Opinion
 

Old problems persist, but it’s absurd to deny improvements since Katrina

I didn’t have much time to dread the arrival of Hurricane Katrina because we only had a couple days’ notice. I’ve had much more time to dread the 10th anniversary hype fest. I was lucky to have avoided disastrous loss of loved ones or property during the storm. This anniversary will be most wrenching for those who experienced the worst.

My emotional toll was comparable to that of other New Orleanians in the “sliver by the river.” I feared that New Orleans might never recover the critical mass of population to be a real city again. Besides this existential worry, I audited the national debate over New Orleans with a growing suspicion that our story was being appropriated by cultural careerists with little, if any, pre-existing bond with the city. This is the uncomfortable sensation I must now re-live as the cameras return to seek out inarticulate native subjects — us — and frame our experience in terms the average American can understand.

First and foremost, the debate over whether and to what extent New Orleans is better off or worse off than it was 10 years ago is a debate for New Orleanians — by which I mean people who live here, and who lived here then. Ever since Katrina, my Facebook feed has been filling up with charged opinions in the Atlantic, Esquire, Salon, The New York Times, etc. that seem to exist in a separate universe from the debate transpiring among locals. New Orleans is a national treasure, and people should come visit, but I’m not interested in opinions about the city and its evolution from people who don’t live here, work here, raise children here.

While I often remember pre-Katrina New Orleans fondly, and just as often grouse about post-Katrina changes, the idea that New Orleans is actually worse off than it was before the storm strikes me as ridiculous.

Not that everything is better, either.

The biggest problem in post-Katrina New Orleans is the same as the biggest problem in pre-Katrina New Orleans, and in the United States in general before and after 2005: economic inequality. As local law professor Bill Quigley has pointed out: “Ten years later, it looks like the same people in New Orleans have been left behind again.” He notes that, before the storm, 38 percent of New Orleans children lived in poverty, and today the number has risen to 39 percent. The squeeze is on because the cost of living is rising — mainly housing costs — while wages are not.

Quigley adds that the poverty rate in New Orleans is well above the national average. No surprise to the natives, but I wonder what useful purpose is served by trotting out statistics like this to the oohs and aahs of national readers. Yes, New Orleans has now and has always had lots of poor people. But what can Orleans Parish voters do about that when we’re surrounded by the red sea of Louisiana and ruled these days by a deep red Republican Congress?

Our police and district attorney can choose not to lock up and prosecute people for acts (such as penny ante pot possession) that are legal in more visionary states, but, beyond this meaningful measure, economic injustice is tough to tackle on a local level.

While economic and racial disparity continues to be a subject of spirited engagement for many New Orleanians, I fear that such details targeted at national audiences only feed the voyeurism and the complacency of Whole Foods and Starbucks liberals who live miles — or a whole universe — away from any black or poor person. They somehow convince themselves that the reason they don’t see poor people is that they live in an equitable community — when the simple fact is that they live in an expensive community.

Forty-five million Americans live in poverty. I don’t mind welcoming a larger than average share of them into my city until the country as a whole figures out a way to stand up to the “1 percent” — which will never happen as long as people, media people especially, think mass poverty is something that can be remedied by local government.

As I’ve written before, the effort to remove the poorest of the poor or to prevent their return to New Orleans (by means such as reducing the number of public housing units) is a betrayal of our fellow New Orleanians. We should be ashamed of that impulse, as well as frightened for our own futures. But, as Quigley’s own figures attest, the proportion of New Orleanians in poverty has not radically changed.

We could say the same for racial demographics. Quigley’s widely read piece makes the point made by many others, that New Orleans is “noticeably whiter” than it was before the storm. I have come to the same sad conclusion about my own neighborhood. The whitening trend in the downtown riverfront wards (which were never majority black) had the same cause before the storm as after: white people from somewhere else, with more money, moving in — i.e. gentrification.

When I was a kid, the French Quarter had plenty of black families, especially on Dauphine and Burgundy streets. They got pushed out of the Quarter way before the storm. After the storm, flocks of white transplants with money began to settle in Marigny and Bywater and the result has been the same. Gentrification drives out native blacks, though not without putting money in the pockets of those lucky enough to have owned their now-pricey homes. It also drives out native whites of limited means — like my own mother —though that effect is less “noticeable” because the skin color of the newcomers camouflages the loss.

