machinery. Around the world, people are seeing New Orleans for what it, and the rest of America, has become — ‘laissez faire.’ Poor in environmental capital and social capital but rich in financial capital, literally trading our land and our people, at cut rates, for a few dollars more.

I think of this because it’s become obvious that those who are worthless to this trade in flesh and future were left to die, and because while the city is still partly under water, centrists like Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis and conservatives like Josh Trevino and Dennis Hastert are beginning to question if Crescent City should be rebuilt at all. I’ll give Gillmor, Jarvis and Trevino credit for raising some good points, but ultimately I think the very discussion is pointless.

By American capitalist logic, the city will be rebuilt as the market for its land requires, no more, no less. It’s the same logic that expanded the city into its untenable situation in the first place, and it’s the same logic that left every man, woman and child to fend for themselves as the storm approached. The hardest hit areas were the poorest, and the only reason people lived there was because it offered them a slight competitive advantage for jobs compared to the even more desperate plight of people living in rural Louisiana.

The issue is that the only way anybody chose to balance the scale was political expediency weighed against financial gain. It’s not politically expedient to call for the razing of much of the city, but the reason it’s even on the table is because it wasn’t a financial priority to maintain the delicate balance of flood defenses adequately in the first place. And all of them lament how the social capital of the city — the history, the culture, the pride and inventiveness of the people who live there — will actually be an impediment to ‘getting it right this time.’

I argue that our society couldn’t get it right if it tried. It doesn’t matter where in the world the people of New Orleans go. The poor, illiterate hordes will remain poor and illiterate. The middle class will continue having their standard of living and the wholesomeness of their environment degraded. And mega-corporations will get the contracts to rebuild the port (if nothing else) at a tidy profit and with a minimum of oversight.

My roommate wondered aloud if the local street population of Houston didn’t catch word of the relief efforts down at the Astrodome and simply claim to be from the disaster area for a hot meal and a cool place to sleep, something I’d also wondered. After all, like the residents fleeing the disaster, they have no homes, no medical care, limited education and absolutely no social mobility. Barbara Bush’s recent comments are actually rather telling. Only after being left to die in a disaster of epic proportions are many of these people getting the kind of care and concern most other industrialized nations guarantee their citizens on a daily basis.

Does anyone really think that if the city is abandoned, the levees reworked or the Mississippi drained into the Atchafalaya that things will get any better in the long run? Will the erosion of the southern Louisiana coast abate? Will the waters of the Gulf begin to cool and spawn fewer massive storms? Will beautiful, clean, well designed new neighborhoods suddenly throw their doors open to the masses of working and non-working poor who are now shacking up with their brothers and sisters in Baton Rouge, Houston, Memphis and Birmingham? Will racism cease to be a problem in this brand-new metropolis?

I also wonder if all of these commentators would be so circumspect if it was San Francisco we were talking about. They point to the rampant corruption of local officials, the folly of ever building there in the first place, the problems of a city with such a broad gulf between the rich and the poor and an economy dependent on tourism — all of which applies just as much here as anywhere else.

What they don’t address is that New Orleans is a city of locals. When the time comes to talk about the cost of rebuilding, nowhere in the spreadsheets will the value of those interconnected social networks be weighed, and mourning their loss will be called nostalgia, not an understanding and appreciation for what is truly valuable to humanity — community and a sense of belonging.

Acts of true heroism have been happening every minute as folks are plucked from rooftops, vehicles commandeered, medical supplies ‘looted’ to treat suffering. They all give me a sense that deep down, it is us, and not our leaders, who understand the true tragedy and what’s worth saving. But what inspired me to disagree with calls for abandonment were the people who went ahead with the Southern Decadence Parade yesterday. They prove that a city isn’t a collection of buildings, but a collection of people. Our individual lives will always be spent shouting into the winds of time, and these New Orleanais, buffeted by a hurricane, chose to sing.

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