I am suspicious September 24, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Fortunate mortal! the tide of Time has turned for you! But remember that her all is enchantment,–that you have fallen under the spell of the dead,–that the lights and the colors and the voices must fade away at last into emptiness and silence.
– Lafcadio Hearn, “Strangeness and Calm: from Lafacadio Hearn’s Japan
It seems at times that we have fallen not just into the habits deep rooted as City Park Oaks but from some high place where the color of the comment that greeted me in my too-early morning mail seemed inconceivable. Discussing the City’s decision on a new development at the site of the old Canal Street Walgreens someone I respect suggested that the high end retail the City Council suggested appropriate would have to wait for the urban removal of “the trash retails, the trashy people…” at that end of downtown Canal Street.
This came from one of the reasonable people on this neighborhood mailing list, someone I have come to respect. Perhaps it was the time it was written–2:44 a.m. when insomnia or an evening’s drinking leaves us in the company of the monsters of the Id. Or perhaps it was one of those black moments when no one on the sponsor list returns your call, the night is blinding dark and that bottle of Old Jim Crow somehow falls into the shopping bag. Perhaps she meant something entirely different: the homeless and drifters who people Canal Street, something else.
I have shocked a few people when discussing race when I borrow a line from AA and announce, “my name is Mark, and I am a rascist” but the curse we carry in this town and all across the south is an almost genetic propensity for the views we were simmered in all through our childhoods, from the screaming white women of Ninth Ward railing against desegregation on the television fifty years ago to the genteel way my grandmother would say the world “nigra.”
There was a brief window in 2005 and 2006 when it seemed things might be different. We all gathered together in church halls and unflooded cafeterias, people of all races and incomes, renters and homeowners, babies of Charity and Hotel Dieu, as optimistic as the liberated citizens of the first soviets. We seemed poised on the edge of something revolutionary, a people ready to take back our city from the forces that had run it into the ground for a century, anxious to build a bright and shining city on the hill out of the ruins of the flood, one made in our own image, out of our imaginations.
Our Menshevik innocence and naivete would soon enough be dashed.
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ….
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark-—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I was the housing chair of the loose collective called the Mid-City Recovery Group, and the fact that the established neighborhood organization would not lend their name to the proceedings should have been a clue. There was something afoot that could undermine the power structures built over centuries, something full of dangerous possibilities. One of the problems we faced was a lack of rental housing. The Road Home program (for what is was worth) was finally coughing up some money for home owners but nothing was being done for the small landlords, the owners of doubles, that made up much of the housing stock of Mid-City, at least not in a proper way. I stood in a small store buying cigarettes one morning and listened to a few tradesmen dressed in the motley colors of the houses painted yesterday, complaining how people were slapping up coats of Zinzer over the mold so as to cash in on the skyrocketing rents.
There was nothing on the horizon that promised better until some ambitious individuals, the sort we were quick to call carpetbaggers, stepped in and proposed to renovate several buildings into apartments, among them the old Crystal plant everyone in town knew from the sign that rose above the Pontchartrain Expressway. They planned to leverage tax credits that would require the set-asides by income. We did our research carefully. We had the architects assigned to our group by the city check into these developers and the answer came back they were first rate. The New York Housing Authority, we were told, never speaks–even off the record–about their development partners but this particular group had won their private praise for the work they did. The construction was first rate, their screening of tenants and management after the fact were stellar. These were not some “Section 8 OK” landlords but people who still believed they could make an honest buck off of urban redevelopment and be proud of what they did.
The group required some approval from the neighborhood before the tax subsidies could be released and the old-line neighborhood group would have none of that. A letter from our ad hoc group, however, would suffice. My own ad hoc committee was divide but I convinced them we needed to bring it to the full group for a vote. They did not approve, but I was allowed to go forward.
The tension in the church sanctuary that night was palpable as I made my arguments: there is no money in sight for the small landlords who made up much of the neighborhood, the city was starved for affordable housing for the low-wage workers that make our economy work. These people were first rate, would take an abandoned building in a blighted corner of our neighborhood and make something good of it, provide the affordable rental housing the city desperately needed.
