Monday, July 2, 2012

"New Orleans became a blank slate after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005..."

Posted By on Mon, Jul 2, 2012 at 9:17 PM

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National Public Radio began a new series today, "NPR Cities: Urban Life in the 21st Century," and New Orleans was chosen for the inaugural report. Its title was "Filling In New Orleans' Future, One Blank At A Time," and Debbie Elliott's story began with more references to the city's blankness:

New Orleans became a blank slate after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. And ever since, entrepreneurs have rushed in to experiment with new ideas for building and running a city.

The most-recommended comment on the story comes from New Orleans resident Beth Blankenship:

New Orleans most certainly did not become a "blank slate" in 2005. More than 350,000 people live here, in our homes that were either minimally damaged or have been restored since the storm, and continue the lives we lived before 2005, in the traditions of this very old, very non-blank city. We are not a tabula rasa for the entertainment of entrepreneurs, creative class-hipsters, Teach for America do-gooders and all the other folks who want to pat themselves on the back for "fixing" New Orleans. Lousy writing is fueled by lazy thinking, Ms. Elliott.

Other reactions were even more tart.

Jeffrey at the Library Chronicles blog called the remark "horrifying," and on the NPR site, Susan Wieland wrote:

As a 20 year veteran of teaching in an elementary school, I can barely afford to live in my neighborhood, Bywater. This is due for the most part to the influx of culture vultures and greedy developers. This is not "progress" but continued exploitation. Now we are inundated with well moneyed Brooklynites who don't sit on their stoops and chat with the neighbors. What the storm created was a vacuum and it is turning New Orleans into New Disney with a latte.

I don't think calling post-K New Orleans a "blank slate" was a malicious comment, but it is tone-deaf (and as Jeffrey points out, not original; The New York Times' David Brooks was already calling it that when there was still water in the streets).

People have come to New Orleans for centuries — it's a port town and a Bohemia that allows people to find their niches. (I moved here precisely because New Orleans wasn't a blank slate.) And neighborhoods change as well. But I just don't know how anyone can look at New Orleans' rich history, traditions, folkways — all the things that make it unique — and see Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods as some (un)natural disaster that turned the city into a tabula rasa, like power-washing a sidewalk ... a tabula rasa specifically made for those who weren't already living here.

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