Tuesday, January 16, 2007

New Orleans & A New Start

By Steve White

We are two weeks into the New Year, and I am finally getting around to one of my big “commitments” for 2007, to revive this journal. I started penning some thoughts about my homeland and what happened to it in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina about a year ago. Unfortunately, life was in session, as it always is, and my resolve withered amidst other pressing concerns, namely job, family, and the general state of chaos and confusion in the world today. It’s a state I know all too well.

I may not have been talking, but I continued reading – the mainstream press, the alternative press, and, most importantly, the enlightening work being done by bloggers from across the Gulf Coast region. Citizen journalists and bloggers have painted a picture of what’s happening, especially in New Orleans, in a way that tackles the complexity of life there far better than any traditional media has, or can. It’s a pure distillation of what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point about the power of word of mouth. In an age of increasing technological complexity we have come to highly value a fairly primitive form of communication: one person talking in their authentic voice, unfiltered by large corporate mediation.

It was those voices that aroused me from my stupor as New Orleans’ old demon – violence – has come back with a vengeance, assuming it was ever gone at all during those weeks following Katrina. I lived in New Orleans for more than a decade, from the mid-80s to the late 90s, and crime was a main character then, as it is now. Like today, it came from all corners, including the police (remember Antoinette Frank or Len Davis), and, like today, a string of crimes culminating in one that hit a little too close to home for the white community (Helen Hill now, the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen murders then) prompted the citizenry to march on City Hall. Today, Mayor Ray Nagin offers hollow promises to do something about it; then, former Mayor Marc Morial adopted a more traditional mode: extortion. We can solve your crime problem, he told us at the time, but we’ll have to raise your taxes to get the job done.

Real historians are surely already making these connections, drawing parallels to the wave of violence that shook New Orleans a decade ago -- long before Katrina added insult to injury, mold to misery. My memory of that darkest hour is always brightened when I think of an op-ed piece that ran during the height of the crime wave in the Times Picayune. The author, a local citizen who had emigrated from Europe to New Orleans, praised the unique values of the community and said we could overcome crime by drawing on that character. “New Orleans locals are more civilized than most Americans,” I remember him writing. “They take time to visit with their neighbors and invite strangers into their homes, offering them something to eat and drink and lingering in conversation long after the coffee is cold. It’s what sets them apart, favorably, from the rest of the modern world where nobody has any time or energy for their fellow man.”

He was right then, and I am sure he is right now. I know another one-time New Orleans resident, author William Faulkner, agreed when he held out hope for man despite much evidence to suggest the contrary. “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up?,” Faulkner said in accepting the Nobel Prize for literature almost 60 years ago with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world. “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

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