Rebuilding New Orleans: The Right Way and Right Now!

Ideas and Issues Personal Writings

Baton Rouge      Everyone seems to be throwing their 2 cents out on the op-ed pages and trying to graft their issues onto New Orleans like so many barnacles on the boat, so I found myself sending this piece out on Monday.  It may not show up anywhere, but here it is. . .

My home is in New Orleans.  I have less than ten years to pay on a mortgage where I hope a house still stands on Burgundy Street in the Bywater neighborhood.

My office, the national headquarters for ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — and the regional headquarters for Local 100, Service Employees International Union, sits between my home and the French Quarter on Elysian Fields (the pathway to heaven in Greek mythology) only ten blocks from the River.  The offices sit half on St. Claude and the rest on Elysian Fields in what was once a funeral home.  At the last count more than 50,000 cars a day passed this corner on their way from home or work.  St. Claude Avenue was one of the main thoroughfares to the 9th Ward, where I live, and the Lower 9th Ward, now awash in water up to the eaves, where more than half of the ACORN membership and no small amount of the Local 100 membership lived, and where many of the evacuees were rescued on their way to the humiliation and disgrace of the Superdome and Convention Center.

Like more than a million other people, I have spent way too much time trying to guess whether the water lapped at either location (which in hardcore denial I still doubt since they were on the alluvial floodplain of the great River, and therefore among the highest ground in the city) or whether my front door now swings open, broken down by the door-to-door sweep for the last holdouts, or whether some other coup de grace may have been administered in the government riot that inflicted whatever damage was not already inflicted by the storm.  But, I don’t want to guess about the future.  I think we have all earned a voice about the rebuilding of New Orleans, or its abandonment.

Let’s be frank about race and class.  They still very much matter.  They have always mattered in New Orleans for hundreds of years.  That’s not news here.  The economic development and income distribution in the city have suffered from a well documented inbred isolation which stunted our ability to compete with our neighbors as Houston, Dallas, and others shot past us.  Our educational system was stunted by a dual system of public and parochial and private schools from a tax base that could not afford the competition and a business community that was committed to low wages and the limited educational requirements of housekeepers and dishwashers fueling the city’s hospitality needs.  We overwhelmingly passed a living wage ordinance in New Orleans setting a high wage in the city by one-dollar over minimum wage, only to see it stymied by legislative chicanery and business mumbo-jumbo.  We have been the cultural, third-world oddity and playground within the American empire, sort of a Jamaica without a beach, increasingly a playground without a real foundation.  Two-thirds African American and one of the poorest cities in America, we were easily — and tragically — abandoned in the aftermath of the storm.  We were not New York.  We were not even Miami.

Looking at the rebuilding, why not measure twice and cut once?  Why not allow some of the messy back and forth of public debate on our future include those of us who actually live in the city and call it home?  If the government could not hear our peoples’ screams above the water as the waves rose or in the din of the Superdome crowd, perhaps they could call this a “bought lesson,” as we say in New Orleans, and listen now.

We need some simple things now, whether or not we had them before or not:

  • A commitment that New Orleans citizens will be the “first-source” for hiring on jobs in the rebuilding.
  • A commitment that New Orleans citizens will be trained for all of the jobs available in the rebuilding of the city, so that these jobs can become stepping stones to their future and to the creation of real skills.
  • A commitment that these jobs will have real protections, permanence, and living wages (overturn the President’s waiving of Davis-Bacon now!) and give people a chance to come home and get back on their feet.
  • A commitment to publicly supported, decent and affordable housing on high ground above the Lake Pontchartrain level with appropriate density conforming to the special environmental challenges we face for the future.
  • A commitment to assist in the building of a public infrastructure that quickly assures that we will have decent public schools, libraries, civic facilities, and the other amenities that good citizenship and tax paying should expect.
  • A commitment that we will build in high technology infrastructure as part of the rebuilding, whether this means burying all of the utilities this time around, installing wireless and computer terminals bridging the digital divide, creating real and efficient public transit for working New Orleanians as well as to facilitate easy evacuation in the future. 
  • A commitment that we are worth the best and which enlists ideas and insight from around the world whether in flood control or wetlands protection and storm diversion or architecture for housing that fits our condition and incomes.
  • A commitment that our future will be served and not just the expediency of the hospitality industry or other “race to the bottom” sectors, that will allow us to be a magnet because of our special culture, people, and skills to develop intellectual capital and amenities which attract the industries of the future to one of the very special cities in the country and the world.

Let’s have a real experiment in democracy right now on the floodplains of New Orleans and let our people have a real voice, not just the corporations bidding to make us Falluja on the Mississippi.  We may be working people and poorer and blacker than the rest of America, but we are Americans nonetheless with the right to have our special place and our separate dreams.

We know some things that other people do not know.  We know coffee is better with chicory.  We know to eat red beans and rice on Mondays and fish on Fridays.  We know that Mardi Gras still has something to do with Lent.  We know the difference between a shotgun and a camelback house.

We definitely know enough to have a real say in the future of our city.  Let’s hope this time our voice is heard.