Two cities, separated by 21 hours of driving and stops in Atlanta and Cincinnati. What comes to your mind when you think of New Orleans? Perhaps jazz and jambalaya. What could you remember of Detroit? Cars and the rhythms of Motown, maybe? Two majority black, chocolate cities. One's a place tourists used to flock to, the other one where tourists go by accident.
One city displays fresh, raw wounds. The other the scars of slow bloodletting. Though neither is ready to accept death, a pall hangs over both.
On a hazy, humid Saturday afternoon in Detroit, I was lunching with my friend Karen who works as a librarian in a city school. This summer she attended the American Library Association's conference in New Orleans. The librarians held it there as an act of solidarity.
On my road trip I had stopped in New Orleans just a week earlier. So we compared notes. Karen didn't make it beyond downtown and the French Quarter, while I had a full tour from old friend Kalamu ya Salaam: the 7th, 8th, and 9th wards, St Bernard Parish, New Orleans East and Uptown. And I took time to visit a corner of the Quarter and walk around Audubon Park.
To Karen I described the neighborhoods where I saw streets and blocks of abandoned houses. On some blocks, I saw a handful of people rebuilding while the rest of the houses were standing vacant.
Karen and I nodded in a moment of recognition. We both know blocks like this — in the east side of Detroit. The mind tries to relate what the eyes see to what memory remembers. And when I was in New Orleans, it immediately reminded me of Detroit. The destruction was more raw and fresh, more widespread and just one year old, but in time, the city could look like parts of Detroit.
New Orleans collapsed under the blow of hurricane Katrina. Detroit's death agonies were slower and framed by two major disasters: the 1967 riots and the collapse of the auto industry in the early 80s. In between came white flight, disinvestment by corporate money, organized neglect after the city had elected its first black administration in the early 70s.
Take a look. The house below is not in New Orleans but in Detroit. It's been that way for a while. The factory below is the old Packard plant; it was shut down in 1956. The ruins of industry litter the old neighborhoods of Detroit.
I wasn't going to go there. I didn't want to see devastation, again. Years ago, when I lived in Detroit visitors would say I specialized in giving devastation tours of the city. That wasn't my intention. But when you drove around the city, you couldn't avoid seeing the scars. A visitor from Spain said it looked like a war had taken much of the city.
So you may understand why I was ambivalent about touring New Orleans.
New Orleans, the Crescent City on the Mississippi. I first landed there in October 1999. And it was love at first sight. Sure there was the music, bold and brassy over at Donna's on North Rampart Street or on a random streetcorner. There was the architecture, unique to this city, even though I knew I could never afford to live in any of the grand-looking homes or even the quainter smaller ones. And there was the food; even a meal at Popeye's was better than food in fancier joints in other places. But there was more. There was something in the air, the blend of heat and humidity even in October that triggered something nostalgic in my memory of life in another delta country. There were the parks and the trees, massive, lush, casting shadows carrying a whiff of something mysterious. And there were the people, warm, humorous, and friendly. I lucked out in New Orleans, immediately getting to know some folks who were rooted in its history, culture and struggles. They became fast friends, and I would return, again and again.
Last year, riveted to the television in a way I rarely am, I watched visuals of this great city's destruction. By wind and water, and as it would become clear soon after, even more by human follies that might be better called crimes. In the year since, I've talked to my friends, read media accounts and personal stories, and I found myself blue from the stories of despair, suicide, and abandonment. By the specter that this great city was done for.
Why would I want to go there?
But my friends who'd evacuated had returned. At first I gave Kysha a flimsy excuse. "I heard it's hot as Hades in August." She replied, "And how's the heat where you're planning to go after this road trip of yours?"
I would go.
I arrived just after 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. On the six-hour drive from Houston, it had rained a bit as I crossed the Henderson Swamp. And the temperature that had been hovering around a hundred had even cooled down to the upper 70s. But the closer I got to New Orleans, the temperature inched up to the mid 90s.
Driving on the highway, I couldn't see much hurricane damage. Some roofs missing here and there. The rush hour traffic was busy, hardly a sign of an abandoned city.
First impressions from elevated highways can deceive.
My friends managed to acquire tickets to the premiere of the HBO documentary "When the levees broke" directed by Spike Lee. It was scheduled for that evening at the Arena next to the Superdome. Off we went, arriving there around the scheduled time, seeing hundreds of people walking to the event from where they had parked their cars.
The show started at eight, and it went on for four hours. The air conditioning was set so cold we were freezing before even half the show was done. Many people left after the second hour. Some probably couldn't bear the cold any longer. But we waited it out. A voice near me joked, "Now it's like sex, gotta stay through to the end."
