Untitled Essay About New Orleans
On Tuesday, August 7th, the city of New Orleans celebrated its “Night Out Against Crime” with block parties at 155 locations. Various community organizations teamed with the police department to host these get-togethers. Free food, raffles, and entertainment, made for condensed versions of the usual sit-around-in-the-evening, with gatherings in parks and public spaces that remained full and safe after dark.
I got home from the day job around 5:30 and relaxed for a minute, then got on my bike, the summer sun still beating powerfully on my back.
First stop: two blocks down my street, Magazine, where the construction crew is putting the finishing touches on the reopening of this “vital commercial artery.” I note the smoothness of the concrete, the contrast to the crumbling red wall along Melpomene Street, the way a whole pocket disappeared under the bulldozers.
See, people were bent, I mean BENT about the street being closed. It lasted 4 years and broke the flow of traffic from downtown to the spreading consumerist suck-off that blooms along Magazine. Hair salons and property value suffered and chop shops and miscreants had good cover as long as that block remained unfixed. For some reason, I enjoyed the placid waste of it all, the way it reminded me not of the storm’s damage, but of the old city as it once was, a beautifully grotesque mash-up of battered cars, bamboo and banana trees, paint chips and madmen, isolated from progress and “the way things oughta be.” But glory be to the commerce and its persistence and clean edge! The “Sliver on the River” flows freely with traffic! Have a cocktail/California Roll/vintage blouse!
I cut across on MLK to S. Claiborne Avenue and swing into the parking lot of the mega-convenience store, complete with hip hop clothing outlet and taco stand. The corner lot is a center of activity, from the afternoons when day laborers await jobs to the night when it’s the easiest place to pick up booze. Across MLK sit two charred buildings which look to be staying and down the block are the remains of a brick house with a John Scott sculpture attached. Many of the Latino laborers chill right on the blackened steps of the burned building; a yellow, 10’ statue of liberty stares at them from the sculpture.
My target is the taco stand under the service island, where I know there’s a sign for one of the Night Out locations. I stopped in there this weekend to get some tacos and the woman asked, “For here or to go?” I said to go, since for here would mean right between two gas pumps.
“Taylor Playground, Washington Ave and S. Derbigny St,” says the sign. That’s only a few blocks away.
When I reach the playground, there’s a football practice on the field and several tents sit next to a large, sheet metal pavilion, a common shelter in neighborhood parks here. Inside the pavilion, I get some free tacos from another taco truck and sit down next to a pile of trash to watch the entertainment at the DJ stage.
The situation with the immigrant laborers is tricky. The Latinos move right into the ghettos, sometimes in damaged neighborhoods where no one else will go. It’s unclear how they get these houses, and I’m pretty sure that some guys are squatting a couple blocks away from my place. You drive by porches of Latino men sipping beer, with porches of young black guys doing the same the next house down. I haven’t heard much about conflict or lack thereof, but wonder how that goes down. There are signs that politicians may try to stir trouble between the groups for their own gain, as in the case of one brilliant city councilman who asked, “How do the tacos help gumbo?” Real poet, this guy, and he wasn’t asking because he wanted a good answer for the underclasses―he wanted a scapegoat. So, today in the park, it’s nice to see the taco truck there as a member of the community.
Man, there are a lot of cops, though. This is Central City, most dangerous in the post-Katrina landscape, and evidently the police want their presence felt. One cause of the crime plague is a lack of cooperation from citizens in criminal investigations. People don’t trust the cops, and would rather stay quiet than involve themselves with a historically corrupt, inept, and sometimes murderous department that can’t protect them from street retribution. What’s fucked is that these people continue to suffer from the violence, but refuse to endanger themselves by cooperating.
