wife, one year old and I took off for two weeks this past month
for a place where we could see lush semi-tropical vegetation,
including the palm and banana trees that seem to give Upstate
New Yorkers such solace this time of year. We headed south,
but instead of Florida or the Caribbean, we landed in New Orleans.
Suffice it to say that the journalism gene runs deep, once implanted.
I wanted to see just how this unique American city was doing
a year and a half after the devastation of Katrina and the subsequent
failure of our nation’s levee system down there. I wanted
to sort through all the tales of people in need I’d been
reading, figure out what all the crime statistics looked and
felt like on the street. Figure out WHY half the city had returned,
and were rebuilding, when half weren’t back yet.
Most importantly, I wanted to test my knowledge of how we love
the places we inhabit, how we shape our politics, in this nation’s
first real example of what it means to put such theories to
the ultimate test.
What we found was heartbreakingly hopeful. The damage we heard
about, when we finally saw it, is incredibly extensive. And
yet much of the city – especially its oldest neighborhoods,
where much of New Orleans fabled tourism is concentrated, seems
to be back on its feet with hardly a surface glimpse of what
everyone went through, being forced to evacuate their home turf
for months on end.
Think of New York City with lower and Midtown Manhattan, the
higher ground in Brooklyn and Queens, and much of the Bronx
intact… but over half the boroughs and most of Harlem
wiped away. Think of Kingston minus the Rondout and most of
Midtown. Think of this valley, our local towns, without most
of the hollows and all those who live there.
So why the sense of hope, the feelings of elation Fawn, Milo
and I came back from Louisiana with?
What we found, via work on several stories during our two weeks
there, was that the rebuilding we saw was being accomplished
privately or via neighborhood associations and churches. The
failures to rebuild, excepting the Lower Ninth Ward and a few
other devastated areas, were the result of large chain stores
abandoning their sites, or government offices doing nothing.
In other words, what was coming back was the result of people
loving what was there… and that included social and cultural
institutions, restaurants and corner shops.
Old restaurants are employee-owned now. The New Orleans Symphony
has become player-owned. Everyone’s saying there’s
more music in the city than anytime in memory, and it’s
not tourist-oriented, as everyone had feared, but neighborhood-based,
a strangely exhilarating mix of hip hop and trad jazz that’s
as unique as the problems everyone has gotten through together…
and are now remembering, immortalizing, via their art, their
Furthermore, those who have come back are in touch with those
still away because their homes were lost, keeping them abreast
of the changes in the air, letting them know they’re still
wanted. And they’re not letting bygones be bygones, taking
new developers to task who insist on throwing up cheap housing
on slabs, as well as those businesses preying on the poor.
In the long run, everyone’s talking now about a new political
awareness, angry yet community-oriented, rising out of the city
in a grass-roots way. And doing everything everyone can to keep
their city their own, without allowing for rampant gentrification,
even if that’s what the rest of the country is saying
Even the state’s iron-willed governor, wounded by the
hurricane and its confused aftermath, recently noted the change
sweeping over her state and announced that it would be better
for all if she did not run for re-election. How often does that
All , in the end, gave us the sense of hope we came back from
New Orleans with. It also made the city fun to be in, far from
its tourist areas, deep in its old neighborhoods, because of
the sense of hard-earned life everybody insisted on living there.
Moreover, it reminded us of a spirit that has kept surfacing
back along this Route 28 corridor over the years, pulling people
together after our own floods, our own fires and other cataclysms.
A spirit that has allowed us growth, as well as recovery; that
tends to fight big development in exchange for the protecting
of what we have here that’s unique and community-based.
A spirit that is all about how what we have, small though it
may sometimes seem, is really big of heart in the final rounds.
So now the snows are going. Vote for infrastructure improvements
in our schools and have a happy Easter, a joyful Passover.
Celebrate life’s renewal, in other words. Because that’s