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On Second Anniversary of Katrina

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Tuesday, August 28th, 2007
New Orleans, Louisiana

WAKING UP TO REALITY IN NEW ORLEANS

Remember the war scenes of mayhem and destruction in the movie “Good morning Vietnam?” As Agent Orange is brushed across the countryside, and both bombs and machine gunfire continually echo across the killing fields by both sides in the battle, the background music is that of Louie Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”

I saw the same contradiction this past weekend in New Orleans. I was up at dawn Sunday morning, and out on the streets for a long run-walk before the intensity of the August heat would drive me back inside. We have a place on the river in the downtown area, and I headed southeast along the river towards the French Quarter. It’s surely a “must do” walk for anyone wanting to see the best of the city.

You want to linger at sight after sight beginning at the Aquarium at the foot of Canal Street. It was 7:00 am and tourists were even that early checking out the times the doors open to an entrancing water spectacle. My five-year-old granddaughter was there two days before with a family group. (“JB, I even petted a little shark. It was really neat.”)

A little further along the levee walk is a local Holocaust memorial. Nothing extravagant, but a moving tribute to the millions whose lives were exterminated. Some years back, I served on the National Holocaust Commission, the purpose being to force reluctant foreign insurance companies to pay claims that should have been paid to holocaust survivors some 60 years ago. Many survivors are still fighting these ambivalent companies for what is rightfully theirs.

Next was the entrance to Waldenberg Park, built through funding from New Orleans philanthropist Malcolm Waldenberg. I had introduced President Bill Clinton here to a crowd of several thousand a few days before Clinton’s re-election in 1996. A number of both tourists and locals were on park benches overlooking the Mississippi River, morning coffee in hand.

On into the Quarter at Jackson Square, where local artists were setting up their paintings to sell, and their easels to draw caricatures of passing tourists. Cafe du Monde was surprising full for morning coffee and beignets at this early hour. And across the Square, parishioners were beginning to gather at the entrance of St. Louis Cathedral for morning mass.

I had brought along enough quarters for a morning paper, and found an empty seat at the Cafe. No beignets (this exercise kick that comes and goes), but the cafe au lait was a morning necessity. The front page headline blared it out. Two more murders, the second double slaying on the same eastern New Orleans street in two weeks. Seven relatives clustered together, robbed, then all were shot. Five have survived, at least so far.

No drug dealers killing drug dealers here. This was a close-knit Laotian family who kept to themselves, and wanted little more than to raise their family in peace. All this has been shattered now.

Later in the day, I read the weekend Baton Rouge Advocate. The headlines blared out that murder is also a major problem in what is now the state’s largest city. Murder rates are up in the state capitol by 52% over last year. A disturbing 32 murders were committed in the first six months of the year. 32 murders. More than 100 murders less than in New Orleans. And Baton Rouge has more population. Go figure.

Police officials in the Crescent City have the help of the State Police, the Louisiana National Guard; a beefed-up federal crime task force, yet the murder rate continues to soar. Oh, lots of people are arrested. In fact, New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate of any major city in America-double the national rate. 1,400 arrests are made each week, but some 80% are for non-violent crimes.

There would seem to be a real problem of setting any priorities when it comes to making arrests. According to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice, 40% of those entering Orleans Parish prison would, in most cities, qualify to be released on their own recognizance. But in New Orleans, everyone has to post bail. And three-quarters of the jail’s detainees cannot.

Politicians galore will be all over New Orleans this week to commemorate Katrina’s second anniversary. But none will talk about crime. So far, few have any suggestions or much to say. More task forces, tough new laws, more state and federal help, the lists are long. So far, little seems to be working in spite of assurances from those in charge.

The good news is that New Orleans is still “hanging in there” in spite of, not because of those who are charged with governing and leading the recovery. A number of new faces, who before were not involved in the governing process have stepped up and are working in major volunteer efforts. Many average New Orleanians volunteering and working with non-profits in the private sector are making the measurable difference.

This city is still a “unique place” to live and work. And you’ve just gotta have hope. Satchmo, who is from New Orleans, is right. In spite of all that the people of this city are going through, living here is still a special experience. Maybe not “wonderful,” at least yet, but well worth to many the extra effort of living among dysfunction and the snail’s pace of recovery.

******

“And I wound up in New Orleans for all those years
and it was a great place, really a catalyst creatively.”

– Jimmy Buffett

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

3 Responses
  1. Judith Bingham

    Jim,
    I was in N.O. several weeks ago for a LA Endowment of the Arts conference regarding a Smithsonian exhibit through LEH that we are exhibiting in 2008. I was very disappointed in the city’s recovery.

    For years, I have enjoyed the crescent city (for a visit), and as I walked through the French Quarter (St. Louis Cathederal, DeCatur St.) I was appalled at the smell of the city. I have assumed that the reason for the stench was the fact that after Katrina, there was either not enough money or laborers to wash down the streets every night. My accomodations were in the Drury Inn on Poydras, and I was impressed with that side of canal.

  2. Martha Garrett Kane

    Thank you for being such a wonderful, thoughtful, catalyst for change in this state. You are a true servant of Louisiana. I don’t always agree with you–95% of the time I do.

  3. Irwin Shaab

    Jim,
    Just you being in N.O. is testament enough of your commitment to the city, with more men and women like you the city will prevail. Great column, keep writing we are reading and listening to them
    Irwin Shaab

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