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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.
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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.