By Thomas K. Lowenstein
New Orleans, LA, USA
I didn't live in New Orleans when Katrina hit, so I can't tell you what it was like before and I can't tell you very much about how the recovery is going. I only visited the city once before the storm, in 1990, when I was driving across the country with my friend, John, and we pulled into a French Quarter hotel at about midnight and managed to get to the lobby bar just as it closed. "Is there anywhere else still open nearby?" we asked, and they laughed at us. We walked out of the hotel and in a block or two were on Bourbon Street, surrounded by people walking around with "go" cups. Liquor to go.
Thomas K. Lowenstein
The next time I was in New Orleans was Christmas of 2005, a couple of months after the storm. I'd come down with my then girlfriend (now wife) to meet her parents. Her father's house was right beside the 17th street Canal and was a total loss; her mother's had only gotten a couple of feet of water, but was very badly damaged. So we had Christmas in a borrowed house, a cousin who was going somewhere else let us use it. Coming into the city from the airport, I remember seeing billboards that had been toppled, buildings that had been damaged. I remember in the city, under the I-10, there were rows and rows of cars, covered in silt—"the Katrina patina", my soon-to-be sister-in-law called it.
But the more I was around the town, the harder it was to tell sometimes what was Katrina damage and what was just urban decay. A building on a downtown corner, deserted, with windows blown out—that had to be storm damage. Tulane Avenue, one of the main avenues leading into the downtown area, where the court house and the police station are, is lined with seedy motels, empty lots, blighted buildings—was it all nice before the storm? That seems hard to imagine. At one point, looking at a big sign that had been strung along a construction site proclaiming the revitalization of the Tulane neighborhood, I asked my wife, "When was Tulane Avenue nice?" She'd grown up in New Orleans. She didn't know.
Now I've been living in New Orleans for two years, and there are still blighted buildings and storm damage all around. One school, not far from my office, still has a sign up welcoming students back for the 2005 school year. Couldn't someone take that down? And the houses that still have the infamous Katrina "X” on them, showing that they'd been searched and marking how many dead bodies had been found—couldn't those be painted over? But it's not simple—one person I know, who worked on a project to build affordable, green housing in a poor part of town, explained to me that many of the property owners didn't have deeds. Their family had been living in a house or on a certain plot of land for a hundred years, and no one even bothered to write it down or file something with the city. In this day and age, how do you straighten that out? Or how do you tell someone who lost everything and moved away that they have to come back to take care of the destroyed house or cut the grass?
All of this is some kind of fitting metaphor for the criminal justice system in New Orleans, which is where I do my work. The storm was big, the storm was bad, but the storm isn't why it's in the kind of shape it's in today. The offices at the courthouse on Tulane, horribly flooded 5 years ago, are now working again—and close by about 3 every afternoon. There are currently 18 New Orleans Police Officers under indictment for brutality of one sort or another in the days surrounding Katrina—the kinds of brutality the NOPD was famous for in the 1980's. The storm was big and bad, but it didn't make those officers feel like they could do what they wanted, when they wanted—they were part of a culture that told them that.
A couple of other observations about New Orleans:
• We have the worst drivers in the world. People literally stop their cars in the middle of the road to chat with pedestrians, or to look at something.
• The city, as far as I can tell, is run by jazz musicians with day jobs, which makes it a great place to live but not a great place to get things done. And I mean this literally—when you go in the coroner's office, for example, there's a big painting of him playing a trumpet up on the wall. The coroner. The former DA of 30 years had a regular gig at a jazz club. (His son, Harry Connick, Jr., is a pretty famous musician these days.)
• White people here for some reason think the country's rich heritage of racism somehow missed them; I think this is because there has always been a thriving African-American community in New Orleans and because it's such a cool city in some ways. My office is also just a few blocks from where Mr. Plessy was denied access to the streetcar, which led to the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case in which the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal is ok.
• There are a lot of people here who take a perverse pride in how messed up the place is, as if there's some kind of badge of honor you get for living here. But the fact that so many people here take pride in how "different" the place is from other cities seems to me to be part of the reason this city doesn't change much. If you saw any of the HBO series "Treme", you've seen this type in action.
• The city is refreshingly un-corporate. There are fast food places and a million Walgreens and Rite Aids (the drugstore/convenience store combo seems to be the only businesses that have weathered the recession without any difficulty), but somehow they are totally overwhelmed by the oldness of the city. Yesterday I read in a Boston paper about the controversy on Cape Cod when the owners of a big old house painted it neon green. The town was outraged. That wouldn't be a problem in New Orleans, and there's something great about that.
• A city that allows bars to stay open all night and customers to take alcohol to go and has an utterly overburdened court system arrests 7,000 people a year for marijuana offenses. I've sat in courtrooms, waiting for hearings on murder cases while judges waded through their morning docket of pot possession cases. The inmates, mostly black, are brought in shackled, in their orange OPP (Orleans Parish Prison) jumpsuits, to sit there and wait for their 3 minutes in front of the judge.
Most importantly, the new Mayor and new Police Chief have an enormous amount of goodwill and hope behind them—so maybe change is coming. It sure feels that way, and I hope it does, because New Orleans is a great place to live, a great place to raise a family—and none of that would be diminished if the people of the city took less of a "c'est la vie" attitude toward life and the city, therefore, were more competently run—by all of us.
I always liked New Orleans, both the mythological place in the national mind that I visited when I read The Moviegoer or when I came down to visit before I lived here. And I liked living here immediately. But it was only a couple of months ago that I realized I love it. I was in a bar, it was late, the band was good, and I realized New Orleans is like a wildly creative, mildly alcoholic girlfriend or boyfriend—you can wonder if they're good for you, you can wonder if you should keep dating them. But you're in love, so you're going to stick it out for a while. But would it kill them to drink just a little less? Would they lose their soul if they learned how to pay their rent on time?
Thomas K. Lowenstein is a writer, journalist, editor, and policy strategist. With a special interest in helping those wrongly convicted of a crime and in campaigning against the death penalty, he has worked tirelessly to focus attention on inequities in the American criminal justice system. Born in New York, educated in Boston, Mr. Lowenstein now lives in New Orleans with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel, THE GHOST DETECTIVE.