Wednesday, September 7, 2005

The Gulf Coast

I have never been to New Orleans but have read about its architecture, have tasted its cuisine, and have savored the Southern Gothic atmosphere of the Bajou in so many novels over the years. My photographer friends, Sue and Steve (who will be shooting some for my IN THE PANTRY book) were down in Creole country last spring to shoot a variety of old homes and Spanish moss-covered places for their upcoming book on Creole architecture (I will blog more details on the book as they become available). Now they realize they have likely documented that which we may never see again.

But architecture aside, it has been difficult to think about writing about place, any place, since the effects of Hurricane Katrina have made themselves known in the storm's aftermath. Since late August thousands of people are homeless, and probably as many more are dead, and it was only a few days ago that aid and water and food started to reach them. We could not watch the news without thinking about the horrors of loss and illness and fearing for one's life on the streets or in the supposed protection of the SuperDome. The few that were able to escape ahead of the storm were going to stay with relatives or friends or to their second residence. [Who can forget Bush's off-the-cuff remark when he first landed to survey the damage: "Trent Lott lost his house! And we're going to rebuild it and I'm going to visit him there." Now I was surely heartened to know that Trent Lott's second, or third, or perhaps even fourth place of residence was going to be rebuilt. What about the poor New Orleans families whose only homes were washed away or submerged under feet of filth and stagnant water?]

And now Barbara Bush's comment today about "things working out well" for the refugees in Houston. "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them." The old Welfare state at work again, eh Babs? I used to have a lot of respect for this woman.

Anne Rice wrote a heartfelt piece (she lives there and writes about New Orleans) in the NEW YORK TIMES last Sunday. It was nice to hear from an author, a real place-identified writer whose atmospheric descriptions ooze of the old South and Creole traditions. It was also a rallying cry--a wake-up call. After highlighting the rich black history that the city has, she said the following:

"Something else was going on in New Orleans. The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy...

Which is why so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went north. They didn't want to leave a place where they felt at home in neighborhoods that dated back centuries; they didn't want to leave families whose rounds of weddings, births and funerals had become the fabric of their lives. They didn't want to leave a city where tolerance had always been able to outweigh prejudice, where patience had always been able to outweigh rage. They didn't want to leave a place that was theirs...

...Now nature has done what the Civil War couldn't do. Nature has done what the labor riots of the 1920's couldn't do. Nature had done what "modern life" with its relentless pursuit of efficiency couldn't do. It has done what racism couldn't do, and what segregation couldn't do either. Nature has laid the city waste - with a scope that brings to mind the end of Pompeii...

I share this history for a reason - and to answer questions that have arisen these last few days. Almost as soon as the cameras began panning over the rooftops, and the helicopters began chopping free those trapped in their attics, a chorus of voices rose. "Why didn't they leave?" people asked both on and off camera. "Why did they stay there when they knew a storm was coming?" One reporter even asked me, "Why do people live in such a place?"...

...Well, here's an answer. Thousands didn't leave New Orleans because they couldn't leave. They didn't have the money. They didn't have the vehicles. They didn't have any place to go. They are the poor, black and white, who dwell in any city in great numbers; and they did what they felt they could do - they huddled together in the strongest houses they could find. There was no way to up and leave and check into the nearest Ramada Inn...

What's more, thousands more who could have left stayed behind to help others. They went out in the helicopters and pulled the survivors off rooftops; they went through the flooded streets in their boats trying to gather those they could find. Meanwhile, city officials tried desperately to alleviate the worsening conditions in the Superdome, while makeshift shelters and hotels and hospitals struggled...

And where was everyone else during all this? Oh, help is coming, New Orleans was told. We are a rich country. Congress is acting. Someone will come to stop the looting and care for the refugees...

...But to my country I want to say this: During this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us "Sin City," and turned your backs...

Well, we are a lot more than all that. And though we may seem the most exotic, the most atmospheric and, at times, the most downtrodden part of this land, we are still part of it. We are Americans. We are you."

It takes a writer from the inside to speak so eloquently about a place that belongs to so many.

The United States is not a Third World country. While waging a war in Iraq, surely we could look after our own in a more expeditious manner? This is a national outrage--with international attention--that only underscores our weaknesses and the pressing need to address our country's own domestic issues of poverty or of pressing need in a natural catastrophe. It was heartening to see Oprah, who usually focuses on the poor in Africa, to visit our own refugee camps. I have always had isolationist tendencies--now, more than ever, we need to heal ourselves and help our own.

A neighbor told me this week that New Orleans got its name "The Big Easy" because of one's ease and ability to buy drugs there. It wasn't until I learned from Anne Rice's essay that it was because it was always considered 'easy' for a black performer to get a gig in that city. Above most, New Orleans is city steeped in black culture and tradition. As a nation we should do our best to not only restore the buildings to their former glory--from the French-inspired houses to the distinctly Southern "shot gun" style house--but we should do our best to give back their city, not as it was found but as it was lost.

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