Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Letter to My Friend Henry

Dear Henry:

It was great talking to you today, and congratulations on your new job teaching at the local university-- all the better that you didn’t have to go to grad school to land the gig. I have so much respect for you and all the people, including our good friend Kelly McClure, who have stayed or come back to New Orleans to make it a better place.

Yet, I was struck by the divide between your sense of the recovery as someone living it on a daily basis and mine, a former resident, who recently visited for another post-flood look around. Your cheerful rendition of progress and hope, including the ten-year perspective when everything will be better, the levees repaired and the city improved, didn’t jive with my experience, reading or gut instinct. I hope and pray you’re right, but fear that neither hope nor prayer is enough in this situation.

Since Katrina, dialogue can be easily strained between those who are there like you, doing the Lord’s work, and the rest of us like me watching on safely from the sidelines. But then talking about New Orleans is never simple. It’s a place whose insiders cling passionately to her charms and take a historically laissez faire attitude to her many challenges. As you said today, it’s not for everybody, certainly not in the city’s present condition. Sadly, it’s not for me.

I am afraid for New Orleans, but probably more to the point I am afraid of New Orleans despite a deep love for the place. That was true before Katrina, and I left in 1998, slightly heartbroken and feeling a little like Lot leaving Sodom. Death and decay linger over every aspect of the joy-filled life there. My fear is only amplified by crime, a seeming lack of progress in rebuilding and what looks from the outside like an unwillingness to demand more from local leaders and the outside world. New Orleans deserves more than what it can muster on its own – better levees than the ones the Corps is currently building, safer streets, a true and sincere approach to Wetlands renewal and a more progressive and tax/regulation friendly environment for would-be entrepreneurs and adventurous business people looking to stake their claim and help grow the city into something new and vibrant.

New Orleans’ unique culture including its music, food and street traditions is near and dear to my heart, as I know it is to yours. I was glad to hear you talk about its revival, hopefully ensuring the heritage of the city’s arts from high to low. But powerful hurricanes care nothing for the things man creates, and longstanding local bravado aside it’s really only a matter of time before the real Big One hits home. The levees that are being rebuilt today will offer little protection when that happens. As LSU’s Ivor van Heerden says: “Katrina wasn’t even close to being the big one.”

I realized today, after we talked and as I was sitting in the suburban shopping Mecca of Austin’s Arboretum having ice cream with my kids, that I wasn’t willing to pay the price necessary to come back to the New Orleans that remains today, making my sense of loss all the more poignant. Frankly, it’s the New Orleans that was, if only in my memory banks, that I miss, not the place that it is today. That’s OK. New Orleans will move on with or without me, and my talents are better suited to that of memoirist than post-storm polemicist.

Some people will fight to the death to stay in New Orleans even as catastrophe looms, making their way through the wreckage to have yet another party. To expect otherwise, is to miss the point. Maybe I’m just relieved that my curfew forced me to leave the fete before things got really wild!

I look forward to seeing you the next time I come through town. Hopefully we can have dinner at Galatoires, again.

Yours truly,

Friday, August 24, 2007

Home to Katrina-Land

"Nature does not like to be anticipated but loves to surprise; in fact seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time, the true fountain of youth."

Artist and naturalist Walter Anderson

By Steve White

We just got back from a trip home, and life in Katrina-land seems worse in some ways than it did a year ago: the novelty of calamity has worn off and post-storm struggle has simply become a way of life for many. Rising crime, rising taxes and rising insurance rates all followed the rising waters that took so much from so many. The result: a simmering sense of malaise for many that can easily accelerate into rage or depression for locals who continue to dig out – two years later!

As a native son, I am torn between the urge to be positive and say things are getting better, which they are on many fronts, and to objectively report that the communities along the Gulf are still badly broken, which they are. Unexpectedly, my love for home is re-energized through the sadness of seeing her suffer so. This visit home, uncluttered by the emotional blow of seeing the devastating wreckage that was still present on my last trip, allowed me to more fully connect my past there with its troubled present and, more hopefully, all the possibilities it holds for the future. All those open fields, barren lots and empty houses are just waiting to come alive, again.

