19 January, 2011

the times, they are new orleans

i've got a routine like anyone else in the northeast: work and snow. but i'm just getting back from breaking that routine and visiting a place that continues to be a touchpoint for every important conversation going on in our country.

i've been to new orleans now 8 times, 5 before and 3 after. i've been to play shows, to write, and to record an album. i've passed through with friends; i went once for a retreat with like-minded activist artists. this time i went for a novel purpose: vacation.

i did all the touristy things i never do. we rode the street cars. we ate at coop's, the camellia, and cafe du monde. we visited cemetaries and museums. we went to see brad pitt's houses he's building in the 9th ward. we walked and walked and walked. we stayed with friends. we slept alot. unconventional as it was as a "vacation" choice, we definitely got away from our own lives for a few days.

but new orleans has changed. it isnt the city i remembered from my last trip, taking small but firm steps toward recovery. or the city i had fixed in my mind from "before". it felt like an entirely different place. 

perhaps it was the process of sharing it with someone who had never been there before that caused this feeling. perhaps it was my own life changing and shifting, such that i cant see a familiar place in the same way. this is, in fact, one of my favorite reasons to travel, re-read a book, or watch a movie again. how do we feel returning to the same place? it's usually that the place stays constant in its solid mass of buildings, streets, and natural contours, and thus we see the change in ourselves as we age and shift.

yet new orleans has changed in a way beyond what i know has changed in me. i dont know why this has surprised me so much. part of the magic of new orleans is that it has never been a place you could pin down or categorize. i have never been to any place like it, and at times, it can feel other-worldly. and when i say that it is a touchpoint for every important conversation going on in our country, consider what that means. economic recovery, urban renewal, arts economies, gun violence, race relations, gentrification, corruption, music, and politics- new orleans has something from experience to contribute to all these national dialogues.

but, for better or for worse, change in new orleans has always happened at a snail's pace. the government is notoriously slow, the erosion of the inner city has been like an acid river eating at the walls of a canyon, and the post-flood recovery has inched back. katrina was a sudden, but inevitable, cataclysm of water built on years and years of neglect, a man-made disaster fomenting for decades.

yet something has moved too fast now in new orleans. i think it is two-part.

first, i recognized some familiar signs that i have seen elsewhere traveling the country these last two years. vacant store-fronts sit next to vacant store-fronts. "for sale" signs emblazon house after house. there are more people lining up for services and fewer people on the streets outside their houses. in a time of foreclosures, unemployment, and isolation, the recession has left its inimitable mark here, as elsewhere.

secondly, there is a new tension in parts of the city. before going, a friend had warned us to be careful:

"new orleans isnt safe," she said, referring to some recent gun violence, sexual assaults, and a warehouse fire that claimed the lives of several young people. the underlying fear in her statement was that new orleans wasnt safe for white people.

i hate these kind of statements: alarmist on the surface, masking many more complicated factors underneath. rather than keeping any one person safe, they only make everyone more mistrustful and on edge. many people unconsciously conflate race and class, expressing class tension by perpetuating racial fears. this kind of thinking isn't new to new orleans, either. the tension that poverty brings has been a defining factor there for a long time.

we stayed in a neighborhood called the bywater, a place i have called home every time i have visited new orleans. the bywater is technically part of the 9th ward, but as its particular mix and motion became more pronounced, it acquired its own neighborhood designation. the bywater has been slowly gentrifying for the last 20 years. again the emphasis is on slowly.

so what was different this visit was this: a neighborhood that was for a long time a unique and vibrant mix of race, class, and occupation, has been suddenly infested by young white street kids. and it is not just in the bywater. it's in treme, the 7th ward, the upper 9th. here is an article from the times-picayune that came out while we were there. it explains who these kids are, but it also, rather predictably, leaves out a real exploration of the tensions they are causing.

this has happened fast.
and it's highly visible.
and it makes me so sad.
and it makes me uncomfortable.
and it makes me examine myself and my motives for being in new orleans. what am i contributing to the city as i visit each time- as a tourist or for work? when i walk around new orleans, am i afraid? if so, why? and why do i feel so sad about "new orleans being new orleans", that this dynamic city has changed again and will continue to change?

new orleans interrupts a lot of easy narratives with the hard facts of its reality. we saw this interruption on a global scale after katrina, a third world city made visible, a blight on the mythic narrative of our first world self-image (our dirty secret: in america, many many people- disproportionately of color- live in systemic poverty). in that same way, visiting new orleans interrupts my own easy narratives of a city where diversity exists without tension, where the grand unifier of music colors the landscape with a rose colored lens, where i can just pop in with my white-ness and economic mobility, soaking in the "real-ness" as i get inspired. and then i leave, back to my own comfortable, functional life. i'm trying to take responsibility for myself here. i'm trying to notice my own privelege, predilictions, and fantasies.

and then, i get mad.

no, crust punks, you dont get to just drop in with your dogs, jeans as tights, and thick framed glasses. somebody used to live in that abandoned house you're squatting in. ever wonder why they're gone?


  1. I loved reading your account of your recent visit. I think a lot of us are floating around in that boat when we look at the city and wonder how and why everything is this way. What are we doing? How do we envision our future and move forward?

    I lived in New Orleans before the storm. Then I had to leave, even though it broke me, because everything was gone. I had no idea the bottom could fall out that fast until it happened. Don't know why, really. It just never occurred to me.

