New Orleans's sub-heavenly host

Jim Gabour
29 June 2009

I was looking at the sky the other night around 10pm, finally able to get outside an air-conditioned environment as the 104-degree (40ºC) noontime temperature cooled enough to make that possible. Earlier in the day, on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather site, I'd seen a first bit of spiralling weather moving off the Yucatan peninsula, supposedly tracking into the Gulf of Mexico early the next week. It was easy to be positive, even about that: at least a hurricane would cool things off.Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click her

I was looking to the sky for signs, I suppose, some indication of what is to come. Over the last four years I have noticed that the advent of yet another hurricane season in New Orleans brings out the innate meteorological oracle in even the most jaded non-believer.

Oddly enough, this night, with the wide spread of brilliant though streetlight-faded stars at my face, I somehow flashed back to high-school physics. Why did I suddenly recognise the fact that I was not looking at stars, just at the image of stars?  Here were lights that had left their sources centuries earlier to travel the distortions of time and space, and had now arrived at my Marigny street backyard to describe what a physical object may or may not have looked like, all that time ago.

Which led me to wonder if even the heavens lie in New Orleans.

The role models

In 2009, this urban American rework-in-progress continues to be the source of a constant reinvention of its own history.  After all, the reduced population still re-elected a Fact-Free® mayor, a man - his name is Ray Nagin - given to massive public tantrums when his misinformation is challenged. 

Of late he sequentially denies then admits then denies then admits that his family's vacation trips - among others, a first-class to a Jamaican resort right after hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and to Hawaii a year or so earlier - had been illegally paid for by city vendors.  He calls a news conference to deny that his hand-selected appointees were the recipients of illegal bribes and perks, even as federal investigators raid City Hall and drag away computers full of information on those same city employees.

Most of Nagin's appointees follow his lead.  In early June 2009, when the FBI announced that New Orleans was again the murder capital of the nation by a large margin, the city's police chief Warren J Riley denied the figures, claiming more people had come back in to the city than the bureau used in its determinations, so the percentage was much lower. Riley, according to the Times-Picayune, would only acknowledge: "We know we have a crime problem", but whose severity "depends on what headlines you read". He did not tell reporters that even if the more optimistic population figures were used, the city's murder-rate still was higher than the second most violent city, St Louis.  He also didn't mention the fact that Baton Rouge, another nearby city (where a large portion of New Orleans's population had moved after Hurricane Katrina), now had the seventh highest murder-rate in the country. He further declined to say that this was a previously perennial honour for New Orleans, a situation noted nationally as late as June 2005, two months before the storm.A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)

"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008)

"Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)

"Loot" (8 October 2008)

"Nine-inch nails in the White House" (31 October 2008)

"Living the American movie" (5 November 2008)

"Three regular guys" (8 January 2009)

"The redemption game" (20 February 2009)

The plague spin of New Orleans (5 May 2009)  

The local government now uses Katrina as an excuse for all its failings, and pre-storm history no longer counts. It doesn't matter that the city was dangerous back then, only that figures say it is dangerous now.  And so, conveniently, the blame for the incessant murders can be laid at Katrina's feet. 

Bad storm.

But we still have our heroes, our native sons made good.  Especially our gangsta-rap artists, juvenile icons like L'il Wayne, who broadcast the fact that living in New Orleans makes them extra-tough. In 2007, when asked about being arrested at the Beacon Theatre, Lil' Wayne said, "When they locked me up in New York,... I told them - Nigga, I'm from New Orleans! I will murder ya'll up in this b*tch!" 

In 2009, the ultra-successful Master P - founder of No Limit Records - continues to back his brother, a man who goes by the moniker "C Murder".  Mr Murder is at the time of writing back in jail after breaking the rules of his house-arrest over homicide charges (he had previously been arrested for possessing automatic assault-weapons and boxes of armour-piercing rounds when he was pulled over while driving back into the city. Murder was wearing a Kevlar bullet-proof vest, while allegedly also under the influence of various ego-altering substances.  To police, he characterised his armament as normal protection in New Orleans.

