Written March 2009
America can learn a lot from New Orleans in this time of economic crisis. However, the lesson might be approached in the same manner that outsiders react to their local cuisine — with a little trepidation, and maybe some heartburn.
New Orleans is a city of extremes
– tremendous ups and downs, joy and pain, music and mourning, dancing and toil, spirituality and sin, faith and fear, corruption and altruism, history and spontaneity . . . all accompanied by a beat. It is the beat of many cultures and countries coming together to form a truly unique community; the beat of a continuum which allows people to celebrate and worship in the midst of all odds; the beat which provides a cadence to mourning, followed by dancing in the street. This is the city that created a culture which dances in the face of death.
Unfortunately, New Orleans is known primarily for it’s colorful vice, crime, corrupt political history, and current devastation – all of which ignores the fact that this is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. It is one of the primary seats of what can be called “American” culture – one of our first multicultural cities, one of the most active seaports in the world, and the birthplace of America’s only indigenously original art form – jazz – which has flourished and evolved into every style of music that people around the world listen to today. Yet, just like our only indigenous art form, American’s mostly ignore the profound effect this city has had on the entire world.
As America groans under the strains of our economic downturn, we need to look to New Orleans for inspiration . . . not the ribald revelry of Bourbon Street, but rather the city that has risen to overcome the odds for more than 300 years.
During its first century of existence, the city faced pestilence, disease, and two fires that decimated its construction and infrastructure. They rebuilt, and moved on to their 2nd century; wherein they faced two wars, and a yellow fever epidemic that wiped out the city’s population. Yet, they rose to the beat, and soldiered on.
During its third century, two floods tried to wash them away. Every problem that arose in America during the 20th century found a major staging area in New Orleans – yet they continued to strive and thrive. However, three centuries of overcoming didn’t really prepare them for what they faced as they entered their fourth century . . . Hurricane Katrina.
It wasn’t so much the hurricane as it was various engineering, environmental, political, and possibly economic factors that created the flood in the days following the hurricane. 80% of New Orleans was under water for a considerable amount of time – soaking the city and it’s suburbs with mud, mayhem, and standing salt water mixed with sewage, filth, and floating bodies.
The city that had always danced in the face of death, and exhibited a resilience that had overcome all odds, seemed to succumb to this storm and it’s aftermath of utter destruction.
The images seen around the world cannot begin to fully reveal all the personal stories that unfolded during August and September of 2005. Something of this magnitude has never happened in a major American city before, and the events and reactions that followed have never been more polarizing on a National level.
I’ve heard many stories, and seen many pictures – but I still can’t fully grasp what it must have been like to leave a parent dead in a house, or on the side of the road; or to watch a neighbor’s body float by as I sit on my roof above the waters that have invaded my home and washed away my entire community; or to return to my home to find that it no longer exists.
The whole population relocated, or was eventually removed, for over a month until waters subsided and people were allowed back into the city and their homes — but many never returned. Many soon discovered they had nothing to return to . . . others returned, and tried to rebuild their lives . . . some succeeded . . . others gave up after coming to the realization that things would never be the way they were.
Today I sit in Chalmette in St. Bernard’s Parish. It is Spring break, March 2009. Almost four years have passed since the storm. Katrina is practically ancient history, yet if I didn’t know better I would assume it occurred within the past year. The scars of the storm are still evident throughout this Parish. However, it is no longer the ghost town it was two years ago.
The recovery is scattered – trailers no longer line the streets. There are homes that are fully restored and beautifully landscaped. There are homes that are in the process of being rebuilt. There are also scattered buildings that look as if the flood happened a few days ago – windows smashed, roofs caved in, and blue tarps that were meant to be temporary have become permanent fixtures. Random boards, trash, and weeds fill what were once manicured lawns.
Then there are the cement slabs, steps and stoops. Front door walkways to nowhere, and driveways to dirt fields . . . steps and short railings leading to empty spaces and memories washed away. A few of the cement slabs still have strips of linoleum, wood, or scattered tile that are lingering evidence of the families that once trod above these slabs and called it their home.
Yet, in the midst of these lingering reminders of devastation, there is life and activity. Trees and grass grow seemingly unaware that any disaster ever occurred. Flowers, plants and shrubs that were once part of gardens are now flowering in empty lots and fields. Birds sing, and go about their business happily anticipating the burgeoning spring. Nature seems quite intent on continuing despite any economic or political factors.
There are also people – driving, working, and living their lives. They seem to have a hopeful perspective – their once broken spirit is starting to sing again. Their resiliency has been renewed, and many feel as if their city and region is on the rise.
Inversely, I think of my home – “For Sale” signs line the suburban streets of Atlanta and surrounding towns. Locally owned businesses are succumbing to the recession, and shutting their doors in acquiescence to larger franchises . . . even as the franchises are downsizing their empires.
People across America are scared as they watch their stocks plummet. Fear mongering pundits predict disaster, paranoia and eminent doom while the new President tries to put together a plan to rebuild the economy.
People in neighborhoods across the nation are worried about losing their homes, or worried that those around them might leave – not so much because they will miss them, but because it will bring down the value of their own property. The country seems to be gripped with a fear that things might be changing, that we might lose some of our stuff, and that our standard of life may be lowered.
