New Orleans: Our Past is Our Future

May 11, 2007

I sent a letter to the NY Times which was published by the editors today.  Here is the original Times Observer Editorial and my response:

In New Orleans, Life and Hope stir at the Bottom

Published: May 7, 2007

New Orleans is slumping into hurricane season. The danger is not just in the weather. Hotels in the French Quarter are hiring private security squads to soothe jittery guests; the police are considered outmanned and unreliable. Those polite young men with black polo shirts and Glocks are not busboys. The restaurants and bars are humming, though, and the beat of rhythm and blues pours into the street. It is a faint approximation of a civic pulse.

Outside the tourist zone, New Orleans remains a city of indolence and ruin. On the edges of the Central Business District, fires are erupting in abandoned buildings, at least three in the last week. The smoke curling under the highway overpasses has an ugly chemical smell. The Lower Ninth Ward is still mostly empty, vast and mute. But there is hustle and energy in the baking heat, in places like the parking slabs near Home Depot and Lowe’s, where Hispanic, black and a few white laborers gather every morning for work.

I came here to talk to day laborers, because I had been told that this was the worst place in America to be one. The money was good after Katrina, in August 2005, and the work pace was frantic. Men were recruited for jobs that were plentiful, though seldom as good as promised. Conditions were dangerous and sickening. A glut of workers soon lowered wages for everyone. Intimidation and abuse were common, often by contractors, sometimes by cops.

The dozens of men I met told similar stories. They stay because there still is work to do. They gather at 19 sites, usually in or near home-improvement stores, waiting for trucks to pick them up for drywall or painting, demolition or tile work. They work without gloves or masks or the promise of medical care. Crooked contractors withhold pay and threaten violence if the men complain. Wage rules and safety standards are not enforced.

A city that cannot restore order or rebuild itself has somehow summoned the energy to harass the people who are doing much of the building and repairing. Squatters and workers living in tents in City Park were evicted last year, and the bustling day-labor market at Lee Circle has been shut down. Latino laborers are routinely being arrested. In Kenner, a suburb by the airport, where people shout “Go back to Mexico!” from passing pickup trucks, the police rounded up more than 30 laborers in January for congregating outside Home Depot. The men paid $240 fines and now meet across the street.

The city is full of perils, but there is startling kindness, too.

After 17 Latino day laborers were arrested in Gretna, a suburb, in February, they were bailed out of jail. Not by anyone they knew, but by members of the New Orleans Survivor Council, an organization of African-Americans that meets at a church in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The men, who belong to a grass-roots group called the Congreso de Jornaleros, or Day Laborers’ Congress, decided to act on their gratitude. They formed a volunteer crew to repair the ruined house of a council member, Ora Green, on Orleans Avenue. They meet there every afternoon from 4 to 7.

On May 1, while immigrants across the country were marching, about 60 people converged on Mrs. Green’s house to celebrate with food and music. Mrs. Green turns 87 on June 4. She held my hand in a firm grip as she told me how a contractor had pocketed $4,000 of her money and done nothing, except to throw up some drywall in a back room, even before the wiring went in.

As Curtis Muhammad, a gray-bearded member of the Survivor Council and a veteran civil-rights organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, grilled chicken and hot dogs, members of the Congreso addressed the crowd, hailing the unity of African-American and Latino, of black and brown, of poor and poorer. When they were done, Mr. Muhammad walked gingerly to the top of the stoop. The old slaves and new slaves, from North and South, are uniting against the same master, he roared.

People cheered, but some of the Latino men were loudly grumpy. They had thought there would be a march, as in Los Angeles and Chicago. An organizer called them into a circle to talk it over. A man with a guitar sang “La Bamba.” The smaller African-American contingent clustered a few feet away, around Mrs. Green, who sat in a plastic chair in a sliver of shade. A few reporters milled around, no doubt wondering what to make of the inconclusive show of interethnic solidarity.

As the heat got worse and the empty water bottles and chicken bones piled up on the cracked concrete sidewalk, I thought how inhospitable New Orleans could be. Inhospitable, maybe, but not barren. Weeds burst through cracks, papaya trees in untended lots sag with fruit. The regrowth is spotty, incongruous, but as irrefutable as the shiny Burger Kings claiming corners in zones of washed-out desolation and the new two-by-fours in Mrs. Green’s battered house.

Civil society is still torn up here, but older, more primal arrangements are asserting themselves: predator and prey, friends and family, supply and demand. Evil contractors, resourceful businesses and toiling workers are finding niches. People who dream of a better future are trying, fitfully, to create one, while the government they once thought would protect and serve them slumbers on. New Orleans has been slammed into the 19th century, and it’s going to be a long way back.

My response:

Lawrence Downes (Editorial Observer, May 7), suggests that New Orleans has reverted to an earlier form of the American economy: one in which the abuse of labor is common, poverty is rampant and individuals are forced out of necessity to organize along racial lines.

But what is described here lurks just below the surface all across this country. It’s not that New Orleans has reverted to some more primal state of being, but rather that it is the prototypical American city.

The illiteracy, homelessness and government inaction from which New Orleans suffers are part and parcel of America itself. What we see in New Orleans is not 19th-century America, but the result of 21st-century American poverty.

Jeff DeFlavio
Washington, May 7, 2007

In the Paper

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