Sunday, May 31, 2015

Notice whom for wheels are turning


Mayor Landrieu brought an interesting topic with him to this week's State of The City address. The talk didn't have an official title but we could summarize it as, "Katrina is over. Now here are three months of Katrina events for you."
In an address light on policy proposals but brimming with reflections on progress the city has made in the five years since he took office, Mayor Mitch Landrieu used his annual State of the City address Thursday to announce plans for the city’s commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and to declare that — a decade after the devastating storm — New Orleans is “no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding.”

“Now, we are creating,” Landrieu told an audience at the recently refurbished Carver Theater that included members of his senior staff, the City Council and residents.

Landrieu did not outline any major initiatives in the speech, which comes at the end of the first year of his second term in office. But the speech provided the introduction for “Katrina 10 — Resilient New Orleans,” a three-month effort to “commemorate the lives lost, honor those who helped us survive, acknowledge the work that has been done in our unprecedented recovery and ensure that we continue to build on our progress.”
So get ready for that. The "Katrina 10" festivities, much like the mayor's speech, appear calculated to sell us on the idea that it's all worked out spectacularly well.

Has it worked out well? If you're among the thousands of homeowners still caught in the snags of the disastrously administered Road Home program, you might not think so. If you've experienced the stress of living in a city that has gone from one of the most to least affordable renter's markets over the past decade, you might not think so. If you've found yourself unable to crack the frustrating "school choice" puzzle we've been sold as a panacea to our public education woes,  you might not think so.  But, really, Mitch Landrieu and the people celebrating the "unprecedented recovery" don't care about you.  Often, in fact, you may catch them explaining frankly that they see you as a "drag" on the city. The "Katrina 10" message is New Orleans is a success story. If you aren't succeeding, then you are actually the problem.

I don't understand how anyone can see the Katrina story as anything other than an unmitigated and ongoing disaster. It was disaster that killed and damaged and displaced followed by a recovery bent in every purpose toward cementing advantages for the upper classes while further displacing and marginalizing the rest of us.

And now the city is gearing up to spend the next three months celebrating these events with ceremony and self congratulatory bombast certain to drown out all but the happiest panglossian points of view. There was a moment after the flood when people were able to counter the official bullshit to some degree. I think maybe that moment has passed. How could it have been any different, really?

Bradley Warshauer has a post up referencing this New Yorker article by Thomas Beller.  
Katrina provoked an enormous outpouring of support and volunteerism that persists to this day. To take a totally random example, I recall reports of Stephon Marbury, not known as the most warm and fuzzy of professional athletes, breaking down in tears upon seeing the footage of stranded, soaked African-Americans, and writing a check for half a million dollars. But for all the good feelings toward New Orleans, and the concrete gestures of solidarity, I do not think that there was identification; America was not saying, “We are all New Orleanians now.”

And yet that statement is much closer to the truth, for America and for the world, than “We are all New Yorkers now.” What happened to New Orleanians on August 29, 2005, is much more likely to happen to most Americans that what happened to New Yorkers on September 11, 2001.
Beller's comparison of Katrina and 9/11 is hardly novel. It used to come up fairly often and I expect we'll see more of it in the coming months.  Bradley, though, finds in the article a particularly good point about the nature of the Katrina reaction.  
This, for example, from New Orleans public radio affiliate WWNO’s news director, Eve Troeh, is excellent:
“With Katrina, there was a question of responsibility, and blame. New Orleans is associated in the public imagination with the enjoyment of sex, unhealthy food, drinking. It was somehow like the country was saying to the city, ‘Let’s look at your life decisions. What did you expect when you were wearing that sexy dress?’”

That line has stayed with me—New Orleans as victim of a kind of climatological slut-shaming.
Even better, if less vivid, is the simple statement that comes just before: “…there was a lot of sympathy,” Troeh tells Beller, “not a lot of empathy.”

That difference is crucial. Empathy would have made the “Federal Flood” a shared experience, one all Americans could feel and learn from. Sympathy, though, comes with a mess of holy paternalism: If you weren’t like you are, this wouldn’t have happened.
On balance, the reaction to each event was pretty bad.  After 9/11, one might say the country had an opportunity for an introspective argument about whether its imperial foreign policy was really benefiting ordinary Americans. It certainly hadn't kept them safe.  Instead, we decided to burn the whole world down.

After Katrina, we found a moment where we could have reexamined our approach to urban policy and the inequality festering, not only in New Orleans, but in all of our post-industrial cities transitioning to the service based economy of the later 20th Century.  Instead we are cynically building a gleaming tourist boutique atop the grave of a city we've chosen to see as a "blank slate." Nevermind that it's a slate we've actively wiped clean through policy choices. 

One way or another there was going to be a "recovery." The massive federal investment all but guaranteed it. We could have purposed those dollars in a re-committment to fighting poverty and building a city that worked for all of its residents. The people who Ray Nagin would put in charge of directing the recovery chose instead to move the poors out and build nice things for rich people. Here's future Bring New Orleans Back Commission chairman James Reiss speaking to the Wall Street Journal in September 2005. Reiss lays out the policy prescription.
The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.

The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."
And he wasn't just speaking for himself. That very same week in 2005, Queen Mother Barbara Bush surveyed the scene at a Katrina evacuation center in Houston and surmised that the people stranded there were better off now.
WASHINGTON, Sept. 6 - As President Bush battled criticism over the response to Hurricane Katrina, his mother declared it a success for evacuees who "were underprivileged anyway," saying on Monday that many of the poor people she had seen while touring a Houston relocation site were faring better than before the storm hit.

"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas," Barbara Bush said in an interview on Monday with the radio program "Marketplace." "Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality."

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway," she said, "so this is working very well for them."
Everyone was appalled... well most everyone was.  But already, you could see in people like Reiss that our recovery process.. that thing the mayor is kicking off a three month Mission Accomplished festival to celebrate... would be informed by New Orleanians having thoroughly internalized that perspective.

Much that has happened since the flood can be placed within the context of us (or at least those of us with any power to do anything) having decided (to borrow Troeh's phrase) to "slut-shame" ourselves. The implied motto has been  If we weren't like we are, this wouldn't have happened. And so we're not like we are anymore.  Or at least we're trying like hell not to be.


1 comment:

Alfred Bistick said...

This is what makes you perhaps the most necessary voice in New Orleans. Thank you.