The movie held my attention. It provided footage of the hurricane, the levees breaking, the desperation of the people, the neglect by the government. There were interviews with people including both ordinary people and experts. And there was a tribute to the unique history and culture of New Orleans, the city of jazz, Mardi Gras, and pleasure.
But a four hour movie felt too long. Even when you spread it out two days on HBO. Perhaps New Orleans people (who have HBO) might watch it, but will others elsewhere? Or will they see the start of the second episode and say, oh it's the same thing again and change channels? They, more than the folks in New Orleans, need to see this movie. The movie seemed somewhat unfocused to me, trying to throw too much upon the viewer, but it's still worth watching.
In a couple of hours the next day, Kalamu gave me a quick drive around the city. From the westbank, he wanted me to get a sense of the city. New Orleans is huge; there are open spaces, wetlands, even forests. The Westbank didn't get flooded. Neither did parts of Uptown and the French Quarter. The surface is uneven, with ridges all over the city, and many streets stayed dry. But the densest parts of the city did get flooded. He pointed out the water level marks on houses. I could not imagine what it must have looked like last year.
We drove through parts of the 7th Ward, the historic Creole neighborhood. Then the Gentilly neighborhood in the 8th Ward. Finally the 9th Ward. He grew up there and he showed me the houses where he and his relatives used to live. Those houses had passed on to other residents, but they were probably not going to last. I could hear the blues in his voice. Perhaps not very long in the future, he wouldn't even be able to point to any landmarks where he used to once live. Much of the 9th Ward may become "New Orleans meadows." I recalled a poem that the Detroit jazz pianist Harold McKinney once wrote about the east side of that city. We finished the tour by crossing St Bernard Parish next to the 9th Ward, and drove Uptown looking at New Orleans East to our right side.
Kalamu also took me to see the water that used to be wetlands just around the 9th Ward. They used to fish there. But for a long time it's just become blocked in muck. I was reminded of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where I grew up. Much of the city was low lying and there were many canals that drained the city when it flooded. But urban development has filled up many of those canals and the few that remain have mostly been blocked up from draining to the rivers. We pay a high price for this during periodic summer floods; it will only get worse.
New Orleans was hard to look at, even a year later. My camera batteries gave out. I'd seen the aftereffects of a tornado and a cyclone back in Bangladesh. But there they hit rural areas populated by people living in flimsy structures that were just swept away. But New Orleans is city: brick and wood and drywall and shingles and tile. It remains in ruins.
In some places the houses are intact from the outside; but the flood waters have destroyed everything inside. The people have not returned. But then in other places, house after house, broken, collapsed. Empty shells. Hollowed out.
There are folks back in some places, waging a hard battle to save their homes. They managed to get FEMA trailers. There were signs of repair work.
But on the larger scale, how can these neighborhoods be rebuilt? Can people rebuild when they are getting a pittance from insurance, when you'd have to work to live, and the economy remains shaky? There's a good deal of heroism from those who've chosen to rebuild, but they are the lucky ones, with some resources to draw upon. But if on a whole block only one or two houses are fixed, can the block survive?
The U.S. has not seen an entire large city collapse like this. To rebuild such a city would require a massive investment and doing things in new ways. There isn't much sign that this sort of effort is underway. In Detroit my friend Tom would say, looks like even the Hezbollah are doing a better job rebuilding war-destroyed Lebanon. Perhaps that's true.
On the way to Bennachin.
The best meal I had in New Orleans this time was at Bennachin on Royal Street in the Quarter, a restaurant that serves dishes from Cameroon and the Gambia. Kalamu took me there and on the way we picked up Jerry Ward who teaches English literature at Dillard University. We stopped to visit a woman named Mama D who refused to leave and is a powerful source of energy and resistance in her neighborhood. Jerry's done a great job at describing our stop on her street; I'd recommend you check that piece out. He began the piece with,
"Compromised freedom has become a major issue in my country since the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush, since 9/11 became the debatable icon of the twenty-first century, since Hurricane Katrina became the name of our national tragedy. We who believe that the United States is the most perfect example in history of what a democracy should be have an enormous problem of explaining to outsiders why suddenly certain freedoms are "unavailable"—unavailable for them and us. Nor is it easy to explain to an outsider why power is a glass tiger. The outsider believes that American citizens, whatever their status, can save the world, or whatever portion of the world the outsider lives in. She or he absolutely refuses to believe that we Americans are not omnipotent, that we can shatter.