The Gulf Coast region is a luminous place like no other. It’s not surprising that Sissy Anderson titled the memoir about her brilliant but mad husband, artist and naturalist Walter Anderson, who made his home on the Coast and the barrier islands that surround it, “Approaching the Magic Hour.”

When will the magic hour come again? The question looms large, as I begin again to pore over Google maps of the region, trying to grasp the enormity of what happened there two years ago and imagine what can or will emerge.

Last year, survivors proclaimed their manifest destiny – to rebuild the flooded neighborhoods as the Corps of Engineers shored up the wounded levees. Today, New Orleans is open for business on the higher ground within the boundaries of its centuries old footprint while the modern neighborhoods born from drained swampland (Gentilly, Lakeview and New Orleans East) remain sparsely populated or in redevelopment turmoil. Likewise, on the Gulf Coast the beachfront is empty, devoid of redevelopment, as businesses and homeowners have moved north to relocate along Interstate 10.

Mother Nature giveth, but she also taketh away.

Even the historic French Quarter, which sits on high ground and remained dry throughout, appears to be ailing, despite what some boosters say. The streets were empty of tourists the night we spent there. In fact, the only people we met on the street were panhandlers, some more ominous than others. While not uncommon for the Quarter, we were left to fend for ourselves without strength in numbers from the usual drunken throngs of tourists or T-shirt shopkeepers who have since pulled up stakes from the many empty storefronts.

This month, Americans are being reminded that Katrina remains present, particularly by Time Inc., which hosted a group of editors in the Crescent City and unleashed its impressive journalist powers on the subject in a series of pieces for its various publications. Along with an equally impressive article in the current issue of National Geographic, hopefully this coverage will remind the rest of the world that Katrina was as much a reaction to man’s attempt to control nature as it was an act of nature in its own right. In a tragic moment of cosmic irony, the levees that failed to protect New Orleans from the rising tides are responsible for the ferocity of the waves that breeched them.

“Protecting people from floods and improving local economies as far away as Montana and Pennsylvania actually makes life more dangerous in Louisiana,” explained author John Barry to Time Magazine. Barry’s book “Rising Tide” about the 1927 Mississippi River flood laid out the ominous groundwork for what was to come in 2005. “The nation as a whole is getting most of the benefits of all this engineering, while Louisiana and part of coastal Mississippi pay 100% of the price,” he continued. “Nothing demonstrates that as well as New Orleans East, the lower Ninth Ward, and most of St. Bernard Parish, where 175,000 people were flooded by three man-made shipping canals that create almost no jobs there but carry barge traffic from Houston to Florida, or ocean shipping from the entire river valley to and from the rest of the world. Think about that when you think about New Orleans.”

In other words, man’s attempt to control nature has backfired, big time. The solution to one problem, flooding along the Mississippi River Valley, caused an even greater one, the loss of wetlands and barrier islands. Coupled with global warming, the Corps’ increasing obsession with control through more levees, floodwalls and navigation canals and encroachment by big energy interests, and we realize that the fun has only just begun. Wait until a storm actually hits New Orleans if you really want to see the wreckage of our past actions. All the experts say it’s simply of matter of when, not if, it happens.

Meanwhile, people persevere, as people tend to do. A great example of that is seen in the videos posted by This Old House of locals struggling to get their houses back in order. These are real people celebrating the life and architectural legacy of New Orleans!

Interestingly, the answer to this conundrum is to simply let go: unleash the river to do what it does best, overflow its banks, creating land farther downstream that in turns buffets the force of a hurricane’s tidal surge. Surely, it’s a little more complicated to manage a massive river diversion, but that’s the general idea. These days, there’s activity a plenty in Baton Rouge and on Capitol Hill, but sources like Time Magazine are skeptical that such measures are anything more than old thinking in new, alarmist clothing.

