Dec 31, 2011

Christmas Letter from New Orleans



I
Ignatius Reilly Float, Mardi Gras
“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” 
― Ignatius J. Reilly


Anthony sits at a wooden table at the Balcony Bar, a place that looks regal during the daytime, but becomes the center of brouhaha at night. Having had a few cocktails, we sit together eating bar food. Anthony feeds me a French Fry. Carrying a tray with hamburgers, Andrew almost runs into a cadre of revelers who are talking so loudly the entire building seems to close in on itself with the noise. We sit and attempt conversation. This is our city every night.It has been a year and a half since leaving New Orleans. Having returned home for eight days I leave again with renewed something for the Crescent City. Martin says Nola (as locals call it) is the best city. He's right. 


New Orleans is a gem of a town. People sip beer on Friday at noon in a pub facing Magazine Street, a street named for its shops (not its magazines!). Coffee shops garner a lazy anarchist feel -- kombucha and hipster zines sold by the dozen. Club Ms. Mae's, a local dive, was recently damaged by a pregnant woman who ran her car into its front doors. She barreled her car head-on into the building. The customers at the video poker slots did not lift up their heads from their poker machine, no concentration thwarted, and the woman stumbled out of her destroyed car demanding, "where's my drink?" If New Orleans is the city that care forgot, it seems someone has been recently paying attention. The Saints, the city's historically underachieving football team, has come out of Katrina oblivion with superstar wins. The Saints quarterback beat Dan Marino's record of most passing yards in a season. The Superdome looks spiffy and is emblazoned with a Mercedes Benz insignia, sign that big business is willing to support this recuperating town. New Orleans is a town more than a city. The city is enclosed within the civil parish of Orleans making it the smallest parish in the state. 


On my visit in the city I stayed in the Irish Channel, walking distance to Annunciation and Magazine streets. Since the populace is rather small, I felt like a local again just after a few days. No matter what 'nabe you happen to be in: Bywater, Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, Bucktown, or wherever, this city is damn genuine friendly.


The same people are milling about Slim Goodies diner on Louisiana avenue and Magazine Street the two times I stopped by for a cup of coffee. New Orleans is a city built upon the concept of laissez faire. The city repudiates progress for the sake of efficiency but glories in immanent transcendence. A boy skips down Laurel street in the Garden District; A homeless bloke calls me a "bitch ass faggot" because I did not give him a dollar and twenty five cents for a bus fare, but his invective was jocund, even though my friend Anthony was scared shitless. It is true the city of New Orleans is plagued with woeful violent crime. The NOPD notoriously incarcerates more criminals than it actually tries in criminal court which means criminals go to jail for a few weeks and end up right back on the streets. 


I did notice the New  Orleans Regional Transit Authority, Norta for short, hired a French firm to revamp the system. Signs glisten and adorn each bus stop, color coded, replete with bus stop number, route number, and terminating stop! The buses proudly display the same information on a front digital panel. When I lived in the city, it was a guess and a prayer to board a bus -- now there is a semblance in the normal commuter's mind of the system lay out. A robust transit system is crucial for the city's rebirth.Artists have returned to the city in droves. 


My buddy Martin is finishing his dissertation in Nola; my friends Anthony and Andrew are just one of my many friends my age who have bought houses in the city proper, thae opposite of what our parents did, which was to raise us in the 'burbs and preach to us that living in Orleans would get us and our children shot. I feel our parents did not know New Orleans -- most of my friend's parents, my parents included, did not group up in the city. They grew up in the surrounding Caucasian enclaves. In my high school in Mandeville, the same high school Ian Somerhalder went to school (the dead guy on Lost), it was considered an anomaly to be anything but white and own a car by the time you were a Junior. 
Growing up, the city was said to be dangerous. Still today there are people who won't set foot in Nola. I remember getting my brake tag in Metairie, the city adjacent to New Orleans to the northwest, and the attendant, upon finding out that I lived in New Orleans, looked at me aghast and said, "with dem ni*&ers?"


Racism is palpable in the city that care forgot. In the restaurant I used to work as a teen there are still three doors for the bathrooms. Go figure. But, I feel, it is a form of racism that must necessarily go.The racism is shallow. It does not bespeak potential progress. People are racist because it is convenient. 
One of the best neighborhoods in the city, the Ninth Ward, a center of Black American culture, was destroyed by Hurricane city. Racism keeps its doors shuttered. Caucasian old-timers are afraid of the area. On Foursquare I checked into the Ninth Ward after a dinner in the Bywater at Elizabeth's. A kid who I taught wrote on Foursquare about the neighborhood. 

Used to be one of the prime areas of residence among African Americans, a very well off part of town with a bad connotation due to racism and the high percentage of blacks. Is ruined because of 2005

A white guy posted a blurb, "be careful." That's it. To be careful is not the correct mantra to hold.
Being careful leads to being too careful. The city is at a point in her development where the violence can stop, people can come together, and the city can continue to resurrect herself from the ashes. I felt it in the air. Instead of the Balcony Bar, a place where we can drink ourselves blind, we should erect Resurrection Bar. 


I think a few things must happen in New Orleans if change is going to occur. First, we must stop scapegoating violent crime on poor blacks in the city. What the city needs to do is to crack down on petty crime in every 'nabe, and actually adjudicate and stop acting the part of a nanny state and incarcerating just for the sake of incarcerating. Second, Jefferson Parish and Orleans ought to be connected via light rail, beginning at Louis Armstrong Aiport through Airline, to Tulane, terminating at Canal Street. Monies need to be earmarked to extend the new Loyola extension of the streetcar (to be opened Summer 2012) to Rampart street creating a French Quarter loop. Fourth, the Ninth Ward needs to be restored ASAP to its status as a viable, sustainable home to its now scattered diaspora. Not green space. Not empty space. New Orleanians were wrong to criticize Brad Pitt's restoration projects. Fifth, a food co-op needs to open in the Marigny. Both the Marigny and the Bywater are home to a plethora of artists and musicians. They city needs to connect this part of Orleans by making it an attractive place to live. Sixth, a fortune five hundred company needs to be lured into the city. We lost a few in the preceding years. Houston and Atlanta cannot be the only lucrative cities in the region. Seventh, keep on building back our lost public libraries. I just read a library that had been destroyed by Katrina has finally reopened. In Madisonville, where my family lives, the library still has yet to be rebuilt. Eight, keep up with the Charter schools. I am not sure if Charter schools are the best option, but the city cannot be monopolized solely by Catholic and private schools. Nine, the city needs to open more specialized high schools like Nocca, and include a diverse student population. A public high school for Jazz and the Performing Arts, for example. Or a public high school for arts and sciences. Nine, now that Saints are on fire this season, let's bring back formerly defunct organizations: McKenzies, K&B, Ignatius Reilly.


The reason why Ignatius Reilly sold hot dogs in the French Quarter is not because he was a loser, but because he needed a place to get the pulse of the city heartbeat. To know the city is to sit on the corner of Decatur, near CafĂ© du Monde and eat an Ignatius Reilly sanctioned hot dog -- feel the pulse of the city. Make the French Quarter into a money generator and rebuild, continue to rebuild, New Orleans. When I return for my next visit, hopefully my friends and I will reconvene at the Resurrection Bar. This is my Christmas wish.




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