Monday, November 06, 2006

Another Misery Tour

(Someone's livingroom. November 2006.)

Steve’s niece is in town for a conference this week, so yesterday we took her on a Misery Tour.

In some ways, I found the drive encouraging. Each house being restored, each business that has reopened is a reason to cheer. Every time we venture into areas of the city we don’t usually visit, I am heartened by the signs of progress: more stoplights working, more FEMA trailers, the gradual disappearance of muck-encrusted cars and stranded boats on the sides of the streets. There is no denying that much is being done. Yet it is becoming obvious that the end result will inevitably be the much feared “jack-o’-lantern effect”: renovated houses and businesses scattered amongst moldy, abandoned ruins—or, at best, abandoned ruins scattered amongst renovated buildings. Perhaps, in time (say, twenty years), the more prosperous areas of the core city, Gentilly and Lakeview and Broadmore, will be completely back. But that’s not going to happen in Central City, in the Bywater, in the Lower Ninth—charming, historic areas of the city that were economically depressed even before governmental incompetence, corporate greed, and mother nature conspired to wreak havoc on America’s most magical city.

After we drove through Lakeview, Steve got on the interstate and headed east, toward Slidell. I think it is only from this elevated pathway through what begins to seem like endless devastation that one can truly begin to grasp the magnitude of what has happened to this area. As you stare out the car windows at mile after mile of gaping, abandoned houses and vast empty apartment complexes, it becomes harder and harder to remember that you’re in the United States of America. These are the parts of the city—New Orleans East, Chalmette—where the middle class (white, black, Vietnamese) built their homes and raised their children, where they went to school and church and shopped. These are the parts of the city that tourists never saw. It’s true that because they lie east of the Industrial Canal, these districts are more exposed to the effects of our devastated wetlands. But I suspect the fact that these areas aren’t important to the city’s tourist trade has also influenced their treatment by the Powers That Be. It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that running water has been restored to these areas--more than a year after the storm! Vast stretches of the city still lack electricity. As a result, mile after mile of once prosperous neighborhoods of once tidy little brick houses now stand abandoned.

Where are they now, the hundreds of thousands of people who once lived in these houses, who once shopped in these shuttered malls with those lingering, dirty water marks, who once picked up their children from these weed-grown schools? During Katrina, news reporters were told to call the displaced population of New Orleans “evacuees,” rather than “refugees.” The term “refugee” conjured up visions of the squalid camps of Gaza, of the desperate, huddled tent cities of Africa. Refugees were from third world countries; they didn’t speak English and they certainly didn’t have white skin. Americans don’t like to think of their fellow Americans as refugees. So of course the news outlets complied.

Except, “evacuees” go home, don’t they? How long do you have to be “evacuated” before you become a refugee? Perhaps there is something to be said for banding together, for living in camps or tent cities, like the Palestinians, or the displaced victims in Afghanistan. At least that way you remain visible. Because if you’re not visible, you’re forgotten, and in time, politicians can deny your existence. I don’t think we’ll see President Bush pausing for a photo op on the I10 above New Orleans East, with a hundred thousand ruined, abandoned houses as a backdrop.