But let’s put things in perspective: the city’s percentage of black residents has dropped from about 65 percent to about 60 percent. Not exactly a landslide. Meanwhile, the Latino population has jumped by more than a third, and the Asian population has ticked up slightly. The white population is up by about 5 percent.

In a city as old as New Orleans, it helps to consider the broad sweep of history. In 1960, when New Orleans recorded its largest population, the city was only about a third black. White flight increased the black percentage as overall population declined from its peak of over 600,000 to about 450,000 when Katrina struck — and to about 370,000 today.

That blacks retain a significant majority, both as voters and on the City Council, makes this something other than a cataclysmic moment of black disempowerment. The need to portray it as such is, I would suggest, little more than a failure by the commentariat to understand a more interesting and nuanced reality. I’m also suspicious when a country with a 13 percent black minority expresses such dismay when one of its blackest cities becomes slightly less black. What are they really worried about?

All of us — natives and interlopers alike — who celebrate New Orleans’ cultural identity invariably list “diversity” as one of the city’s key attributes. But the reality is that by the dawn of the 21st century, New Orleans was a lot less diverse than it had been in the past — unless you’re using “diverse” as a code word for “black.” Indeed, New Orleans in 2000 was less diverse than most big American cities. Nineteenth century New Orleans, by contrast, was a polyglot cosmopolis. That imbued the city with a reputation for the exotic that lasted a hundred years —but that was not the reality on the ground by the end of the 20th century.

The post-Katrina Latino influx at least gets us on the trajectory toward a more truly diverse society, so let’s hope it continues.

While the handwringing over the racial shift reeks of the hypocrisy and free-floating white guilt that attend all racial discussions in the United States, the increase in the cost of living in the face of stagnant wages is real and regrettable. It has certainly affected me.

The “hot” Marigny real estate market has done nothing for me besides raise my monthly housing costs by 50 percent since Hurricane Katrina. You heard that right: 50 percent. It’s a fixed mortgage, so the increase is entirely due to the increased tax assessment and higher insurance premiums, even though my neighborhood didn’t flood. Meanwhile, my pay as an adjunct college professor has stayed basically flat since I began my college teaching career in New Orleans in 1999.

While it’s true that most adjunct college English instructors in New Orleans are from here, and most tenure-track professors are not, I recognize that the plight of adjunct faculty is a national one, and that I would not improve my situation by leaving the city I love. But that’s just me, and straitened household budgets are just one aspect of the post-Katrina climate, albeit a very important one.

All right, then: So what are the positives that make the naysaying seem selective and sometimes just plain silly — however stylish? Above all there are two huge changes that make New Orleans, overall, a vastly improved place since before the storm. One is practical; the other is mythical in a very positive sense.

Possibly the biggest disconnect between New Orleanians at home and “concerned” national observers is over the most radical change in the city since the storm: the public schools. The need to resist the charter movement nationally puts many national commentators at odds with New Orleanians who just want to find a viable school to put their kids in.

The original sin of our now famous (or infamous) experiment in public education was real and vicious and was made by the elected school board, not the state-level functionaries angling to take over and transform the system: the decision, within weeks of the storm, to fire every New Orleans public school faculty member.

Call it creative destruction, if you will, but it cost many their nest eggs and their homes, along with their livelihood. And the fact that many veteran teachers and administrators eventually found their way back into the reconstructed system (a fact generally ignored by visiting media) does not excuse the ordeal they were put through.

The teachers union was decimated, of course, though lately it has begun to stagger back up onto its feet. The lack of labor protections has given many people of my political inclination a good reason to look skeptically at the charter-school movement. But I also appraise the situation as a parent and as someone who attended New Orleans public schools as a child.

Let there be no doubt that the old order fell somewhere between a farce and a tragedy: graduating seniors who couldn’t read; a school administration that somehow couldn’t remember where it had put $80 million in federal grants; a corrupt school board more fascinated by contracting games than education.

Drawing exclusively on my own experience, I could list several examples of totally AWOL teachers, men and women who sat at their desks while students did literally nothing for weeks (it was called “working independently”). I grew up among the impoverished intelligentsia, so I learned how to read and how to talk right at home — good for me, but I never learned math at home, which means I never learned it.

