A new New Orleans

We need our city back. It will cost billions, and we should pay for it -- and here's why.

Published September 5, 2005 6:09PM (EDT)

When people ask me why I moved to New Orleans four years ago, I lie because it makes a better story. I give the usual spiel about the plastic cups bars will give you so you can take your beer to go, magnolias and camellias blooming everywhere, and the way no one bothers you if your face is covered with tattoos or you're decked out in a multi-colored rainbow umbrella hat and shrieking out passages from the New Testament at tourists strolling down Canal Street. The truth is more subtle and way deeper.

I walk to work in a neighborhood where live oaks have turned the sidewalk into an undulating blend of man vs. nature. The sun begins to marinate me in the first sweat of the day. A boy walks to school immaculately dressed in a pristine white T-shirt five sizes too big with spectacular yellow and red striped boxer shorts hanging out of the jeans he holds up by the crotch. The houses continue their sag into the Mississippi River soil, the gingerbread standards on the eaves above the front porch holding steady after a hundred years or more. The woman at the bus stop searches in her bag for the dollar I lent her the other day for the fare and still doesn't have it.

Then I go even deeper into New Orleans, to my do-gooder job at the nonprofit law office just blocks from Bourbon Street. My clients are days away from foreclosure, bankruptcy, homelessness. I try to pull them back from the brink, keep them in the neighborhoods their families have lived in for generations. Their homes are often their only asset. They've been carefully preserved, handed down by their grandmamas.

Those are the homes you now see underwater. Where are my clients? I search the faces on the Internet, the TV. With any luck, they are chilling in a Baton Rouge shelter or the Astrodome, building up strength for the long haul ahead.

Our own home is OK. But I'm one of the rich white folks you didn't see staggering out of the Convention Center after watching someone's daughter raped and the man who did it beaten to death by nine others. We're at the top of the bowl-shaped city, so there was no creep and rise of the shit-stinking petrochemical cocktail that's holding our city's head under water. A friend who stupidly stayed behind just drove by and told me our house had survived virtually unblemished. Neither the pine tree in the neighbor's backyard nor the live oak out front sawed our house in half. We'll be all right. Or will we? Maybe the insurance won't cover our losses because there was no damage even though we may not be able to return for six months or more. And maybe the noxious bubbling brew that's liquefied our city will deposit the same evil in the soil that's plagued the communities along Cancer Alley between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I'll settle back into my home as the tumor slowly forms and grows.

Dennis Hastert has already said it, and I worry it's on the minds of many. Let's bulldoze it. I have already called his office to curse him out. But I wonder . . .

The word "diaspora" has already been tripping off too many tongues way too often. The assumption is, apparently, that those who left with only the shirt on their back have nothing to return to. They will be forced to accept meager jobs and then locked into Shreveport, Houston or Salt Lake City because even if you put together their wages, the payday loan and the Social Security check, it still won't be enough for a down payment on a house back home, even in the no man's land of the lower Ninth Ward. There is talk that it's not worth rebuilding because the next time a Category 4 comes along, well, see ya later, alligator, as the old swamp popper Bobby Charles said.

Let's stop this talk right now. No one has a crazier love for their city than New Orleanians. In Phoenix, where I moved from, you're lucky to live a lifetime and learn the name of your next-door neighbor. In New Orleans, I sit on my stoop when the sun goes down, and friends and strangers come and go mumbling "Good night." Tanya from around the corner tells me she's cooking fried catfish and shrimp stew on Saturday for five bucks. The buckmoth caterpillars are smashed on the sidewalk, and the palmetto bugs skitter from the porch to the curb and back again.

And there are little scenes like this going on all over my city, my baby, oh goddamn, it's making me cry.

It was important for everyone to get out, a job the government failed at miserably. We tried for years to get those levees built up, and every time, we were shot down. For a few measly million dollars, we could've saved a few thousand lives and the futures of untold more. For this, heads will roll, and I will be the first at the guillotine. I will nominate myself as head of the newly created Department of Recriminations.

When that is over, though, everyone needs to get back home. You don't take someone whose family's been in New Orleans practically since Cro-Magnon times and plop him in Houston with a hundred bucks and directions to the job center. Even if they did tell him where north, south, east, and west is, maybe he wouldn't know what you were talking about. In New Orleans, it's uptown, downtown, toward the lake, and toward the river. A shrimp taco may be tasty, but where's the red beans and rice? Where's the kids in go-karts busting through stop signs? Where's the casino? Where's the zydeco washboard pumping out of the T-shirt shop on Decatur even though it's jazz down here, not zydeco? Where's the big chief? And if you don't know what the big chief is, then you don't know the ugly pain we're going through.

If it's ever going to be healed, if there isn't to be a permanent hole the size of Lake Pontchartrain in our hearts, we need our city back, from the toniest mansion on St. Charles to the sorriest, most sagging roof on Desire. And we need to be protected this time. We need billions, and we need more billions. We don't just need it because you felt guilty that the Superdome turned into the hold of a slave ship. We need it because we love where we live.

We need it because you came and caught that Zulu coconut and maybe didn't think about the life of my client who cleaned your room. Who didn't make it past the ninth grade. Who, at the age of 68, heart trouble, high blood pressure and all, is changing your towels for $6.70 an hour like some Hattie Carroll cliché because the Social Security check won't pay the house note by itself. We don't deserve to be victimized by our ignorance anymore. We've paid the price. We may have drowned before your eyes, but a long time before that, we were drowning in illiteracy, in political disfranchisement, and the crack withdrawals that made some of us go bat-shit crazy over the last few days.

No one may have cared then. But we would appreciate it you would care now.

We need your money (and it's not a question of whether you can give, it's a question of how much). Our friends have started to call us from Lafayette, Columbia, South Carolina, and Atlanta to tell us that they're not coming back. They're going to Tustin, Calif. Asheville, N.C. Chicago. My girlfriend was numb for days until this started happening. And now she's been a crying wreck. Her weekly knitting group just shrunk from 10 to eight. We won't be able to see Dr. Paul play his ukulele without buying a plane ticket.

In legal parlance, we need to be made whole. And we need to be made whole yesterday. The government dragged its ass getting us out of there, and just as the consequences have been disastrous, so will they be if we are not returned quickly to the city where we belong. We shouldn't have to lose our families, friends and neighbors because the money that should've been used to protect us was frittered away in Iraq. Every day we are separated is another day of heartache and horror. If we don't get back soon, it will be too late. More people will drift away as they realize that America quickly lost interest after the last person was evacuated. The anger will begin to calcify into a bitter, uncrackable nut.

We need our homes back where we left them in a clean, safe city where every second grader can read and we don't have to worry about cancer eating us alive. Until then, we will have the collection plate stretched out for more. And if it's not enough, if you stop giving and caring and helping us when we're not headline news anymore, we will be praying for you long after you've stopped praying for us. And then we'll wait -- unprepared and helplessly -- while the next hurricane forms in the gulf.

By David Koen

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