I Wish I Was In New Orleans.

I can see it in my dreams.
Arm in arm down Burgundy.
A bottle and my friends and me.
Tom Waits

As much as I hate to think it, much less say it, I am coming to believe that the only thing left of New Orleans is the memory. To describe it as just another city would be like describing the Sistine as just another chapel. New Orleans was, in fact, a work of art, painted from a palette of geography, architecture, history, music, and the extraordinary people that brought it all to life.

It’s the people that are the only irreplaceable parts of this picture. Because, even if it were possible to reconstruct the historic, centuries old buildings that defined the physical character of the Big Easy, who would populate this reproduction? Thousands of the city’s residents are dead and a quarter of a million of them have been disbursed throughout the country, perhaps never to return, even if there were something to return to.

So what would we have if we rebuilt New Orleans? Would it come from the imagination of speculators and developers seeking to turn a hefty profit? Would it be like the Disneyland models of Paris and New York that Las Vegas tries to pass off as authentic? The soul of New Orleans did not come from the hearts of yuppies that we might expect to snap up condos in the New French Quarter. The richness of New Orleans came, more often than not, from its poorest sons and daughters. What would be the incentive for developers to invest in housing that would lure these folks back? And what of the writers, artists and musicians that made the city such a fountain of creativity? The city can be rebuilt, but can it ever truly be restored? Not without the people that made it what it was, it can’t.

Those people, the ones who survived, are now being subjected to the cruel torture of a government that is either inept or uncaring or both. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were declared federal disaster areas before Katrina even came to shore. So no one can claim that they were unaware of the impact this storm would have. Yet six days later, they are still without food, water, medicine and shelter. It’s a painful thing to see, and a shameful thing to know that our government is responsible for it.

This evening, as I struggled to find a way to express my sadness and anger, I got some help from an unexpected source. Hip-hop superstar Kanye West made an appearance on NBC’s “Concert for Hurricane Relief”. In a fit of inspiration and honesty, he departed from the script to say:

“I hate the way they portray us in the media. When you see a black family, it says they’re looting, and you see a white family it says they’re looking for food. And you know it’s been five days because most of the people are black and even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch — I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation.

So now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is, what is the biggest amount I can give and just to imagine if I was down there and those are, are my people down there.

So that anybody out there that wants to do anything, we can help with the set up. With the way America’s set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well off, as slow as possible. I mean this is — Red Cross is doing everything they can.

We already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war now fighting another way. And they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.

George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

This blast of spontaneous truth-telling is not often seen in the Corporate Media. It was refreshing and inspiring and necessary. Unfortunately, inspiration of this quality is viewed by the media as an accident that cannot be repeated. So NBC edited it out of the west coast broadcast. There were no obscenities or wardrobe malfunctions, only a heartfelt cry of anguish. But the defenders of decency at NBC (a division of the world’s largest defense contractor, General Electric), saw fit to protect us from this harsh reality, because, after all, we can’t handle the truth. The truth is that our leaders are leading us into the Valley of the Shadow of Death – literally for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and figuratively for the miracle that was New Orleans.

If the pessimism pouring from me is to be avoided, it can only be done by the people who made that city great in the first place. They must take the initiative to restore the city’s heart. They must demand that reconstruction be done on thier terms with a view of the city’s glorious past and a hopeful future. The leaders must take direction from the people. Developers must be constrained from blatant exploitation for profit. Regulations must be invoked to insure that the whole community is restored not just real estate and commerce. If the soul, and the eccentricity, and the hospitality, and the artistry of the city are not built in to whatever rises from the rubble, than it will not really be New Orleans. And this will not really be America.


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