Yet, some experts remain hopeful. According to National Geographic, Tulane scientist Torbjorn Tornqvist sees New Orleans at the vanguard of something many other coastal cities will face as the planet’s oceans continue to warm. “The situation here is a huge opportunity for the city and the nation,” Tornqvist told NG. “If we walk away, we’ll miss a fantastic opportunity to learn things that will be useful in Miami, or Boston, or New York in 50 years.”

Maybe the magic hour for the rest of us is just around the corner in New Orleans. Through their suffering, they will show us the way to deal with the coming challenges of climate change, just as that fine old city’s culture (jazz, Mardi Gras, and Creolized soul food to name but a few) paved the way for the ethnic fusion that modern life has come to embrace.

Only time will tell, but that’s a precious commodity of which the Gulf Coast has little to spare!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Can We Go Home Again?

By Steve White

Mesmerized. That’s how I watched last night’s PBS American Experience on New Orleans; it’s the state -- combined with weepy nostalgia -- that any halfway accurate and intelligent media assessment of the only place I really think of as home induces. New Orleans’ imagery is always powerful, almost primitive, proving time and time again the city’s rich history remains it most potent asset. More so now, than ever!

Only in retrospect, meaning this morning, did the first big contradiction present itself to me. Contradiction is to be expected, of course; the subject is New Orleans, city of enigma. At the conclusion, the filmmaker leaves his audience with a hopefulness that New Orleans, while riddled with problems and contradictions, represents a possible model for going forward, that its longstanding tradition of cultural democracy can show America “how to be America” if they are interested.

This is a pretty standard party line from the city’s cultural ambassadors from Wynton Marsalis to my old teacher John Biguenet, and it’s a noble conceit, one that romances me on a regular basis. Here’s the rub: I can’t always jive this idea with my own experiences of living in New Orleans for more than a decade from the 80s through to the late 90s. For sure, the city’s complicated cultural gumbo held me in a trance. Race, or the intersecting point of white European high culture and African folk culture, certainly informed the unique experience of the city’s music, food, civic celebration and more.

In my New Orleans, whites may have still lived closer to blacks, but there were no less foreign as “real people” than they are in say Chicago, where the geographic divide is more pronounced. We liked the idea that we lived in an “Afro Caribbean Paris” and enjoyed the fruits of an exploited culture; it made us more authentic, in the know and culturally superior to every one else in America living in their nameless, faceless suburbias listening to Top 40 FM radio and eating bland American food.

But most of us didn’t really connect with our fellow black New Orleanians, nor as the documentary pointed out so well was the historical or political outcome much different than in other places around the country.

On my last trip home, I had dinner one night with two locals, one whose family stretches back generations and the other a Midwestern academic liberal who came to town in the 1960s, fell in love with the city and never left. Over wine and one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life (at Herbsaint), they thoroughly chewed and digested a favorite discussion of theirs – the lack of real black political leadership in New Orleans and ultimately the tragic disconnect between the races because of their inability to speak the same language. I asked about the possibility for making new connections, maybe through a vocabulary of faith, but they simply shook their heads. They had given up hope.

In that moment, I remembered with ever fiber of my being why I willingly left New Orleans in 1998.

I, for one, haven’t given up hope, not yet. As Mose Allison puts it: "I ain't downhearted, but I'm gettin' there."

Meanwhile I question the logic underlying the PBS message, that just because something was, it still is or can be again? And that avoids entirely the much more troubling question of myth – whether New Orleans ever was what it purports to have been? This is a game that Southern mythmakers have been at for a long time, using a storied and idealized past to assault present conditions and circumstances.

In his short, but tasty, book-length study “Dusty in Memphis” examining the way in which southern folk culture is experienced and transmuted into the mainstream commercial world, former New Orleans resident and Loyola student Warren Zanes writes:

“This notion of a ‘stubborn medievalism’ and a ‘more shadowed past,’ so long associated with what W.J. Cash describes as the “backward South” has remained at the center of the imagined South…Particularly in periods of anxious change, backwardness offers a certain comfort.” Zanes goes on to note rightly that even a violence-tinged past can be “met and matched by an idealization of the place that finally served as a kind of symbolic buoy in the face of modernity’s relentless change.”

