New Orleans Dispatch

May 8, 2007

I can never see another New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival go by without feeling a twinge of regret — if you’re a music lover, then J&H is the world’s tastiest and most nourishing banquet. But this report (lifted from Altercation) is sad news indeed:

There are many things that rend your heart in this city, a shell of its former self — a shell of devastation wrapping both figuratively and literally around the Wonderland that is the French Quarter and Uptown. Tourists once again ply the Quarter and pay too much at its much heralded restaurants and clubs but one needs to walk just a few blocks from NOLA’s version of the Green Zone and you find yourself among National Guard Humvees patrolling the damaged streets and neighborhoods where many traffic lights still do not work and where one finds a chaotic public works system.

Despite the best efforts of many of the city’s most caring citizens, celebrities, artists and the millions of people that come to experience its music and culture, it is becoming apparent that the malignant neglect that was inflicted upon the city by the Bush Administration and the insurance industry in the wake of Katrina has changed it irrevocably and destroyed what made it great. New Orleans as we knew and loved it is gone — forever.

I know that many people would be outraged and hurt by these words and I do not doubt that Jazzfest and other traditions such as Mardi Gras will go on (albeit as artifacts), the streets (probably most of them), sewers and levees will be repaired and many of the destroyed buildings will be razed and others may be built in their place. But the heart and soul of this city is missing because almost two-thirds of its citizens are still gone and many, such as Aaron Neville for health reasons — so much a part of the musical landscape here — cannot or will not return.

During the second weekend of this annual celebration of New Orleans’ cultural contribution to the country the city was given a reminder of why many of its citizens seethe with anger at the mention of FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers. A typical spring storm moved through the area on Friday dumping several inches of rain over a two hour period. The Army Corps of Engineers had to step in and slow down the pumping of the city storm drains into one of the canals because of fears that it would breach and fail. This caused many parts of the city to be flooded, albeit temporarily. But one must ask that if a two-hour downpour can almost cause a major failure of one part of the flood control system, just how safe is the city almost two years after Katrina?

At Jazzfest the jazz tent this year, as if in acknowledgment of the periphery to which the music has now been relegated at the city that gave it its birth and the festival to which it lends its name, was situated in a far corner of the fairgrounds, the Gospel Tent now taking its previously centralized location. One also saw few minority faces in the jazz tent this year, an further indication, I think, of the African-American neighborhoods that are now for all intents and purposes gone. It is not that festivals of this sort do not and should not appeal to people of all ethnic groups but in previous years I remember the jazz devotees as a more integrated group — reflecting jazz’s roots and its ideals.

The idea of New Orleans continuing as an animatronic Disneyland version of itself, with its sustaining culture allowed to wither away through malign neglect, is almost as hateful as the thought of the entire city having been erased by Hurricane Katrina. But that’s exactly what’s happening, isn’t it?

2 Responses to “New Orleans Dispatch”

  1. doctorj Says:

    This report is much too bleak. Maybe it is because I have seen the city since it was first opened after the storm. The neighborhood around the festival was hit very hard, but for the first time it felt alive to me. People ARE coming home. They are rebuilding with little help from the government that caused their loss or the insurance companies they paid their premiums to. The musicians, like Irma Thomas and Marva Wright, are finally being able to move back into their rebuilt homes. New Orleans will NEVER be a Disneyland as long as her people are there and they are coming back, not because it is easy, but because the culture that is the city runs in their veins. We are lost without it. It is home.

  2. I agree whole-heartedly with doctorj. While it’s easy for us to look at areas of the city and become pessimistic, a more optimistic and, importantly, a much more objective opinion is that of Greg Rigamer, head of a respected N. O. research firm. Excerpts from a Times-Picayune article on May 4, 2007:

    New Orleans Head Count is Up 14%

    The return of New Orleanians since last summer to neighborhoods that were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina is responsible for a rebound in population to
    255,000 people living within the city limits as of March, a New Orleans research firm reported Thursday. The 255,000 figure developed by GCR & Associates Inc. is
    a substantial jump — 14 percent — over the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate that there were 223,000 people living in New Orleans as of July 2006.
    Greg Rigamer saw the influx of residents as a
    positive trend, particularly because many people are waiting for Road Home grants and many important city functions, such as access to public schools and the
    criminal justice system, remain crippled.
    “The fact that more people are coming than leaving under those circumstances bodes well for the city,” Rigamer said.
    “These numbers are just an indication of the great things to come,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. “Had people been given the financial assets
    early on, the recovery rate would have been stronger.”

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