Big Sleazy

This piece at Jacobin offers a troubling glimpse into what has been made of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NOLA was in bad shape before Katrina, more troubled than most outsiders could have imagined. Much of the pathology was a matter of public record, but it was a part of the public record that most Americans chose to ignore because it was a buzzkill that impeded the rolling of the good times. Katrina blew the false front clean off the Potemkin Village. No longer could a halfway lucid person pretend that the city was just a tweely quaint Cajun amusement park with a live brass-band soundtrack and a bead-based economy. This wasn’t a place that merely served jambalaya; it was one that also served man. Those who had been paying attention in antediluvian times had known this all along, of course, but most Americans weren’t paying a lick of attention. We don’t like to be Debbie Downers, certainly not when there’s a heavily stage-managed tourist frenzy to be had.

The silver lining before the storm, one that many New Orleanians must remember with poignant fondness these days, was that New Orleans back then was just unusually dysfunctional and corrupt. The dysfunction and corruption were bad news, to be sure, but they didn’t wreak nearly the havoc necessary to allow carpetbagging apparatchiks to loot city resources wholesale. The civic and, more crucially, the social fabric was too intact for that. The sharks may have been circling offshore, but it wasn’t until the city had been physically ruined, its residents scattered willy-nilly over hundreds of miles in a badly mismanaged resettlement scheme, that they were able to swim in for the kill. The downtown gentry who have jumped at the chance to remake the city in their image and the fellow-traveling Young Turks crashing in from out of town who (wittingly or not) came to help them are exploiting what is arguably the single most thoroughly deracinated city in the United States today. As failed as Detroit is, it is at least surrounded by suburbs with large contingents of proud Detroiters who found life in the core city untenable but still do what they can to try to improve it. They took it north of Eight Mile, just like the mayor told them. And at least the urban flight (mostly white at first, but increasingly black, too) happened organically over time. In New Orleans, there was a natural disaster whose devastation was aggravated by official incompetence, and then, practically overnight, half the population was gone.

This sudden population collapse was a godsend for predators. The city’s poor ended up all over the country, uprooted from the neighbors and fellow parishioners who had helped them get through tough times and with no viable way to return home. Informal neighborhood networks are crucial to the poor in ways that most of the middle and upper classes can’t imagine. The bungled, callous resettlement program in the immediate aftermath of the storm was a body blow for residents and communities that had already been living on the edge. Downtowners and technocratic outsiders started agitating to raze poor outlying neighborhoods, most famously including the Lower Ninth Ward, on the reasoning that they were increasingly flood-prone and had been rendered barely inhabited hellscapes. These people, who had never lived in the Lower Ninth or any other poor neighborhood, were itching to physically destroy neighborhoods not their own because rebuilding them would be expensive and inconvenient, with no thought to how their displaced residents would cope. The affluent can rarely get into the minds of the poor, and they rarely have any sincere wish to try. What afflicted New Orleans, however, was much worse than a mere sheltered bourgeoisie. The Johnnies-come-lately and the old-line gentry giving them cover were an arrogant technocratic elite who had spent far too much of their lives learning from a world of recursive advertising and Chamber of Commerce boosterism what New Orleans was supposed to be. They were in the city but of the hologram.

Of course they’re trying to pay for an extension of the streetcar line through the touristy center by drastically cutting bus service to the urban periphery. They’re totally fucking clueless about what it’s like to have to rely on a city bus system whose service frequencies have been cut by two thirds or worse. They’re equally clueless about what it’s like to be unable to afford bus fare back and forth from Atlanta or Houston or Nashville every few months, let alone airfare. They’re used to traveling and can afford to travel. The poor aren’t and can’t. But the poor have even less of a voice in the physical and civic reconstruction of New Orleans than they had before Katrina. Back then, they were physically present, so they were able to chime in if they saw the need. Now they’re scattered all over hell, and–don’t forget this for one second–they can scarcely afford what Greyhound or Amtrak want to charge them for passage back home. The gentry can’t get its mind around these temporalities and the hard limits that they place on personal potential, and the gentry certainly doesn’t dogfood crosstown bus service in the ghetto to make sure that it’s a halfway viable means of transportation.

But the opportunistic local notables and their carpetbagging Young Turks were never really there for the common man in the first place. New Orleans was functionally part of the Third World before Katrina, and like so much of the Third World, it didn’t get that way in spite of a virtuous overclass trying its best to reform a degenerate underclass. A local elite with a sense of shame would never run downtown as a slickly marketed tourist trap while encouraging outlying neighborhoods to plunge into violence and squalor through its callous indifference. After all, the people living in the neighborhoods are equally the government’s constituents and the city’s stakeholders. It’s up to a ruling class of marketeering embezzlers, con men, and gangsters to ignore the grievances of the neighborhoods, and New Orleans has long had just such a ruling class.