Modernism, says a more learned friend of mine, was the last gasp of romanticism, trying to put the pieces of our great myths back together again in some cosmic game of Humpty Dumpty that would hopefully bring about redemption, at least poetically. While fruitful in the classroom, these arguments find little audience at the statehouse or in the corporate boardroom, where crucial decisions have yet to be made. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs are watching to see whether New Orleans will emerge from this moment of historical impasse. Ironically, those waiting in the wings hold the fate of the city’s future, if only they are given the green light.

Just over a year ago, on a trip home to New Orleans, a local friend took me to task for suggesting that the New Orleans likely to emerge from Katrina would be very different from the city we had previously known. “That sounds like the kind of thing somebody who doesn’t live here would say,” he fired back, angrily. Today, a year later, conditions remain much the same.

Mythmaking aside, the history of the Crescent City is filled with stories of assimilation, cultural, racial and ultimately economic. New Orleans grew up where it did, in its own unique manner, because it had a compelling reason to be -- in the present and not historical tense. That’s what brings people together and forges common bonds!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Accountability for the Corps, Finally

By Steve White

Maybe the Corps of Engineers will be held accountable for something, finally!

News reports this week note that residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans East actually have the right so sue over the role that Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR GO) caused in intensifying storm surge flooding from Katrina in those areas.

“The 76-mile canal was completed in 1965 as a shortcut for ships heading from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico,” described the New York Times, aptly. “Environmentalists and local officials have long argued that it has done great damage to the coastal environment by piping salt water inland and killing off the cypress swamps and grassy marshes that serve as natural barriers to storms.”

In fact, several writers in recent years have remarked on the significant erosion of the so-called MR GO canal, meaning it is much wider today than it was intended to be 42 years ago. Thus, it provided an ample pipeline for rising waters to pour into nearby neighborhoods as Katrina made its way inland.

Lawyers for the Corps have argued that residents can’t sue over the failure of levees and other flood control projects, based on protections built into the Flood Control Act of 1928. That law was passed right after the great Mississippi River flood in 1927. The Corps’s response to that flood, building mammoth levees along the Mississippi and in turn depleting the Louisiana wetlands, led directly to the kind of catastrophe that occurred during Katrina. The storm met little resistance from a much depleted buffer zone of swamp and marshland between the Gulf and New Orleans.

Fortunately, for local residents, a federal judge has ruled, rightly, that the MR GO is not a flood control project but rather a navigational waterway.

Global warming, or climate change as politicians like to call it now, tops the headlines daily, as it should. Scientists recently agreed that it’s man made, and contributing to the cycle of increased hurricanes, stating the obvious to many long-dedicated environmentalists. But the Corps’ responsibility for what happened to New Orleans and the Louisiana wetland predates the widespread damaging effects of hydrocarbons, going back to a time in the early 20th century when they adopted a tragic “levees only” policy, against the advice of the best engineering minds of the time.

Why must we continue to make the same mistakes, over and over, from generation to generation? New Orleans needs proper levee protection, but what it needs even more is the restoration of the wetlands to protect it from future storms like Katrina. The plan to do that has also been in place for decades, and the costs, while high, are pennies compared to what the rising tide will wreak if we don’t.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sights and Sounds of the Crescent City in Austin

By Steve White

After relocating from the Los Angeles area, I am just getting settled into my new life here in Austin. Yet already I can feel the close proximity of Louisiana, culturally speaking. It feels good! Two separate events this weekend underscored the influence of Louisiana culture on the ‘capital of live music’ here in the Lone Star State.

First, I caught a show on Friday at Antone’s world famous music club downtown, long the home of blues here in Texas. It was my first trip there, but it won’t be my last. On the bill Friday night was guitar slinging sensation and Louisiana native Kenny Wayne Shepherd, appropriately enough with the band that used to back his rockin’ blues predecessor Stevie Ray Vaughn, Double Trouble. Sadly, I didn’t stay for the whole show, but did catch some of his “Ten Days Out act with French Quarter icon Bryan Lee, a blind blues guitar impresario who was one of a number of aging musicians featured in Shepherd’s road movie of the same name.