"I shall blame my friend Kalamu ya Salaam for leading me down a straight-crooked New Orleans street and leaving me in explanatory difficulties. I had to explain the fragility of power as I talked this afternoon to a young man from Angola who lives in Zambia.
"We—Kalamu, Mahmud Rahman, and I—are supposed to be on our way to an African dinner and pleasant conversation. Instead, Kalamu turns off St. Bernard Avenue onto North Dorgenois and parks near Mama D's house/home/headquarters in the Seventh Ward." Read the rest at http://www.nathanielturner.com/returningtothesourcesjerrywwardjr.htm.
My own foray.
One morning, I drove Uptown to walk around Audubon Park. I'd driven along Magazine Street before, but this time the road was bumpy and I feared for my axles and joints. Even Uptown, restaurants that I had once eaten at were closed. But otherwise, these neighborhoods looked like the prosperous areas they had always been. This part of New Orleans will continue. It's also mostly white and well off.
I dropped in on the French Quarter. Perhaps it's just sentimentality on my part, but when I'm in the city I like to take at least a brief walk along the Mississippi, the great river that both gives life and takes it away.
I went to see if Faulkner House Books on Pirate's Alley was open. It was. The owner, Joe DeSalvo came out and we talked for a while. First, about the state of his store. He reopened in October but he's barely hanging in, the rent, insurance, all having gone up and hardly any buyers coming in, though there would be some lookey-loosers and be-backs now and then. While the Quarter may have avoided much damage from Katrina, there's simply not enough of the tourist traffic for many of the unique stores in the area to make it. Then, we went on to talk about the city, my trip, writing, literature from New Orleans. I asked him if he had the new book by Ngugi. He hadn't heard about it, but he went to the back and came back with an advance copy of Vikram Chandra's new book, "Sacred Games." I took the book out of its gold box and leafed through it, scanning the opening paragraph. It drew me in. But of course I couldn't read it. Joe said, you can have the book. Maybe you can read it on your long flight. And if you do, let me know so that I know if I should stock it.
When I drove into Michigan on I-75 from Ohio, the condition of the highway immediately reminded me of New Orleans. The Interstate highways were fine most of the way, but in Michigan, they're torn up. Once again, I feared for my axles. I've heard part of the reason for the bad roads is because the state allows greater weight on trucks, but surely that's not the only reason. It's also because the state doesn't want to spend enough money. There's road technology that can withstand harsh winters and heavy trucks. Once inside Detroit, some of the highways were newly paved but many streets were like New Orleans.
While in Detroit, I mostly visited with old friends. I'd been there last year so I didn't go around the city to see what the place looks like. But on Friday evening I did drop in on a music concert downtown at the Campus Martius plaza. This plaza was put up last year and it's become the center of downtown gatherings. The old Hudson's building that anchored downtown retail and had been shut down in the early 1980s was demolished and a new Compuware building has taken its place. There's retail stores open on the street and I also noticed a sign for Hard Rock Cafe. While it's still sadly true that many of the neighborhoods in the city remain shell shocked, I must admit that it felt good to see people at night downtown. It was a small sign of life.
The next day I did my usual pilgrimage to Belle Isle Park. This is a beautiful park on a little island in the middle of the Detroit River, from where you can see the U.S. on one side, Canada on the other. When I first moved to Detroit in the early 80s, Belle Isle was a lively place. Then many years of neglect came along. And it looked sad and pathetic on some recent visits. This time I was pleasantly surprised to find a large group of families attending a Back to School Rally, dozens of family reunions at nearly every picnic canopy, and many other people having picnics. The grass seemed to have been cut and a new Nature Center's going up. The small zoo has been closed down and my friend Karen would tell me that the people had again defeated a proposal to charge admission to this lovely urban oasis.
People celebrating on Belle Isle. Another sign of life in Detroit. And Detroit needs more such signs of life, available to all residents and not just the well off who can afford the new housing that's going up along the riverfront.
Things are still shaky in Detroit. Last week the teachers were planning to strike on the first week of school. They're refusing pay cuts. The school system remains in terrible shape. And without a decent educational system there will never be a true renaissance in this city.
In one more respect the two cities are similar. Both of them were 'monoculture' cities, their ups and downs depending on a single industry. Tourisim for New Orleans, the auto industry for Detroit. In New Orleans, tourism is far from reviving. It needs year-round convention business but that's not yet on the horizon. Detroit's placed its bets on casinos and new entertainment downtown, while the auto industry remains shaky. It's painful to think of, but the shoots of life that I saw in the Motor City may not survive.