Après le déluge

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Photo by Lee Celano for the New York Times

Like Venice, it has often been said, New Orleans is sinking. It is sinking literally, of course, into the soft south Louisiana mud from whence it came. Yet it is its social decline that may ultimately render it more akin to the proverbial Pearl of the Adriatic—gutted of local life, of indigenous gestalt, with only the quintessence of its streetscapes left behind, ripe for exploitation by blind capital—and the superficiality of sightseers. Unlike the functioning, workaday trade city, New Orleans’ raison d’etre has never been its industriousness nor even its creativity, but its self-preservation: that of its paradoxically dolorous joie de vivre, yet one that could only be nourished by social distress. And yet the city finds itself at somewhat of an unprecedented crossroads: the point at which cultural survivance has finally been disrupted by a far more crucial need for survival; its life-giving cultural paradox unwound and exposed.

Nearly a year and a half since its devastation by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, New Orleans is experiencing another twin onslaught: severe population loss, coupled with heavy crime. As the New York Times reported recently, the city has lost over half its population, plummeting from a 2005 peak of 440,000 to an estimated 191,000 today. In the wake of this exodus are street after street of abandoned homes, much like those displayed above—shotgun houses of 19th century vintage, closely abutting what were once lively and populated blocks. While economists insouciantly laud the city’s decidedly unplanned shrinkage, noting that New Orleans’ once shiftless unemployed (“a lot of people hanging around, going nowhere” is how they are described by Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps) are now no longer inconvenient reminders of a metropolis’ purpose—and promise—lost, having been deported, perhaps permanently, to serve on lawncare labour gangs or the like in the suburbs of Houston and Atlanta, others are distressed about the effect the loss will have on the city’s culture.

Yet while the je ne sais quoi of such New Orleans streets may have disappeared, and of little consequence to the once again burgeoning tourist industry, still flourishing in the island-fortress of life and prosperity that is the French Quarter, the data points that have been animating economists’ upbeat predictions have scarcely soothed the tempers of those affected by the city’s skyrocketing crime rate. The assault on an affluent couple, resulting in the murder of a popular filmmaker who had made it her mission to encourage the city’s revitalization, was the trigger that brought together the city’s disparate racial communities for a seething protest march on City Hall, during which activists clamoured for answers from a mayor whose police forces had been bolstered by tens of thousands of National Guard and yet who had been unresponsive to calls to bring order to the streets.

What was missing from their efforts, however, was any suggestion that it may have been the exodus of their fellow New Orleanians, individuals who, perhaps, had never contributed to the sum of the city’s productivity bottom line, but who, nevertheless, preserved its rhythms as well as its collective sense of continuity, domesticity, and sanity, that had brought about the conditions of New Orleans’ violent, vitriolic uphevals. One wonders to what degree this intangible, missing variable is the unfiring neuron without which the social scientists’ otherwise contradictory statistical analysis leads to characteristically dispassionate head shakes and shoulder shrugs.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Sunday January 21 2007at 03:01 pm , filed under Demographics, Politics, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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