Lee worked the crowd, “squeezed” his guitar and reminded me that even Bourbon Street, the sleazy stereotype that so many people sadly identify as New Orleans, can offer up charms of a more soulful nature.

On Sunday, we caught the premier of the IMAX movie "Hurricane on the Bayou"at the Texas State History Museum. Started before Katrina as a project to educate people about the disappearing wetlands, additional film was shot after the crew wrapped up the first shoot. Katrina proved to be a tragic demonstration of the point their film set out to make. If ever a subject matter was tailor made for the large format screen, it is the stunning beauty of the Louisiana wetlands, often scene from above in the MacGillivray Freeman film, contrasted to the power and devastation of a storm like Hurricane Katrina roaring ashore without the much needed buffer of silt lands lost to the sea.

The film offers a powerful emotional medium to convey an issue that continues to be ignored a year and a half later. What it lacks in detail about the solution – long ago spelled out by knowing scientists and environmentalists – it makes up for in the raw, visceral way it communicates to those with little knowledge of the problem. Check it out at a museum near you.

I, for one, know what it means to miss New Orleans (and the Mississippi Gulf Coast), but at least I can find a small part of my homeland here in the heart of Texas.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Trio of Outrages for New Orleans

By Steve White

President Bush has all but forgotten about New Orleans, with nary a word about Katrina relief in last night’s speech. Democrats like the official responder Jim Webb seem to be making only passing comment, for good measure, without really getting the ball rolling. It’s not at the top of Speaker Pelosi’s agenda, that’s clear.

Yesterday, Mississippi scored the biggest coup so far, getting State Farm to say uncle on wind vs. flood claims, largely through the work of private attorney Dickie Scruggs. State officials had to weigh in and sign off at the end of the process to make it look like they were actually doing their job. Press reports suggest that all the other major carriers will soon follow suit. But a short paragraph in The New York Times said it all for New Orleans and Louisiana and the vacuum of leadership therein: “The agreement does not apply to New Orleans, where the failure of the levees left much of the city underwater for days. Lawyers and insurers say no similar settlement talks are in progress there.”

Adding even more insult to injury, reports from this past weekend’s Saints/Bears game in Soldier Field suggest the ravages of Katrina have not been forgotten in the Windy City. Worse, sad memories of the storm became fodder for meathead Bears fans to express their latent frustration and hostility against supporters of their visiting rivals.

“Many of the (Saints) fans seated in the upper decks were subjected to horrific taunts, insults, and threats. Cries of “We are going to finish what Katrina started”, and “I hope the levees break again” were commonplace,” my friend John L. reported in a letter to the Chicago Tribune after attending the game in person. “Others were told to “Get in your boat and go back to your cardboard house.” One fan, in a report televised by ABC-26 TV in New Orleans said that he was told, “I wish you had drowned when your house flooded.”

“I encountered a young woman in tears as she left the stadium, not crying about the outcome of the game, but crying about the abuse she had received at the hands of the Bears fans seated around her,” he continued. “I met an older woman at O’Hare on Monday who broke down and cried as she recounted her mistreatment at the hands of hateful Bears fans.

“For even one person to have been treated like this would be too many, and the fact that so many visiting fans experienced similar cruelty reflects badly on all Bears fans and the entire city. However, the even more distressing thing about the whole episode is that the greater majority of reasonable, level-headed Bears fans SAT BY AND DID NOTHING AS IT HAPPENED,” John concluded in his letter. “In any crowd of 70,000, there are bound to be some idiots, but it is a sad reflection on your city and our society that seemingly decent people would sit idly and watch as a small contingent of visitors were tortured in their midst.”

As a former Chicago resident (Paulina Street in Lakeview) and a big fan of the Windy City, I too am ashamed. There is so much history between New Orleans and Mississippi and Chicago, and without that legacy so much of modern music and contemporary life would sound and look different. But what about John’s bigger point; that it’s not just about the bad guys?