Shit, a local elite with a sense of shame would never have tolerated the decades-long disaster of the New Orleans Police Department that persisted through the superintendencies of Eddie Compass and Warren Riley. It would have put a Ronal Serpas figure in command of the department with instructions to clean house as vigorously as possible years before Serpas first retired. At least that’s one thing that the reconstruction governments didn’t totally blow. Maybe the carpetbaggers are redeeming themselves after all by not tolerating the sort of official lawlessness that was tolerated under every recent mayor preceding Mitch Landrieu. (Ironically, one of the relative reformists in the department in the years before Katrina was–I’m not making this up–Deputy Supt. Daniel Lawless. This was the sort of shit he was trying to clean up.) Still, few cities would have tolerated the entrenchment of a police force as flagrantly out-of-control as the NOPD in the first place.

The carpetbagging Young Turks sure as hell didn’t move to town to fix its broken police department. I doubt most of them know one useful bit of trivia about the NOPD. (The trivia are useful because the cancer has to be identified before it can be excised.) Many of them claim to have come to New Orleans in order to fix its schools through Teach for America or some charter school outfit, but these claims, especially the former, are dubious. TfA is infested with resume-padding quasi-do-gooders looking to get into the highest tier of law school plausibly within their reach. Charter schools are infested with callow, unqualified administrators under the age of forty (and often under thirty) who want the power of upper management but not the responsibilities that come with it. Traditional school administrators may be grievous fuck-ups, but at least most of them had to put in serious time as teachers before getting the corner office.

Then there’s the question of what these youngsters think of New Orleans and their relationship to it. The answers are pretty deranged. The local gentry at least has a natural place in the local human ecology of New Orleans, even if it tries to ignore the ethics of its behavior in this ecology and live in a marketeering bubble. The carpetbaggers show up with absolutely no local relationships or points of reference, so they fall for all this stupid bullshit about beads and the like, and they fall hard. Few of them can face the realities of trying to run Ray Nagin’s chocolate city. Then again, few of them really want to run it, anyway. They don’t want to deal with the local black population as equals, or even with the local Cajun population. They’d much rather deal with internationalized local elites who, like them, see New Orleans as a blank slate, the oyster that’s theirs to crack open, its seventh-generation residents as inconvenient as the Indians were to waves of white settlers long before Whitey started buying toiletries on the advice of aphorisms incredibly ascribed to the Iroquois. The locals, of whatever race, have inconvenient interests and needs unrelated to the marketing of the Big Easy. They’re bad for business.

Business, in this case, includes the disingenuous marketing of sex and drugs to outsiders. Spengler called it “louche hedonism.” One can walk around on Bourbon Street holding an open container of, say, Bourbon and flashing one’s tits at strangers with impunity. This holds more appeal than it should because the rest of the country, with the exception of equally crassly marketed hot messes like Las Vegas and South Padre Island, have been carefully written off as intractably prim and uptight. These are quasi-red-light districts. The only legal red light districts in the United States, in rural Nevada, are even more corrupt.

There are surely locals in New Orleans who would rather cater to sexually disinhibited Yankee drunkards, even ones who make a show of calling everyone “y’all,” than haul shrimp nets or cut sugarcane all the live-long day. This is fair enough. The problem is in the ceaseless marketing of this nonsense at the expense of, say, local bus and police services. The elites running New Orleans fucked over their vulnerable neighbors by catering so aggressively to gullible tourists in the first place, starting long before the storm. The entire city has traditionally been run as a sort of Disney park for adults, but not particularly mature ones. Anaheim is a mess of a city with a bad police department, too. It seems to go with the territory. Orlando is located in Florida, which says it all. The people who run these cities have no sense of balance and perspective, no ability to keep priorities straight. That is, if they aren’t just unashamed racketeers whose priorities are eerily clearheaded.

Of course the Young Turks trying to run disaster capitalism on NOLA are detached from the havoc they wreak on old-line local poors. They’re trained to wear the high hat, and they’re trained to repeat ad nauseam that they’re creating jobs and shit. This is the attitude of the mafioso. Nice economy you have here; shame if something happened to it. These people expect the gratitude of their inferiors, and they expect a cut of the graft. The locals, if they don’t care for this haughtiness, are well within their rights to offer the traditional South Side salutation of go home yuppie scum. It’s their city, not the carpetbaggers’, just like Palo Alto is my city, not Mark Zuckerberg’s. I spent the first ten years of my life there, bitch.

Nice Industrial Canal we have here. Shame if some supercilious bougie fell into it.

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