This is an open letter to America.
I am a native of New Orleans, born, raised, and educated all the way through law school. Most of my family is from there or from the surrounding parishes, specifically the ones that have been even harder hit by Katrina. We've been there since the 1760s. My wife's family is from there. Three of my children were born there.
I know the city, in all its glory and splendor, and all of its apathy and squalor. I attended numerous public schools there, from the very best (Franklin and McMain) to some of the worst (Gregory Jr. High, Kennedy High). I love that place like no other, yet hate the way it has so often been neglected and mistreated by its own residents. Like many young professionals, I left New Orleans to find better pay, better schools, better housing, lower crime. I left the city to its problems.
I say all of this in preface, so that you will know that I have some basis for my opinions. At the same time, I know the hard truths of my city. I do not deny the crime, the corruption, or the poverty. For many of my New Orleans brethren, the first response to any criticism of the city is anger, followed by denial. So many of us resist the cold light of the truth when it comes to our city and her failings. That is not in my nature, nor is it my purpose in writing this.
America, the response of the private citizenry to this disaster has been amazing, truly wondrous to behold. Everywhere I turn, I see another company sending a truckload of food, another individual clearing out their closets of un-needed items, so that those who have lost everything can at least put some clothes on their back. People are offering up their homes to complete strangers, going to shelters to cook for them, care for them. The governments of many cities and states have been similarly impressive in their generosity, particularly Texas, where displaced students are being allowed to enroll in school with no questions asked, and displaced workers are being given Texas unemployment benefits. Seeing this generosity in action is enormously uplifting. This is America at its finest.
Sadly, that is not the complete story of America's reaction to Katrina's aftermath. More and more Americans are calling for my city to be abandoned. This poll shows a majority in favor of never rebuilding the most-affected areas of the city. The Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, said much the same thing here. Across America, there is a growing chorus of people, from pundits to pols to regular folks, who believe we should abandon New Orleans, or at least the part that is below sea level (read: 80% of the entire metro area). Some, like Slate's Jack
Shafer talk in terms of whether it is worth it to rebuild my city, not just because of the logistical challenges, but because of what the city is. This is fast becoming not just a question of engineering, but a question of whether we deserve to exist there in the first place.
As Mr. Shafer wrote:
"New Orleans' public schools, which are 93 percent black, have failed their citizens. The state of Louisiana rates 47 percent of New Orleans schools as "Academically Unacceptable" and another 26 percent are under "Academic Warning." About 25 percent of adults have no high-school diploma.
The police inspire so little trust that witnesses often refuse to testify in court. University researchers enlisted the police in an experiment last year, having them fire 700 blank gun rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood one afternoon. Nobody picked up the phone to report the shootings. Little wonder the city's homicide rate stands at 10 times the national average.
The destruction wrought by Katrina may turn out to be "creative destruction," to crib from Joseph Schumpeter, for many of New Orleans' displaced and dispossessed. Unless the government works mightily to reverse migration, a positive side-effect of the uprooting of thousands of lives will to be to deconcentrate one of the worst pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States.
America, all of these statements about New Orleans are true. No one can deny it. I cannot condemn those of you who state these facts. I do not hate or despise you for deciding that it simply isn't worth it to rebuild my city. But I must ask you to consider this: why is it that a city that is so beloved by the World, for our culture, our food, our music, our joie de vivre, is so easy to abandon once you've had to look at how things really are?
So many of you have visited before. Enjoyed a fine meal at Commander's Palace or Antoine's, perhaps. Maybe gone to Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras. Marveled at how a single place can at the same time be so European, so Caribbean, and so American. You've taken the good, skimmed the cream. Benefited from our largesse of spirit in inviting you there time and again. But I'm willing to bet you never had to look beyond the surface details that we emphasize for you outsiders. Never wondered why the hotels and restaurants can be so cheap compared to other tourist destinations (hint: because nobody doing the grunt work in NOLA's hospitality business makes any money at it). Never thought about why so many people are willing to shuffle for your amusement, doing little dances, playing instruments in the street.
We are your Jamaica, your Cozumel, your Bermuda, right here in the U S of A. We are every tourist's playground, where you go to forget your cares. We are where you go when you need things to be easy for a while. We feed you, amuse you, love you, give you the comfort of a warm bed at night and strong coffee in the morning.
Well, now things aren't easy. Things aren't pleasant. There's no shucking and jiving now, because the shuckers and jivers are dead or dying, or displaced. We can't give you the illusion and the pretty show you want now. All we can show you is our need, our desperation. We have been laid waste, torn asunder. And how do more and more of you respond to this? Evacuate the residents, sure. Give them some water and an MRE. Let them have food stamps.
But abandon their homes. Let the city lie fallow. Turn the shotgun shacks into nothing more than another series of raised crypts. Don't waste the time, the money, or the effort in reclaiming what was theirs. They shouldn't have been there in the first place. No sane person would have built a city there. They're corrupt. The schools are disastrous. Crime is high. WHO NEEDS THEM ANYWAY?
You always have.
You've needed us when escape from your mundane world was the only thing that would keep you sane and healthy. When you needed to be transported to some otherworldly place where time is slow, meals are savored, music is breath, is life. We have been your spiritual succor for so long, longer than most of the country has existed.
Without us, there is no America. The Mississippi river made this country great, opened up access to vast stretches of the interior, allowed America to grow, and to prosper. We are the Mississippi. Everything that enters the river from abroad, or leaves it for the international waters beyond, passes through our port, or the ports of our sister communities downriver. Our music, jazz and blues, is the very cornerstone of all that is original in American music. Our cuisine has fed your presidents, your senators, your captains of industry. We are the salt that has given this country flavor. We are the mistress that America cannot admit out loud that it loves.
You need us. To be America, the real America, you need us. To have the culture that you have, we have to have been there from the start.
But now, now that things are hard, you tell yourself it wasn't worth it. It was a fool's venture. A crazed dream in the middle of a godforsaken swamp. You want to return to your gray flannel life, your insurance tables, your accountant's rationality. You want to be calm, and measured, and dispassionate. Let the engineers and the bureaucrats take over. Sadly, but predictably, in doing so you want to leave our city to rot. We are not of your world, do not share your way of doing things.
The very thing you have always loved, our separateness, is now the thing which leads you to cast us aside.
Did San Francisco deserve to be rebuilt after the Great Earthquake of 1908? Did Chicago deserve rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire? Did Iowa deserve assistance after the 1993 floods, even though they always knew they were on a 500 year flood plain? Was Atlanta worth saving after Sherman's march? As great as their contributions may be, none of these places has given you what we have given you. None of them were forsaken in their hour of need.
We have loved you from the start. And now many of you want to leave our city to die in a flood that you swear was our own fault. This is the hour of our despair. The time of our greatest need. Where you have reached out to comfort and support those who have been devastated by Katriana, this has been the hour of your greatest heroism. But in those instances where you call out for the city to be left beneath the muck, because it just isn't practical to be there, it doesn't make sense, it isn't worth it, in those instances what should be your moment of greatest nobility becomes instead the time of your greatest shame.
America, you have every right to feel as you do, to say what you have said. But we are listening. We who carry the legacy of our dead and dying city are watching. We have lost or home, but not our memory. We will remember, not just our homeland and the people and places we have lost, but your words, and your deeds. The generosity that has been shown to my city is a great credit to the nation. But the calls to abandon her are anything but.
Copyright © 2005 by Wayne Jones Reprint copyright 2015 by Wayne Allen Jones