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Urban renewal

Jim Gabour
22 June 2006

My neighbourhood was surrounded today.

By the same Humvees, troops and large-calibre machine guns that surround villages in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Roadblocks were put in position across streets, and men in camouflage helmets and bullet-proof vests have started searching house-to-house.

The worst part is, I welcome it.

For the last months, increasingly large gangs of feral animals from across America have begun to congregate here, knowing how easy it is to hide among mile after mile of crushed, abandoned, open homes. The word is out that the New Orleans police department is in disarray.

The word is correct.

Gangs have the upper hand, and two days ago five teenagers, cruising a neighbourhood at four in the morning, were all gunned down by multiple automatic weapons, in what was just a minor salvo in exponentially developing turf wars. Homes and possessions are being fought over by groups of humans who wish to prey on those of us foolish enough to love, and refuse to leave, this godforsaken place.

And personally, I must say that I would prefer they kill each other, rather than kill me.

The gunfire that had been stilled by Katrina has now come back at night, repeated staccato rhythms that before the storm had become so frequent here that I could, and still can, identify the weapons.

I would hear a shallow popping, six to eight quick bursts in rapid succession, and read in the morning paper that two individuals had been gunned down nearby with a Glock 9.

So that's a Glock 9.

I awaken well before dawn, brought out of my dreams by a deep thudding, a whup-whup sound that seems to go on forever. Then it stops briefly, allows a few breaths' worth of echo, and resumes, to finish with ten more seconds of diminishing resonance. Over coffee, TV's morning news tells me an AK-47 was used to riddle a drug-dealer and his luxury sedan. A fingerprint-less weapon was recovered at the murder scene, an AK-47 supplemented by an empty double-banana clip, enabling it to piggy back two twenty-shot magazines.

So that's an AK 47.

Now, just now, as the mailman delivers the daily packet of whatever struggling mail gets through, I see three national guardsmen, each armed with an M-16 automatic weapon, cruise by the front of my house in an armoured vehicle.

I wave. They wave back.

I know what an M-16 sounds like, too. And I know what it can do to human flesh.

The rest of the world thinks the crisis in New Orleans is over and that things are getting back to normal. Or, they are sick of hearing stories about what they perceive as a city inhabited by whiners. I guess I am one of those whiners.

But allow me:

Our water is completely cut off every other day. Hot water tanks empty and shudder and boiling fluid spits from open faucets until lines fill again. The rest of the time water pressure is so low that fire hydrants are all but non-functional. Helicopters with bags are now the main source of fire dousing.

Eighty-five million gallons – the city confirmed the official figure on 19 June – of water are now lost every day through cracked pipes, seeping into the soil. The city is below sea level already, with the water table right at the soil top, so this much additional flow is causing many of the remaining undamaged houses to sink and topple from their foundations and piers.

What water does get through to homes is undrinkable, doctored with so much chlorine to rid it of bacteria that a glass of water is almost literally a glass of bleach.

Bottled-water services are understaffed and overwhelmed by demand for drinkable water, so numerous occasionally dangerous home remedies have been concocted to make tap water palatable.

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director living in New Orleans. His website is here

Also by Jim Gabour in openDemocracy:

"A New Orleans diary"
(February 2006)

"New Orleans ode to carnival"
(February 2006)

"Out of order"
(March 2006)

"The deliveryman's story" (March 2006)

"An electoral storm in New Orleans"
(April 2006)

"The choice is not choice" (May 2006)

"Frozen assets: letter from New Orleans" (June 2006)

Electricity is available to only 40% of the city. I am lucky and have access to power at my own home. But even here the juice pops out three-four times a day, causing multiple fires when it surges back on. An incredible commercial museum of irreplaceable Mexican "day of the dead" artifacts, six blocks away, caught fire in just such a surge night before last.

My house, like most others in this neighbourhood, is full of blinking electric clocks. New Orleanians have given up on resetting indicators of time. We know that any reference to the present will just go away again in a few minutes.

Funny, but that's the way most of us have come to think of the whole experience of living here. Just ignore the fact that progress has gone away, again and again. And again.

No sense knowing what time it is, is it? Not in New Orleans, in any case.

More stoplights have come back, but between lost relief-workers crashing into them, and frequent gangster car chases, at least a quarter of the lights have been re-damaged and still do not work. Half the missing street-signs, one-way signs and stop signs in the city have not been replaced.

An especially frightening phenomenon: the gangs have been switching one-way signs' directions to confuse both the cops and nearby residents, to keep people out of neighbourhoods where they are marshalling their forces and hiding their loot. There is, if you obey the signs, no way to get into certain blocks of empty houses. And there the Bad Guys congregate, invisible.

They use stolen trucks and SUVs for their commerce, and they prowl rebuilding neighbourhoods at night, looting the same houses three and four times.

They wait for locals to install new appliances or piping, or doors and windows, in their gutted houses. And then, when the residents go back to their temporary homes at night, the looters run free, taking whatever they find.

In the morning the rebuilders return, of course, to find that, once again, they have lost everything.

One neighbourhood away, in broad view on an empty lot, the looters sell what they stole the night before at bargain basement prices, telling potential buyers that, by having low prices, they are doing their part to "help rebuild New Orleans". I have heard several stories of people who bought such material being followed home discreetly by the sellers, only to discover the next day that the same material had been stolen again, on the day it was purchased.

Then the looters move to yet another neighbourhood, buying and selling the same material many times before again moving on.

Killing each other to remain dominant as the sole supplier in a certain part of town.

Using Uzis to assert their right to sell drugs and doorways.

That is why, the government tells me via the media, that after nine months going on ten, I personally am again under a rough form of martial law.

I want to complain. I want to say that it is not right.

But I live in New Orleans.

And I am a whiner, you see.

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