Sunday, August 30, 2009

The City That Care Forgot

When and if I ever write a book about New Orleans, this is what I'm going to call it. As apt a title as I think this would be, I can't take the credit for coming up with it myself as its actually one of the dozens of nicknames New Orleans has earned for itself over its long and checkered life. Though probably not as well known as "N'awlins," "The Crescent City," or the ever-popular "Big Easy," I would argue that The City That Care Forgot is one of the more insightful names it is known by, and one of its most telling.

I looked up the history of the phrase and the best anyone can figure, this nickname came about sometime in the 1930s when it was used in a New Orleans City Guide to convey a spirit of light heartedness and relatively lax rules and regulations. It was an attempt to appeal to big businesses as well as private citizens to relocate here, by portraying a laid-back, generally carefree approach to life and business.

This is not exactly the connotation I would be going for if I were to ever use this as a title for a book. In fact, I have come to interpret the phrase in an entirely different manner altogether. In my short time here I've come to liken New Orleans is something of a beautiful reminds me of the hero in a tragic love story. There's so much good to be had here--the culture, the history, the charm and certainly the food. But for all of it's wonder and appeal, there are overwhelming amounts of crime and poverty and despair. There is such a marked difference between the "haves" and the "have nots" in this city. More so than I've seen any place else I've ever been, including rural Appalachia.

I think this fact, this colossal discepency, is what makes New Orlean's downfalls so hard to accept. This is a city and a culture where indulgences and extremes are not only tolerated but encouraged. There is an absolute gluttony for food and drink and entertainment here that it is virtually unmatched, but to me makes it so much harder to accept that just a block away there is likely someone who is homeless and starving to death. The copious amount of things that people waste here, while their neighbors have so little is somewhat sickening.

This weekend marked the anniversary of Katrina and in the past few years there have been constant speculations and accusations that more could have been done to help the city and its residents during that disaster. I wasn't here then, so I can't really comment on the validity of these things. The other day though, I wondered into this little bookshop over the in the Garden District, which had a whole wall devoted to books about this city, written by people from this city. One in particular caught my attention as I flipped through it. it was a photo documentary of the days and weeks after Katrina and the majority of the photos were taken by a man who is not from here, but arrived the day after the storm in order to begin capturing everything on film. His photos were devastating to say the least, some of them so graphic I could barely stand to look at them. There were pictures of the structural damage certainly, but there were also pictures of the victims; both dead and alive. As I continued going thumbing through the book out of gross fascination, the caption of one picture caught my attention. It was an arial shot taken, I assume, by someone standing on a piece of furniture in a living room in a house in the Lower 9th Ward. An old, old lady sat in the room below, in a torn and dirty rocking chair that appeared to be the only piece of furniture left in the house. Her living room floor was covered with garbage, debris, and dirty water, and the four walls that should have been surrounding her were gone. The look on her face was one of utter despair. In the caption, the photographer described how he happened upon this family who was guarding the dead body of one of its members. When he offered to stop photographing out of respect, they actually begged him not to. "Thank goodness you're here," they told him. "If not for you taking pictures for the rest of the world to see, no one would know or care about what has happened to us at all."

I can't find the exact picture I saw in that book but this one is similar. You get the idea.

Whether there's any truth to this belief or not I can't yet say but regardless, my impression is that many of the citizens of New Orleans have long since quit believing that the rest of the country, if not the world as a whole, cares about them at all. The City That Care Forgot. They feel as though they've been abandoned by their government and their fellow citizens in their hour of need, left alone to fend for themselves.

I don't know whether it is this sense of rejection by the rest of the country, or whether its just that the laissez-faire attitude of the city has been allowed to permeate every aspect pf people's lives, but sometimes I get the feeling that some of the people of New Orleans have given up caring about themselves. even parts of the city not touched by Katrina have been allowed to fall into a sad state of disrepair. Multi-million dollar mansions in the Garden District are slowing being covered in mildew and moss, their yards and landscaping having been neglected so long that its starting to obscure the house. The roads and sidewalks here, even in the wealthiest neighborhoods, are riddled with potholes and in some places, are missing altogether. Many of the public schools are in such a sad state of disrepair that I'm amazed they're allowed to remain open. Even the public cemeteries that the city is so well known for look abandoned and unkept.

Of course, as with most things, there are exceptions. There are parts of the city that have been fully restored and are in better shape than they've ever been. There are places here that are so full of life and excitement that it can barely be contained. There are people here so wildly passionate about this broken city that is their home that after talking to them you can't help but fall in love with New Orleans just a little bit.

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