Whether it’s in Guantanamo or the halls of Congress or the corridors of the capitol building in Baton Rouge or even the increasingly mean streets of New Orleans, the failure of good, well-meaning people to act is far more dangerous to us, collectively, than the threats posed by a handful of the menacing and mean spirited.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Good Lesson For A Golfer’s Son

By Steve White

I grew up hanging around the Great Southern golf club in Gulfport, MS. My parents lived in the 1950s vintage apartment building next to the tennis court, behind the Spanish-style mansion where original course owner Charlie Stewart lived. By the time we moved there, the Great Southern was owned by the Broadwater Hotel in Biloxi and known as the Sea Course; the hotel also owned a longer, less inspired 18-hole layout, located right behind the resort premises, called the Sun Course.

The Sea Course, known once again today as the Great Southern, sits overlooking the waterfront in Gulfport, along the narrow frontage road that runs just above Highway 90. Based on an original Donald Ross design, the course’s legacy dates back to 1908. It is the oldest course in Mississippi, playing host to early golf greats like Bobby Jones, Frances Ouimet, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, not to mention later immortals such as Ben Hogan, Bryon Nelson and Sam Snead. Members bought the club from the hotel in the early 1990s and soon restored many of the holes to their Golden Age glory. Unfortunately, the clubhouse and several holes near the beach were washed away by Katrina, the latest in a series of hurricanes to strip the land of its lush and once plentiful oaks.

My grandparents -- a marriage in which two distant universes collided – retired to the Mississippi Gulf Coast from south Florida around the time I started school. We made the move from a rental house in Mississippi City to the Southern Circle beachfront apartments shortly thereafter. My grandfather, a former professional golfer who spent two decades on tour and close to another two decades as an instructor in the Miami area, wanted to move closer to his only child, my dad. In doing so, he bought two memberships to the club, one for he and my grandmother and one for our financially struggling family of three.

My grandfather’s decision to come back to Mississippi, where he first met my grandmother four decades earlier, proved pivotal in the arc of my young life. The club membership gave me a place to flourish, swimming and roaming the fairways, mostly among the company of my grandfather and my dad and the colorful men with whom they played golf and cards and Ping Pong and, later tennis -- always for money. They were sportsmen, although not in the manner of Long Island bluebloods. My grandfather, the consummate sports professional, spent his life making money at golf, both in official prize checks and often from the more lucrative un-official gambling pot up for grabs amongst his fellow pros.

His cronies, at least during the Sea Course years, fell fall short of the colorful characters described in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article, “Looking for My Father in Las Vegas” by Pat Jordan. However, out on tour, he had known, and gambled with, some fairly notorious characters including Martin “The Fat Man” Stanovich and Titanic Thompson and later, in south Florida, he had provided golf instruction to the legendary gambling financier Meyer Lansky.

Jordan’s article is a gem, evoking the kind of world that I only glimpsed as a youngster, when he writes of his own less than reputable forefathers. “My uncles were not like the uncles of my childhood friends — tall, blond, smiling men who taught their nephews how to toss a baseball,” he writes. “My uncles were short, dour men in shimmering sharkskin suits. They smoked crooked Toscano cigars and taught me, from the time I was 6, how to palm the ace of spades, how to spot shaved dice and how to pray to God before I went to bed that the Bears would beat the Packers by at least a point and a half. They weren’t really my uncles; they were my father’s gambling cronies.”

Not unlike my own efforts to summon up the ghosts of my past, Jordan goes in search of his father’s essence in the modern Mecca of vice, Las Vegas. He learns a lot about gambling, but in the end is left with his own father’s words as the most reliable coordinates to finding himself.

“My father decided at some point in his life that it was gambling that defined him. It didn’t matter whether that was true or not, it mattered only that to him it was true,” Jordan concludes. “He told me once: 'Find out who you are, kid. And be it.' A good lesson for a gambler’s son.”