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Back to the Future 

In this excerpt from Tom Piazza's new book, Why New Orleans Matters, the author argues that forsaking the hard work that it will take to make New Orleans great again will cause irrevocable harm to the city's — and America's — soul.

And what about New Orleans? What is the future of the culture that came from all those neighborhoods with their own sense of being, formed over decades and decades, where parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had lived? Former first lady Barbara Bush, visiting the Astrodome, told a radio interviewer, "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." How could they possibly miss a place where they were, you know, underprivileged?

How could they miss a place where they knew everyone on the block? Or where they could walk to the grocery store and buy food and seasonings out of which they could prepare meals that were unique to that place and which they had eaten since childhood and which made them happy? How could they miss a place where there was music all the time, and where they could sit out in the evening on their front steps talking to people they had known for years, and joking in a way that everyone understood, or where their son had gotten dressed in his high school band uniform that they had saved hard-earned money to buy, and then went out to play in the band for the Mardi Gras parade? How could they miss the place where their granddaughter took her first steps, or their father had kept his uniform from World War Two in a cardboard suitcase lined with newspaper?

How could you even say such a thing unless you assumed that people who were -- you know -- underprivileged had no past, no sense of life, no memories and no feelings -- in short, weren't really people at all, as we know them? That they were incapable of finding dignity and a reason to live even in the teeth of a hostile situation? The "underprivileged" people of New Orleans spun a culture out of their lives -- a music, a cuisine, a sense of life -- that has been recognized around the world as a transforming spiritual force. Out of those pitifully small incomes and crumbling houses, and hard, long days and nights of work came a staggering Yes, an affirmation of life -- their lives, Life Itself -- in defiance of a world that told them in as many ways as it could find that they were, you know, dispensable.

This may seem obvious to you if you are reading this, but it bears saying over and over again: They are not dispensable. Not to New Orleans, not to America. And any scenario of a rebuilt New Orleans that does not embrace the fact of their centrality to New Orleans, that does not find a way to welcome them back and make jobs and a new life for them, will be an obscenity.

Over the months and years to come there will be a lot of wrangling over that future, a lot of jockeying for rebuilding contracts, for housing bids, infrastructure work, every conceivable kind of work. It will be a land grab of a sort not seen perhaps since the nineteenth century, and maybe not even then. As the funds of good will and compassion start to ebb, as they are ebbing already, two basic attitudes will become more pronounced.

One might be called the top-down approach. Treat New Orleans -- emptied, as it has been, of people -- as a clean slate. Shocking as it is, more than a month after the hurricane hit, New Orleans is still, for all practical purposes, a ghost town. The entire population has left -- an unprecedented situation in modern times in any major city anywhere. The disaster, essentially, will be seen as an historic opportunity to recast New Orleans in some other more profitable form, less ramified and complex, more easily manageable. Top-downers will imagine the new New Orleans as a giant theme park -- Jazzworld! Invite back just enough of the, you know, underprivileged to staff the hotels and do the chambermaid work and garbage pickup, bulldoze everything you can get away with bulldozing, turn some of it into high-priced luxury condos and put up cheap shanty-town housing for the workers in the places still most likely to flood. If you thought the rebuilding contracts for Baghdad were fat, wait until you hear the cash registers ringing for Jazzworld. And now that all the underprivileged have disappeared and been carefully evaluated for reentry, it is even safer than Baghdad. New Orleans will be the new Las Vegas or, more like it, Atlantic City: a big gaudy faade for all the high-rollers, controlled by mobsters and businessmen who live far, far away and destroy everything they touch, a playground decorated and populated with grotesque caricatures of everything that made New Orleans real and beautiful in the first place, and behind the faade the endless tracts of housing where the help lives.

The other scenario starts from the bottom up, with the recognition that the thing that makes New Orleans attractive to the people who have supported the tourist industry for all these years, not to mention to the people who live there and pay its taxes, is that it is not a theme park. Certain blocks in the French Quarter show the scars of stillborn efforts to move in that direction, but they have never succeeded. The city of New Orleans has always had, and still has, a unique flavor that comes from hundreds of years of slowly mutating culture. If you have read this far there is no need to restate what has already been written about food, and music, and dance and costume and ritual. These elements depend on one another, and if people who have no sense of what it means and how it works, and no desire to find out, are allowed to destroy that cultural ecosystem there may be a brief boom that will line a lot of pockets in and out of New Orleans, but it will be followed by a collapse as the profits are taken and potential visitors realize that New Orleans is not New Orleans anymore.

And beyond that ultimately practical consideration is something deeper: It would be wrong, on a moral and spiritual level. We are all, by now, used to the fact that there will always be a certain percentage of citizens who will try to strip-mine and suck dry everything they can, who reckon everything in dollars and cents and have no compensating sense of grace or meaning in their lives. Everyone knows about Enron, and WorldCom -- in a few years if anyone is reading this you may not remember those two, but there will be new ones, don't worry -- and if you have paid attention to New Orleans in the past years you know about the city's debacle with the good people of Harrah's casino, and other casinos past, and that list doesn't end.

The bottom-up approach starts with what has always been, and what must continue to be, a sense of humanity and spirit without which everything is lost. It recognizes one important fact: New Orleans already has -- has always had -- the basis of a sound economy, although it has rarely played its cards efficiently. That economy depends essentially on two facts: New Orleans is one of the world's major tourist and convention destinations, and the Port of New Orleans is one of the largest and most important in the world. The city does not need to be turned into Las Vegas. All that will do is make a handful of people richer than they already are, and turn the city into a ruin within ten years, fifteen on the outside. New Orleans needs to recognize what its strengths already are, and build on those.

