Sunday, May 28, 2006

Defining Home

We took a few hours off from laying floors this weekend to attend the Destrehan Plantation Spring Festival. We went because it was a good excuse to spend a few hours in the shade of centuries-old oaks, listen to good music, eat good food, and wander around the antique and craft booths. But we also went because we wanted to help support one of my favorite plantations. Without the millions of tourists who used to visit New Orleans every year, the plantations of southern Louisiana are hurting. Actually, a lot of businesses down here are hurting. One tour company has already gone broke; many small shops in the French Quarter will soon follow.

Of the tens of thousands of businesses that once operated in Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard Parishes, only a few thousand have managed to reopen. Many of those still in business are hurting. At first they couldn’t get in stock because FEMA had commandeered all the trucks in the area. They’re still finding it almost impossible to find workers. Many companies that do business on a national or international level are moving out of the area, complaining that there aren’t enough flights in and out of the airport, that investors are leery of investing in a company headquartered in such a vulnerable city, that they can’t get insurance. Our local governments keep talking about the many new business licenses they’re issuing; unfortunately, most of those licenses are for roofing and construction crews from Kansas and Texas, Tennessee and Kentucky—folks who’ll go home when the building boom ends.

New Orleans has always exercised a strong hold on its children; pre-K, the city boasted the highest native-born population in the country. Traditionally, very, very few people who are born and raised here ever move away. Yet I keep hearing about people who are leaving. Sam has a friend named Alice whose family used to live in Slidell. Sam spent many anxious hours with Alice on the night of August 29th, when Alice’s brother and father were stranded on the roof of their house with water up to the eaves and still rising. After the water went down, Alice’s family got a FEMA trailer and went home to rebuild. Except I heard the other day that they’d finally had enough; they’ve sold their half-renovated house and moved to Baton Rouge.

Even within my own family, many are leaving. We lost a total of eight houses in my immediate family—I don’t mean simply damaged, I mean destroyed, totaled, plowed under. One cousin has moved to North Carolina, another to a small Louisiana town an hour northwest of here. Once, they couldn’t have imagined living any place else. It bemuses me that they have gone and I’m still here. Perhaps it’s because I knew I was running a risk when I moved here. They were home; they thought they were safe. Now, they no longer feel safe.

My husband, Steve, thinks the tide will eventually turn. There are many, many jobs here that are unfilled, both professional and blue collar. He thinks that with so many people leaving it will create a vacuum, a vacuum new people will move in to fill. Perhaps. And perhaps in time the city will work its magic on them, in turn. They’ll learn to slow down, to dance in the streets and wait in the rain for hours just for the fleeting joy of snagging a great pair of beads. I hope so. This city is too wonderful to be allowed to die.


Charles Gramlich said...

I have several friends who would be in New Orleans today if they hadn't lost their jobs at Xavier University, where I teach. They love it here; they want to be here; they didn't leave voluntarily. But they have to make livings for their families. It's a sad state of affairs, not just for me as their friend, but for the city, which can ill afford to lose such talent right now.

cs harris said...

You're right, that's another aspect of all this that I forgot to mention--the people who want to stay but can't find a job or in some cases a house. It's particularly hard on university people, since those those jobs are so limited.