Role models all,  along with the mayor and police chief. 

The sweet hereafter

Meanwhile the city's newest racial demographic, Latinos, continue to expand.  Many of the thousands of workers who appeared in the city immediately after the storm to make their fortunes in restoration labour have put down roots, and continued to work hard and prosper.  At every large-box hardware centre, like Lowe's and Home Depot, there are round-the-clock groups of Mexican, Honduran, and Nicaraguan workers waiting for prospective employers to drive up and offer a day's employment. 

This laudable work-ethic has not escaped the notice of the local gang element.  The Latin workers make and carry all of their earnings in cash, usually sending money back home as often as once a week; they have become known as "walking ATMs" to the gang-bangers who regularly rob and kill the unknown and anonymous Latins with little or no repercussions.

Police-chief Riley has not commented on tracking criminal statistics involving illegal non-residents, since they are not part of the official population count.  If they are not legal, they are not here, and consequently their mortalities make no mark.

But still the Latino population cannot be ignored and are now especially visible, as every busy street-corner along cross-town thoroughfare Claiborne Avenue has come to boast a mobile taqueria, small generator-powered trailers offering a wide range of foodstuffs familiar to the new workers. Las Palomas, only half a dozen blocks from my home, is my personal favourite - not only because of its excellent tortas and chile rellenos, but because of the continuing irony of its location. 

At Elysian Fields and Claiborne, it sits astride the concrete northern skirt of a large corner gas- station, to which it pays a minimal rent. But it has service-windows that open on both sides of the trailer, into the gas-station parking-lot on the south and into the northern neighbouring lot owned by RFS, a funeral home. Word in the ‘hood has it that RFS is the caterer of choice for ceremonies involving the disposition of deceased gang-members.

And then there is Las Palomas.  As I drove by the other day, a coffin was being loaded into the back of a hearse. At the taqueria window, right next to the parked hearse, black-suited pallbearers stood in line for, and consumed, tacos de res, while awaiting the funeral procession's departure to the cemetery. 

Another culture both ignored officially and assimilated locally.

The left-behind crew

All this continues while a large portion of the returned native population still furtively lives in temporary housing and/or trailers. "Furtive" because the local governments of greater New Orleans have begun legally requiring the removal of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers from the driveways of homes under renovation. Officials see the all-too-visible trailers as detrimental to the image of their self-lauded "rebuilding" efforts, even as the money flow to facilitate rebuilding has been continually stymied by their own multi-layered bureaucracies. No one wants to advertise the continuing failure of government by having visitors see that there is still a substantial gap in the process of properly returning people to their rightful homes.

In neighbouring Mississippi, Governor Haley Barber, a Republican and long-time Bush good-ole-boy confederate, managed to get thousands of dislocated Gulf-coast families into well-built "Katrina cottages" within months. In Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democratic female, was less able to facilitate federal assistance. Even now, four years later, under prospective Republican presidential dynamo Governor Bobby Jindal, only a few dozen of the readily-available structures have been allocated to New Orleanians.

Governor Jindal has spent a large portion of his time in the Louisiana executive office out of the executive offices, collecting campaign money at out-of-state fundraisers. His failure effectively to counter President Obama's first speech as national Republican spokesman did not entail any problem in his ability to bring in large amounts of cash for his prospective 2012 run at national office. In the meantime, he remains Louisiana's governor, but not as often as Louisiana would like.  And, symptomatic of his Republican posturing, he continues to refuse to take what he considers tainted Obama stimulus money, direct extension of unemployment benefits that would ease the suffering of the state's lost jobs.  Jindal says his refusal is a matter of principle. 

After considering all this - New Orleans' non-existent crime rate, the efficacy of honest New Orleans heroes in offering examples of clean living and good citizenship, the complete innocence of the city's well-meaning efficient and competent officials, and having finally considered the state's proven priorities for the public welfare - I can only return to my night sky and wonder.

Wonder.  Why it would even matter if the stars lied.

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