As a parent, I feel my children’s public school options are far more numerous, various, and of higher quality than they were in 2004. No question. That’s a gut feeling, but it’s borne out by hard numbers. According to Tulane’s Cowen Institute, college admission rates have soared in New Orleans, including the rate for black males. Where two-thirds of the city’s schools fell below minimum state standards in 2004, now more than two-thirds meet those standards even after the standards were toughened.

The system had become more or less completely segregated before the storm — verging on 100 percent black. Now white, Asian and Latino kids are overcoming racial anxieties and enrolling in significant numbers in a transformed system. Sadly, the pro-charter right celebrates these developments, and even attempts to lay claim to causing them. Is that the reason that left liberals can’t allow themselves to recognize that something important has happened in New Orleans: a more integrated public school system that delivers better education to children of differing income brackets?

Is there more work to be done? Lots. But that doesn’t negate the miraculous transformation we’ve witnessed over the past decade.

The disaster narrative that national observers are habituated to look for has blinded them to a lot of what’s going on in our schools — language immersion, for example. Reclaiming its mantle as a polyglot town, New Orleans has emerged from Katrina as a national leader in schools that offer instruction mostly or almost entirely in a foreign language.

This is medicine that our monolingual national educational traditions desperately need, but it can’t be acknowledged since “terrible,” “bad,” and “barely approaching average” are the only terms that frame New Orleans public education for most national media observers. Tant pis.

Our several public French and Spanish immersion schools are in stride with the trajectory of a more linguistically diverse New Orleans, righting the wrong of English-only America that was foisted on New Orleans by the 1921 Louisiana state constitution.

The school shake-up is only the most salient of the changes in New Orleans that have made for a stronger city, one in which people who merely used to shout at each other across racial and class divides, now are engaged in conversations — oh, yes, sometimes heated conversations — about how best to further change and build from strength.

Equally impressive to me has been the way the Katrina recovery has revitalized our sense of who we are as a city and a culture.

Cities, like nations, exist simultaneously on multiple planes. One of them is the practical, day-to-day realm that can be quantified and verified with reference to facts and figures. The other is the overarching realm of mythos, identity — call it what you will. And in a place like New Orleans, dependent as it is on a cultural economy, nothing could be more important.

New Orleans has long thought of itself as a special place, definitely not all-American, maybe not even American. Parts of that myth were unhealthy and counterproductive, to say the least: the lovable rogues we were willing to elect to high office; the slovenly quality of public services we were willing to tolerate, schools being just one of them. Katrina threw us prostrate at the feet of America, begging for help that, many of us feared, would turn New Orleans into Peoria, Illinois. But somehow, with one hand outstretched, we clutched a fleur-de-lis flag in the other.

The nation watched, scorning us at first. We won’t quickly forget Illinois Republican Congressman Dennis Hastert, then speaker of the House, now a lobbyist accused of juvenile sexual abuse, telling us we were stupid to have ever built a city here in the first place and certainly shouldn’t bother trying to rebuild it. But slowly, it seems, the nation began to understand.

Returning from the exile to America that Katrina had forced on so many of us, Terence Blanchard had this to say at the 2006 Jazz Fest: “I’m sure damn tired of people asking me, is New Orleans coming back. Goddamn right we coming back ’cause we don’t like y’all food and we hate y’all music.”

Today, many of the people who move here are concerned to become New Orleanians, not simply Americans living in New Orleans. Their anxiety about authenticity is easy to make fun of — Tulane geographer Richard Campanella famously derided them as “supernatives,” and I have rebuked some of their more awkward efforts as “vulgar exceptionalism.” But we are privileged to live in a city that people feel the need to fit into.

The newcomers might be driving up property values, but it’s happening because they love this place. People don’t just move to New Orleans, they immigrate here. The question of whether New Orleans would continue to be New Orleans after the cataclysm has been answered. The embrace of a distinctively New Orleanian identity is a beautiful thing, especially considering the vitriol dished upon us by the Americanist New Orleans haters when we were down and out in September 2005. Katrina’s richest silver lining is renewed and robust pride in New Orleans as an exceptional alternative to the dominant national culture.

C.W. Cannon’s latest novel is “Katrina Means Cleansing,” a young adult book about Hurricane Katrina for middle-school readers. He teaches writing and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.

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