Still Missing New Orleans
A Huge Loss
I'm one of those people who knows New Orleans, and though I don't live there, I feel the enormity of the present crisis deeply.
I lived in Jackson, Mississippi for more than 6 years in the 70s. I, and other members of the civil rights law community, loved to go to New Orleans. It was civilized. It was relaxing. It had good food and music. Not only wasn't it Mississippi, it made Mississippi and its stridency, divisiveness, violence and stress seem far, far away. It was to me actually the City that Care Forgot. It was like heaven.
It was a city that seemed to embrace what we were trying to accomplish up the highway. When Mississippi's federal judges made decisions that were predictably against us or just plain wacky, the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans seemed ever willing to grant a stay, to enjoin the craziness, to require that it be corrected. So traveling to New Orleans with a briefcase full of papers on the famous train, the City of New Orleans, was a mixed blessing: it meant you lost as expected in Jackson or Biloxi or Gulfport, but soon things would be set aright by wise men who understood the future.
New Orleans was also a refuge for me from exhaustion, from burnout, from crank phone calls, from police surveillance, from the petty difficulties of living in Mississippi, from fighting hard, from adversity, from judicial hostility. It was only a few hours drive away. It was possible to visit over a weekend. It was the destination to escape to. So I learned its music venues, its bars and restaurants, its ways of being, and I enjoyed its ambience, the slow, humid, deliberate way the City moved and breathed, its cosmopolitan civilization, its stories, its pace.
Yet New Orleans was not really paradise. It had no signficant middle class: it had the very rich and the black poor. It had its share of historical, urban racial discrimination. It had the incessant violence and pervasive discrimination that gnawing poverty breeds. It had an enormous crime rate, and its homicides were all too frequent. It had its monument to the Confederacy at the end of Canal Street. It had all of the troubled corruption and unnecessary violence of other big American cities. It had an ability to be overwhelmed by drunken conventioneers, who could be found talking to horses drawing carriages. But for me, and I think for a huge number of other people, it displayed a comfort, a sweetness, a sensuality, and a joyfulness that I felt simply as relief. It embraced us. It welcomed us.
Others have written their tributes to New Orleans this week. I heard two on the radio this afternoon, and Anne Rice has written in the New York Times today. Reminiscence isn't really my purpose here. I just feel profound grief at what has happened. In the pit of my stomach and in my heart, there is a deep aching. A City I love and its people, a City I hold in my heart as a refuge and the people who have made it so, are suffering and dying.
It would be easy for me to join the chorus blaming George W Bush and his administration for their gross incompetence and the huge and unnecessary loss of life, but that seems to be others' work. Instead, for me, there's not much to do. It's important, of course, to make donations to the appropriate organizations. And I urge each of you to do so. And it's also important to feel in my heart the enormity of my and our nation's loss. To me, it is as if something akin to paradise in my inner world has been despoiled.
Five years later, as so many others have written, the New Orleans diaspora continues for many, the City hasn't been rebuilt, the Federal Flood was an opportunity to displace New Orleans' poor from public housing and schools. Yes, many have struggled valiantly for a just, fair restoration. But I'd be lying if I said they were winning. Battles, yes; the war, well, the war just continues. Along with our pain and loss. Along with our hope.