    I moved around for about five years, living on the Carolina coast and then in Chicago. I came back to New Orleans in July. It is different here, irreversibly so, and some of the changes hurt. We had a long way to go before and we still do, but sometimes it feels like we're blindly groping toward something, anything, that will get us anywhere. I moved back to a place where I cannot afford the insurance required to purchase property or own my own vehicle, where there are few jobs apart from the self-made variety and where the health care system is slowly creeping back to its pre-storm level.

    But I can honestly say that this is the first time I have felt alive since August of 2005.

    Anyway, I guess that this is all to say that life in New Orleans has never been an easy ride. I don't know where I'm headed here or what will become of my city. But I will not leave again.

    And the gutter punks, well, I never really know what to say about them. They always had a presence here, but they have multiplied since the storm. I don't recognize the Bywater as the neighborhood I used to visit when I was in my early 20s. I understand that's the nature of cities, even those that haven't experienced an enormous disaster, but I hate it.

  2. i'm so glad to hear from someone who is living in nola now. i feel very sensitive to drawing conclusions only from my own experience. thanks for sharing yours!

  3. Erin,

    I think for many of us, the reality of Katrina is still so very vivid. Katie, did you stay through the storm or leave before? I stayed and remained through the storm (Katrina) and the real storm (post-Katrina). I finally had to leave as the devastation was so completely enveloping that it almost made you choke just to open your eyes and look. I have just returned in the last year, and Katie, I feel what you feel. Before this city fell apart I had a place here...a home, a vehicle and a family. Now, all of that is gone. And the injustice of it all, the treatment of is all, it still feels like pouring salt on a fresh wound. Where I used to belong is still a mess of storm debris, a memory of all that was lost and I wonder as I look around...will it EVER be what it used to be? As a white woman your age, I know FIRST HAND that she was right...it isn't safe here anymore. Its actually downright terrifying sometimes...but does that mean i pack up shop and run away? From my home? From the place where I lost my family? From all the memories of a life lived and of life yet to live?

    You do feel alive...but yet, you feel surrounded by memories of the death of so much...livelihoods, neighborhoods, families, a NOLA that used to beat like the blood rushing through your body...

    One thing is for sure...Erin, when NOLA gets into your blood, you can't get it out. In infects you. It takes hold of a piece of you. You can't leave it alone...

    Thank you for coming here. Thank you for speaking out about what happened here. Thank you for your anger. For some of us, there is no energy left to be angry, though it is truly all I want to be. Keep coming here...keep breathing your energy into us. I need someone to believe in this city, as sometimes it feels that I am the only one who does.

    Next time you are here, I hope I can meet you and thank you for your love of the place that I love so much.

  4. Erin,

    Id also LOVE to talk to you about ways you can be involved down here. I mean im sure you already have some connections, but would love to chat about it nonetheless.

  5. Allison, I was lucky to ride out the storm in Baton Rouge. Left just in time, right after Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation. Most of my coworkers were scheduled to be in the office (I worked for the paper at the time) and did not get out until after everything went to hell. I do not envy their experiences or their memories.

    I came back after Rita, stayed through the end of December. I remember the first time I drove into the city. Felt like someone socked me in the chest and the gut at the same time. I couldn't breathe. Sometimes I still feel that way, but things are better here than they were when I was trying to build a life somewhere else. Like you said, it can be so hard to be in New Orleans, but what is life, really, if you're not home? I'm closer to peace these days, and really hopeful for our city.

  6. Hey Erin,

    are you still out there reading these comments?


  7. Some of us fought hard, endless nights, in the streets, in the marshes, grassroots campaigns and at public hearings. We had nothing but our hearts and souls. We did not want their money, we did not want their building designs and we did not want their ideals. We wanted them to stand aside and let the old guide us through the recovery. We wanted to take care of our culture and preserve our most cherished memories. We wanted to stop the wrecking balls, and the placement of matching park benches. We wanted our folk art, we wanted to sit on our blankets in the park. We wanted to continue life and recover as we had before. We wanted to paint our buildings as we had before with our own creativity, but instead we were handed color palettes all boring and fitting for a more contemporary lifestyle.

    Some have rallied to return to the City in an attempt to give it a shot in the arm of "the way it use to be". Yet some have come to the City to take all they can get. I suppose what you see now is a collision of the forces. I love New Orleans. It will always be what I call home. I love to take my friends to New Orleans but it is a very different experience from what one would likely see as a tourist.

    In New Orleans, there will always be the spirit, the romance, the healing, and the beauty. You cannot take away memories. You cannot take away the heart beat of a City that has licked it's wounds before. Every person, especially artists leave something with us. This is why no matter how bad the City hurts, how many foreclosures you see, and how many thugs roam the street, you will continue to love us. That is because you truly want us to succeed. And that my friend, overtime, will be what revives us. Every person that visits the City becomes part of us and we become part of you!

    No matter if you ever visit us again, you will always feel as if you belong. And that is our true recovery! Just love us ! We feel you and that gives us strength.

  8. For the New Orleans bloggers!

    We made it through Hurricane Betsy. We made it through the AIDS epidemic in the 80's. We made it through the Pope's visit (joking, just a joke!) Heck, we made it though the Battle of New Orleans, slavery and yellow fever epidemics !

    Never give up on our ability to recover. Stay strong, we owe it to those "cool cats that blew a horn!"