However, in New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs, people are moving back home into virtually empty neighborhoods in the hopes that it will encourage others to do the same. They are rebuilding, and making plans for better days ahead. There is hope; not for things to be exactly as they were – but that things can be rebuilt even better than they were before. The city of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes seem to be moving in the opposite direction of the rest of the Nation, and quite possibly the rest of the world.
Signs throughout New Orleans proudly state that they are now “Open for Business!” or will be opening soon. The Fleur De Lis is displayed as a sign of rebirth, rebuilding, restoration and renewal. People throughout New Orleans are moving forward with hope in the face of all odds once again. So, what do they know down in New Orleans that the Nation seems to have forgotten?
One word . . . Community.
New Orleans has a culture and community that is shared by all who live there. It goes beyond the food and music, beyond race and religion, beyond political and economic differences to an almost shared DNA of those who call the area their home. Instead of retreating, they are returning to face the odds together. Instead of continuing to blame others for their problems, they are sharing responsibility to turn things around.
Those that preach disaster, failure, fear and paranoia over the airwaves have mocked the idea of community, proclaiming that sharing social responsibilities somehow destroys our democracy – rather than serving as a backbone for revival, renewal and growth. People throughout America seem to have forgotten that this is a representation of how our very nation came to be.
Four years ago, New Orleans lay in shambles as many throughout the nation shrugged. Many blamed those that did not have the means to save themselves; others blamed politicians . . . but very few took a close look inside themselves to see how they might be to blame, or what they could do to help.
Today across America, many are experiencing similar fears and feelings to those shared by New Orleanians over the past four years. Some have lost their jobs, their homes, and their sense of security. Our collective concept of individuality and independence at all cost has bottomed out, creating a sense of national turmoil reminiscent of the New Orleans convention center in the days following the storm. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps only works if you have bootstraps to start with – and storms such as these, both literal and metaphorical, leave many with no shoes at all.
During times like these the human spirit can choose one of two paths. Individuals can react with fear, reproach, anger, paranoia, and even violence . . . or individuals can come to a new understanding, new hope and renewed faith. Instead of getting caught up in self-centered pursuits, doubts or opinions, people can reawaken – they can come to see the need of their fellow-man, and lend a hand.
The greatest example of this is something I am currently experiencing through the Saint Bernard Project. This non-profit organization is helping to rebuild homes, lives, hope, and the surrounding community. I am here with several college and high school students from Brenau University & Academy, located in Northeast Georgia. These students have chosen to spend their Spring break serving in this project. I believe the results are going to be life changing, both for those who are serving and those who are being served.
The Saint Bernard project is an organization that genuinely embodies the concept of community at its best. There are several other organizations serving to rebuild this city and region as well – Habitat for Humanity, Christian Aid Ministry, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Disaster Relief, Project Homecoming, and several Christian denominations and churches which are lending a hand in various ways.
Individuals may suffer, but together we are strong. Organizations that exist to serve others — rather than create their own profit — form the very core of our civilization. Groups such as the Saint Bernard Project help to raise the quality of life, create a sense of community, and give people the ability to rebuild their economy and earn a living.
People are coming together from around the world – young and old, rich and poor, and from various races, religions and cultures – to help people rebuild their homes and lives. The hopelessness felt by many for the past several years is being replaced by hope for the future . . . because they no longer have to struggle to rebuild on their own.
The Saint Bernard Project allows volunteers to work with an individual homeowner, so that they can directly see and feel how their efforts are affecting the life of another. This isn’t just “charity”, it is hard dirty work that often challenges the physical limits of the volunteers. Yet, the sense of satisfaction is stronger than just about any other activity you can imagine. It is hard work that is filled with a sense of purpose, an awareness of humanity, and the kernel that creates a community.
Collective effort simply works better than individual pursuits. There is a greater sense of achievement when working towards a shared goal, and a shared purpose, than an individual ambition.
The lessons we all learned in Kindergarten — to share, play together and work as a team — have been replaced by self-interest. We have lost our sense of community in most parts of the United States . . . but New Orleans, and the organizations working therein, can serve as a clarion call to rebuild that which we have lost.
Many of those suffering in America today may not have endured floods, but there is a similar sense of loss and hopelessness. So . . . we can all choose to complain, blame, cower and shout — or rebuild, restore, and renew our lives and communities. We can retreat and hide, or dance in the face of all odds. We can make this world a better place . . . but none of us can do it alone.
If you need to see what I’m talking about, take a week off and volunteer to help rebuild New Orleans with one of the wonderful organizations that exist to do just that. If you don’t feel any optimism within your own life, community or government right now — may the lessons of New Orleans fill you with hope, and help you hear the beat.
UPDATE 2015: On the Tenth Anniversary of Katrina, not a lot has changed since I wrote this article – other than a great deal of political whitewash. New Orleans has come back for those that are wealthy, and primarily white, but the city’s black infrastructure remains damaged. This article provides an excellent update on the state of the city:
It Was New Orleans’ Musicians – Not Its Politicians – Who Saved The City Post-Katrina
If you’d like the hear the actual music & sounds of New Orleans – my Katrina remembrance podcast, featuring a variety of New Orleans best music & musicians, is free on Soulandjazz.com:
Re-New New Orleans
J. Scott Fugate, “The Jazz Evangelist” 2009