New Orleans: A Thousand Points of Blight

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I’m just back from New Orleans, and stunned and shocked. Nothing on television or in the papers conveys the scale of Katrina, six months on. You turn onto a boulevard and suddenly there’s a mountain of dead trees, gargantuan and muddy and scraped clean of branches and leaves by crews that left months ago.

That’s about all the evidence of federal activity, though. The great ongoing scandal of this disaster is the degree to which private citizens are being expected to clean up after themselves. Plywood signs are nailed up in trees or on the sides of houses with spraypainted phone numbers for GUTTING or TREE REMOVAL. Yes—private citizens are offering these services, six months into the alleged relief effort.

Where’s the government? This isn’t a question of Big government, this is a question of No government. A disaster blights one of our greatest cities, halving its population, and six months on nobody’s home and the most basic recovery services are being marketed by private vendors. It’s a national shame (and where’s the outrage?).

We treat dogs better. No doubt about that, the evidence is before your eyes. Everywhere you go there are still signs spray painted on houses and fences: Two Tan Dogs Here. 4 Dogs Here. 0 Cats Here. The animal lovers of America, and I’m one, mobilized bigtime around the hurricane. They canvassed the city for animals. And though too many dogs died atop air conditioners (that’s where they landed when they were swimming helplessly around in the floodwaters) a great number were saved. We can’t do the same for people. Something chokes the generous impulse when it’s poor blacks, or poor whites, or people who lack the wherewithal to do for themselves.

OK I’m a bleeding heart. But even the hardhearted should be ashamed of the fact that six months on there are still 20,000 to 30,000 abandoned vehicles on the streets of New Orleans, jammed under overpasses, and the city is floundering to get them cleared away. Or mountains of garbage and wreckage down every other street. This is America? Where’s the pride and can-do spirit? What do we pay taxes for? The only motion of grace or spirit in the Lower 9th ward are the college kids on spring break zipping up haz-mat suits to do a little volunteer cleanup. There should be some massive federal undertaking here, to clean up this gem, this great and strangled source of culture. But there’s nothing. (The bulldozers are in Iraq.)

(P.S. The dull murmur here, the conspiratorial whisper, louder when Mayor Nagin says it, is that New Orleans is being remade as a boutique city, a Charleston on the bayou, with red beans and rice for $17.95, the shotgun houses all neatly painted, and the poor blacks and their problems exported to Houston. “It’s never been safer here,” a guy from Fairhope, Ala., says at my hotel. The place has been, er, cleansed. That’s another story, of racism and urban planning and gentrification. Again, the federal government could rewrite the narrative here, could dedicate itself to restoring New Orleans’s former scale. But again, we see a vacuum of vision or even understanding…)

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