Most recently, this played out within the ongoing beef between the NOPD and the office of District Attorney Eddie Jordan. The DA announced that the case against the accused murderer of 5 men on one Central City block was closed because the one witness, a teenage girl, had disappeared. A day later, the mayor and police chief called a press conference and announced that they’d found the girl, and what the fuck was the DA’s problem? This resulted in demands for the Jordan’s resignation, followed by a defense of the DA along racial lines (he is black, as are the mayor and chief, but apparently white people said something). The result? Nuffin. Basically, the tempest gave the mayor and chief some cover for their ongoing bungling, and the DA weathered the storm because “he’s not the only problem.”
You sort of understand why people don’t want to cooperate with this system, huh?
But this evening, everyone’s getting along. The cops mostly keep to themselves and out of the way, and a group of giggling girls from the Israelite Youth Choir sings into the PA system. I check out the football practice, then make my way out, passing by some sort of Guardian Angels-type crew, with navy shirts and camouflage pants.
Riding a bike gives you a certain perspective, since you pass by at a slower speed with more time to look around. I drive up and down S. Claiborne all the time, but on my bike I notice a few things. First, a road crew is working somewhere, as there are barrels and uneven pavement along the shoulder. Second, after two years, the avenue is returning to what it was―a portly strip of fast food and gas stations between two large neighborhoods. The old Taco Bell reopened as a po-boy/Chinese food joint, and the Canal Villere grocer gave way to a coming Walgreens. But I notice more this time how many retail outlets are still shut down, and above all, how nothing new has come, no re-thinking of the avenue for the better.
Back when the planning sessions were open to the public, many people voiced a desire to see Claiborne become a thriving district, a central piece of the city, perhaps with a transit line or even a protective levee. Still waiting for a sign that those plans will come true, Claiborne goes about its business, as disorderly and crass as ever. Two years into this mess, hopes of the grand vision for a better city begin to wane, and you appreciate things like small street lights and drive-thru windows.
When I pull up to the Night Out on Freret Street, I see Kim and her boss speaking with someone in one of the tents. I lock up my bike and enter and find out that there’s no electricity, so the participating radio station has to play from their SUV and the snowball machine is down. Otherwise, things are mellow. Burgers, red beans and rice, and popsicles, kids getting their faces painted, the whole parking lot like a front porch. The neighborhood is diverse, a lot of families, close to hospitals and the universities, and helped by the guiding influence of Neighborhood Housing Services, the organization that sponsors the neighborhood center that Kim directs. A lot of people know each other from way back.
So we walk around, watch the kids play games, check in with residents we know. At one point, I walk back to the van and listen to Kim being interviewed on the 102.9 radio station. It’s still so hot that sweat drips down my back as I sit in the baked driver’s seat and watch people drift towards the party. Freret Street could be a town in the Caribbean, with its stucco and tile roofs and bent balconies. The street is fighting to stay alive, and the squalor of the boarded up dry cleaner is offset by the nursing school and boxing gym on the same block. Mixed-up, low slung Freret Street, oozing into evening. I lived here in 1999 and sit here now in a minivan, listening to my love on the soul station, her voice telling people to come to the neighborhood.
Back in the parking lot, they’re calling off raffle ticket numbers through a megaphone. Nights like this, when black and white neighbors just kick it, eat together, wait in line together, are our only hope. If we’re going to make it, we can’t pull any further apart, as that void is where the free market and violence mingle into a poison and ruin what’s left of the city’s lifestyle. People must stand together to reconstitute the basic machinery of civic sustenance, and the finger-pointing over the bodies of young black men makes the bullets doubly lethal, empowering hate-mongers on both sides who want to know why the other isn’t doing something.
While it’s hard to tell just how wide the gulf between black and white stands today, there are ominous signs in the public discourse. Like many newspaper websites, the Times Picayune’s nola.com now features a comment section. And while New Orleans blogs provide important critiques and watchdogs in the vacuum left by local media, this particular online sphere is home to the shrill, the nonsensical, and the determinedly racist. You can read a report about, say, trash collection, and within 4 comments, people are blaming thugs and lazy blacks for the last 500 years of New Orleans bullshit. Really, I’ve never read anything in the main stream internet so wildly defamatory as the little digs, jokes, and accusations at the bottom of TP articles. Perhaps I forgot how deep the divisions are, or maybe they never enjoyed such a public, anonymous forum, or perhaps, as I suspect, the tensions between races have worsened as the recovery remains mired in government missteps that fray the nerves of everyone.
