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A Cry in and for Central City March 30, 2008

Posted by The Typist in 504, Central City, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: , , , ,

Here is another way our local media fail us, as all of our so-called leaders fail us. Poppy Z. Brite offers this glimpse into and plea for her new neighborhood in what a real estate agent might euphemistically call the “Upper Irish Channel”, but which she calls by its true name: Central City.

The Times-Picayune had its own name for this area a while back: the Triangle of Death. As Brite points out, that is all it is to most Orleanians, a cringe over morning copy or a route to Magazine Street we once might have taken but most no longer dare. It is as remote for us as “darkest Africa” to the nineteenth-century British newspaper reader.

Brite is one of New Orleans most eloquent defenders. For a while the local blogging community took up her cry of We Are Not OK, but that seems to have dwindled to just a few of us She offers us another perspective on Central City, and a plea that the place and it’s people not be swept under the rug. Since her blog does not allow for direct links, I’m going to copy her entire open letter to Jarvis DeBerry here, in case you stumble onto this long after the cited article falls off the first page of her website.

She writes: I just sent the following e-mail to one of my favorite Times-Picayune editorial writers, Jarvis DeBerry.

Dear Jarvis,

You may remember me — I sent you a Barnes & Noble gift card a while back. At that time, I was living in a temporary apartment on Prytania Street after we lost our Broadmoor home to the failure of the federal levees. I’ve since bought a house in Central City.

Man, I had a lot to learn when I moved here. I do not regret it, but the learning curve has been steep. We are the only white people within about three blocks in any direction. There are a few older homeowners around, but most of our neighbors are desperately poor renters, squatters, and semi-homeless people. They are mostly kind-hearted and even protective of us. They are also junkies and crackheads. When a white, middle-class person hears the word “crackhead,” he tends to automatically think “criminal” and then “bad person.” Many of us have known someone who had a pill problem or even heroin, or have had these problems ourselves, but I’ve met virtually no white people who had any contact with crack or its effects. It has an evil mystique that transfers itself to its users. Most if not all of my neighbors have indeed been to jail, but they are not bad people — they are only hurting and desperate. In many cases they are hungry and living without electricity or water. I give them sandwiches and cold drinks and help them out a little when I can. If they choose to spend it on drugs, I don’t begrudge that; I am not one to criticize anyone else’s high, and I am hardly pure in that respect myself (but that’s another story).

The system has failed these folks, and past a certain point, they have also failed themselves. It makes me sad, but sometimes it also makes me angry — not on behalf of myself and certainly not on behalf of white people, but on behalf of all the people who endured horrors in Selma and Birmingham and Neshoba County and so many other places so that everyone could live more freely, and also on behalf of those of us who want to help drag New Orleans back from the abyss. None of my more transient neighbors has ever exercised his or her right to vote. Only one of them, a sweet, badly abused lady in her mid-forties named Sharline, can read on more than a rudimentary level. Some of them are very smart and have skills like electric work, landscaping, professional cooking, etc., but their drug habits prevent them from using these skills to help themselves. Everyone is hustling and/or jonesing all the time. Having lived here just under a year, we have already known two people who died drug-related deaths — one a shotgun murder, one a 32-year-old OD whose funeral and second line we attended earlier this week — and seen a young man wounded by gunfire right in front of our house. I have never felt afraid for myself; they are the ones in great danger, not us. I will never leave New Orleans, but I often despair for it.

I asked [the editorial page editor] if I could do a semi-regular column called “The View from Central City,” because I truly don’t think most T-P readers have any idea what goes on in Central City. To them we are just a series of violent squibs, head-shakes, and turning the page over their morning coffee. There is no knowledge and no outrage. However, there wasn’t room on the editorial page. I guess I am writing to see if you would consider turning your attention to this neighborhood on occasion. I know I’ve never liked it when people tried to tell me what I should write or even made suggestions, so please feel free to ignore me or tell me to mind my own business, but I sure wish someone would do it. I am just coming out of a long morass of physical pain and severe depression, and I hope I will be able to write about this myself eventually, but as of now I’ve written almost nothing for 18 months — perhaps it is good that I didn’t get to do the column, because I might have been unable to live up to my commitment, and having made my living as a writer since 1991, I would have been deeply ashamed of that.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t bugged you. I realize I may be spouting cliches that you, as a black writer who often addresses race, will have heard a million times. At any rate, I think you have a valuable voice and I hope one day you will consider using it on behalf of Central City. I would be happy to speak more about this at any time.


Poppy Z. Brite

A challenge to my fellow New Orleans bloggers: do not let this post of Brite’s slip into the Internet memory hole unlinked and unnoted.


1. liprap - March 30, 2008

Well, it IS true. We are NOT OK. And it takes traveling out of town from time to time for me to really see that. I will be reprinting this in my neck of the woods, and I have more to say on the the whole out-of-town thing…

…but after that, I’m gonna collapse. Got in waaaay too late from the Left Coast last night/this morning. What Poppy Z might term as OH-MY-GOD thirty-eight.


2. ashley - March 30, 2008

“… I’ve met virtually no white people who had any contact with crack or its effects.”

Sheltered life, that.


3. Karen - March 30, 2008

Central City is fast becoming an Urban Prairie.


We have fought many demolitions in Central City and lost. This area of the City has a large number of Churches where the parishioners live elsewhere, they buy adjacent buildings allow them to go to ruin and after they have demolished them turn them into ad hoc parking lots.

Someone should question the tactics of these Churches as a force of disinvestment in the Community.


4. Markus - March 30, 2008

Sheltered, perhaps. Perhaps a recession on top of a war will begin to wake most of America from its stupified slumber, but I doubt it. It takes something on the scale of 8-29 to really wake everyone.

Karen, I’m not sure I completely object to churches having parking if it brings people back into the old neighborhood. Some set of our housing stock is going to go. It’s just to far into ruin. And we’re not about to reach the city’s pre-flood population much less our 1960s peak.

That doesn’t relieve of from saving as much affordable and historic stock in the core of the city.


5. Karen - March 30, 2008

The Churches I am talking about do not bring people back into the Community except on Sunday. Most of the parishioners and pastors live outside of the area.

The larger ills of Central City are not being addressed by a Lexus driving pastor who is building a money making machine in the waste land of the heart of the City.

I am not talking about historical buildings, it is too simplistic to make the case that X building is being destroyed and that our mission is to save it.

When a big box comes into the Neighborhood and makes the case that they are “helping” the Neighborhood by creating low paying jobs people question this tactic based on what kind of tax revenues are generated by said business as well as the impact of bringing cars and people into a neighborhood for one reason.

Many of these Churches are just big box business with no tax revenue.

We began a project to document the Churches in Central City as well as the acres of vacant land they have created, thus erroding revenues. We were chased and questioned, I have a greater fear of those institutions than I do of any crackhead on the corner.

Central City has long been sick, it may be terminal if people do not question “the machine” which has profited off of the ills. That machine includes a political entity as well as a faith based one.

Central City ails and someone profits.


6. sam - May 7, 2010

K this isn’t the one I was looking for. That having been said, I REALLY REALLY want to put a copy of David Simon’s “The Corner” on her doorstep. Read that and you suddenly understand.


mf - May 7, 2010

I remember that one I’m pretty sure.


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