As the evening progressed into its second hour I felt like Lawrence of Arabia in the film scene in which the victorious tribesmen of Arabia argue over what to do with Damascus after taking it from the Ottomans, wondering if this is what it was like to organize the first parliament in a newly minted country that had only known the authority of the village and the clan. I heard the word “Section Eight” spoken in a way I had heard before in our prior deliberations but never with such incendiary force, as if it were a synonym for al-Qaida.
I won that battle after those two ugly hours but fell away from the recovery group soon after, more worn out than disillusioned. We had, after all, carried the day. But somewhere inside a naive idea died: that the flood had washed away the old divisions, made us all the children of Katrina, wandering through the desert on our way to the promised land.
“The Bitch didn’t care. Her waters came up the MRGO and took the paint-bare, black-eyed-pea shotguns of the Lower Nine the same as it took the Bunny Bread, virgin-in-a-tub brick ranch houses of Chalmette. Claiborne Avenue or Judge Perez drive, they cried and struggled and drowned just the same. The waters that swept up Canal Boulevard and Paris Avenue didn’t stop in at the Hibernia to check anybody’s balance. They took everyone in their path, no checks accepted.”
– Mark Folse, “Talking with the King”, Wet Bank Guide
I believed that once, when I was willing to stick my neck out and defend our crazy mayor’s Martin Luther King day speech of 2006, mindful of having heard similar things said when I stood outside Black churches while working for politicians (us white staffers left outside to leaflet cars but I would often stand by an open window and smoke a cigarette, listening to the glorious preaching and music). But the disillusionments came fast and furious: listening to Stacey Head’s mocking of housing activists bent on preserving the craftsman-built old housing projects so people could come home, listening to the assembled ministers defend the right of a black contractor to charge ridiculous rates for garbage collection and calling out as racist anyone who questioned why we would pay twice what neighboring parishes did for the same service.
I belong to multiple neighborhood mailing lists (the one I am an administrator of in the place I no longer live, the one where I am now renting an apartment on the Stalling Park end of the fashionable precincts near the Bayou, on what I call the Fortin Frontier. There are days when I am more comfortable with Gentilly Boulevard than with Esplanade Avenue, and if asked where I live I will say Gentilly.
Another early morning email was a discussion of some police action just a few blocks over, a prowler in a back yard, which ended with one writer saying if you see anything suspicious call 9-1-1. Good enough advice until the last line: “and you get to decide who is suspicious.” While my neighborhood mailing lists come no where near the tenor of the comments on NOLA.com, there are days when I am tempted to sweep all of that email into the delete folder unread, or even to unsubscribed. My revolutionary days are behind me, and as I go through my files I sometimes wonder if I should stick that Mid-City Housing folder up in the same box where my copies of Bakunin on Anarchy and Trostky’s Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution quietly crumble with age.
I keep coming back to something I wrote years ago at another nadir of enthusiasm, something that stands for me along with a few other quotes by better writers: Sun Ra’s “Its after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” or the words of poet and playwright Raymond “Moose” Jackson that are inked on my arm around my fleur de lis, the ones I think said in so few words everything I tried to say in my own thousands of words written on what it is like to live list in postdiluvian New Orleans: “I am not alright, but I am upright.”
I may never give up entirely, surrender completely to the insular tribal loyalty of “the friends I have gathered together here on this thin raft” and will come back and write another post like this, triggered by some event or remark that seems to call out for an answer. Or maybe not. Until then I will leave you with this:
“Perhaps I ask for too much. If history and the city consumes us all one-by-one but the city lives on, that perhaps what was always intended, why were were all lured home. In the end, perhaps [author Thomas] Pynchon has given us the model to surviving it’s after the end of the world. If history has gone too wrong for any one of us to stop what is happening around us, maybe it is better to amble down a shady street in New Orleans without a particular thought in my head except the distant sound of what might be [Pynchon's anti-hero character Tyrone] Slothrop’s harmonica, to disappear into the random noise in the signal.”