The oil industry needs New Orleans to be an efficiently functioning port. Every import-export business that has anything at all to do with the Mississippi River needs New Orleans to be an efficiently functioning port. Rebuilding and modernizing and recasting the functioning of the Port of New Orleans is something that the shipping industry, the oil industry, the food and grain and textile exporters and importers, and the unions associated with them, can all agree on, and profit from, creating long-lasting jobs in the process. Anyone who wants to see New Orleans take an economic leap past what it has been might want to think about this fact before the Las Vegas approach.

The people who visit New Orleans from around the world do not need another Las Vegas or Atlantic City. That is not why they come. The one downtown casino has been struggling from the very beginning as it is. If the casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in Biloxi and Gulfport and Bay St. Louis, are rebuilt -- and they will be -- people will go there to gamble, as they have for years, not to New Orleans. People come to New Orleans because they have imagination and they enjoy finding interesting corners. They might be New York or Hollywood people who email each other back and forth about fantastic restaurants they have discovered, or Midwestern conventioneers peeking into strip joints on Bourbon Street, or jazz fans who search out the corner where King Oliver used to play, or tourists who stroll amazed through the Garden District looking at the mansions and then eat a meal at Commander's Palace, taking the street car or a taxi and marveling at the flavor of this place. Destroy the flavor and you will destroy the reason they come.

New Orleans desperately needs imagination and vision right now, and leaders who can see past their own short-sighted interests. We need to think beyond the unimaginative functionaries and the small-time, charming rogues, and the soulless greedheads who manipulate them. We have to think a little harder about what we are doing as a culture. We have to think a little harder about what is important and what lasts.

At one point, early on, some public figures even asked whether it "made sense" to rebuild New Orleans. Would you let your own mother die because it didn't make financial sense to spend the money to treat her, or because you were too busy to spend the time to heal her sick spirit? Among people who are able to think only in terms of dollars and cents, for whom everything is reckoned in terms of winner and loser, profit or more profit, of course it doesn't "make sense" to rebuild, or to rebuild properly. A lot of things don't make sense in those terms, including every one of the virtues espoused by a Jesus who has helped them win votes but whom they would not invite to their house for dinner if they met him tomorrow, unless maybe he could be useful for fundraising.

Dollars and cents are important. And most of the large-scale good done in the world is done by people who have both money and vision. There are people of immense compassion and good will and love and insight and vision all across the socio-economic spectrum -- black and white, poor and rich. The question is not racial solidarity or class solidarity but a distinction between people who have a soul left and people who have mortgaged their souls for a short-sighted self-gratification -- whether they are the predatory thugs who roamed the streets of New Orleans after the hurricane raping defenseless women, or the wealthy fat cats who can't see past the next golf green unless there's a stack of money there.

Nobel prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, a one-time New Orleans denizen, remarked during the era of school desegregation that if we were descending to the level at which little girls were being spit on by mobs on their way to school just for the color of their skin, then maybe we didn't deserve to survive as a civilization. Strong words, but they echo in my mind now with the strength of a giant bell tolling. Greed, brutality, short-sightedness, racism, thuggishness are an abiding part of human affairs; they will never be eradicated. But we as a country, as a culture, can decide what we think of them, and what we want to do or not do about them.

During that first week, a reporter for the Washington Post tracked me down and asked me about the musical heritage of the city, and if I thought New Orleans could survive this disaster. Such a natural question, and so impossible to answer. What I said was that if any city could survive something this deeply traumatic, New Orleans could. But it will depend on the world giving back some of the love and human beauty that New Orleans has given to the world for so long.

The top-down approach is relatively straightforward and quick and it will ruin something that can never be replaced. The bottom-up approach will take more thought and maybe more time but it will build a New Orleans that feels like New Orleans, and that can last. Put in the legwork to bring in investment to rebuild what is already there -- the aquarium and City Park, the stores and restaurants and universities and neighborhoods that have been damaged, the hotels that have contributed to the city's economy for years. There will be plenty of money to go around. Use a Habitat for Humanity model to construct durable and livable and affordable housing for the people who want to come back to the city they love and will work for. Give people a sense that they have a stake in rebuilding their own lives, a collective project that can make everyone feel proud instead of cheap. That will be in the spirit of New Orleans, and it will pay dividends for the entire country. It is still not too late.

(Tom Piazza is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, My Cold War, as well as the recent Understanding Jazz. He has been a James Michener Fellow in Fiction, and won a Grammy for his liner notes for the album Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey.)

click to enlarge "The bottom-up approach starts with what has always - been, and what must continue to be, a sense of - humanity and spirit without which everything is lost." -  - Tom Piazza - TOM PIAZZA
  • Tom Piazza
  • "The bottom-up approach starts with what has always been, and what must continue to be, a sense of humanity and spirit without which everything is lost."
    Tom Piazza
click to enlarge Excerpt from the book Why New Orleans Matters. Copyright - 2005 by Tom Piazza. Published by arrangement with - Regan Books/HarperCollins. - REGAN BOOKS/HARPER COLLINS
  • Regan Books/Harper Collins
  • Excerpt from the book Why New Orleans Matters. Copyright 2005 by Tom Piazza. Published by arrangement with Regan Books/HarperCollins.
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