Not to pin the effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and the storm on one man, but I believe a lot of this is the consequence of Nagin. Originally elected as a corporate, “white” candidate, his use of racial shading in every speech (especially the national ones) to appeal to blacks; his melodramatic pandering and whining in front of white national political figures; and his inability to staunch the bloodshed or handle the basic roles of a mayor in a (continuing) crisis, provide the perfect ammo for both sides of the division. Isolated and strangely emboldened, Nagin refuses to tone down his rhetoric, and instead plays odd games with the fate of thousands, as seen in the set-up of the DA.
It should be noted that Jordan is a protégé of Congressman “Dollar” Bill Jefferson, he of the cash-in-the-freezer investigation. If Jefferson is convicted and his House seat opens up, guess who goes to DC? Coincidently, Nagin’s frequent out-of-town trips now include fundraisers for an unspecified election run. Our best “hope” is that this happens, since he’d be out of the way and could hardly do worse representing us than a crook without committee assignment (Jefferson) or our diaper fetishist senator, Republican David Vitter. Or maybe he could, as there seems no limit to Ray’s talents for ineptitude. There are also rumors that he’ll jump into this year’s gubernatorial race at the last minute, but the predicted loss there would return him to us for another 3 years, likely with the even more swollen head of a “contender.”
At the party, I bend down to speak with a clarinet player I know who lives in the neighborhood. He’s holding his 12-week old baby and sitting against totem pole-like sign for a market that never inhabited the parking lot. I tell him that Da Truth Brass Band is running late, due to a police check a few blocks away. As we talk, the radio station’s SUV dies and they begin to push it out. Just then, the sounds of Da Truth reach us and we turn to watch the crowd gather at the lot’s entrance. The top of a tuba appears, then a large golf umbrella opens, and soon a miniature second line develops behind the band. They stop at one end of the lot and keep playing. There are seven of them and all look to be under 20, blasting away as the older folks circle them under the now lit street lamps.
I watch for awhile, dance some with Kim, then sit down, the heat being a little to strong for me. My phone rings and it’s old John Ringo, so I let him listen to the whole “Hooo Na Nay” chant. Then people begin running towards the back end of the parking lot and I turn to watch, telling Ringo I got to go.
The woman who organized the backpack giveaway has a metal chair in her hand and faces off with another woman who holds a cinder block. Fortunately people grab hold of them, but they keep trying to get at each other. It seems the cinder block lady stole the organizer’s purse from the booth where the giveaway was. She used a friend to distract the woman, but not for long. The organizer landed two good punches and snatched her purse back before the weapons were picked up. Unfortunately, one of the neighborhood guys escorts the thief out the back before the cops get there.
And the whole time, Da Truth Brass Band doesn’t stop. I talk to an old lady and we shake our heads. People always have to do stupid shit.
But the night ends fine, with my buddy the clarinetist jamming with Da Truth and the head of the community organization declaring through the megaphone that he’s “proud to live in this neighborhood.” We pack up tables and chairs in the minivan and drive back to Kim’s center, where a few dedicated people unload everything into the backyard.
The Night Out Against Crime took place in a week when 6 people were found murdered in New Orleans. The summer is a surly, irritated season, when time drags on like tired feet and you start sweating when you get out of bed. We live in an effortful, plodding period of survival mentality, pushing the rock, hoping against the calendar and the evening news that we’ll make it, that the place is worth it and too deep to die.
There is a madness to the summer, and a madness to staying here. But when the air cools a little and you’re good and tired and the street is empty but for bicycles, and you cut through the orange glow of silent neighborhoods of stubborn houses and people, a space opens up and you hope. You hope for the old people with walkers and the Popsicle stained toddlers, and for people who won’t give their purse up to fools, that this place is worth the long, unrelenting heat.