Sunday, September 11

What’s culture got to do with it?

When I think of New Orleans, I think of a city of many distinct cultures with individual threads – be they French, African American, Caribbean, Acadian – forming a multicultural weave that is historically unique in North America. This vibrant centre of sin and sanctity (captured brilliantly in one stroke with its famed Mardi Gras celebrations) has inspired, attracted and produced some of the best playwrights, novelists, poets, painters, filmmakers, chefs and musicians the US has on offer.

Culture is more than a commodity to be exploited in pursuit of tourism dollars. Those wishing to aggressively pursue a policy of gentrification are ignoring this fact. Without the people and communities, predominantly poor and black, who have infused a spirit that has fuelled the cultural wealth of the Big Easy, a new and improved New Orleans will become a Disney version of its former self, catering to conventions and wholesome family fun. Laissez les bon temps rouler, indeed!

One has to wonder if what is now being referred to as the “black migration” or “Diaspora” was undertaken deliberately. Enrollment of affected children into local schools in host communities across the country was accomplished faster than delivery of much needed water, food and medical supplies to the survivors in the disaster zones. Meanwhile, many of New Orleans wealthy continued to sup on foie gras and sip champagne while devising plans for the reconstruction of the devastated city. One such elite had this to say:
"The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.”

"The new city must be something very different, with better services and fewer poor people.”

"Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."

The lack of respect given to those most affected by Hurricane Katrina’s descent on New Orleans is appalling. These are people who have a strong sense of community and a culture that is very much tied to their home city. Why should they leave when others can stay?

Naomi Klein has it right. The people, the so-called underclass that represent close to 70% of the population, should be in charge of rebuilding New Orleans. Their communities should be consulted every step of the way and given the opportunity to address and rectify the past failings that have kept the poor impoverished – not shipped off to far flung FEMA refugee camps. In her words:

“Here's a better idea: New Orleans could be reconstructed by and for the very people most victimized by the flood. Schools and hospitals that were falling apart before could finally have adequate resources; the rebuilding could create thousands of local jobs and provide massive skills training in decent paying industries. Rather than handing over the reconstruction to the same corrupt elite that failed the city so spectacularly, the effort could be led by groups like Douglass Community Coalition. Before the hurricane this remarkable assembly of parents, teachers, students and artists was trying to reconstruct the city from the ravages of poverty by transforming Frederick Douglass Senior High School into a model of community learning. They have already done the painstaking work of building consensus around education reform. Now that the funds are flowing, shouldn't they have the tools to rebuild every ailing public school in the city?”

For those of us who understand how we should lend a helping hand, here is a link to a site that lists grassroots, community based and culturally sensitive non-profits who are committed to helping the people most affected by this disaster:

If such shameful lack of concern for the poor exists within North American borders, are we to honestly believe that poverty eradication is the primary goal of such global institutions as the World Bank?

Wednesday, September 7

US gears up for largest resettlement in US history

That is if you don’t count the tragic history of Native Americans who were forced off their traditional lands (including the infamous Trail of Tears tragedy and the Indian Removal Act).

Today’s news is littered with stories of how the evacuees of New Orleans will create the largest US black resettlement since the Great Migration of poor Southern blacks heading North for better job prospects, a migration that spanned from 1910 to 1970. Seems like a positive spin to a very negative situation. The predominantly poor black residents of New Orleans didn’t choose to leave their homes for better opportunities – a catastrophic hurricane devastated their communities and left their future in the hands of those who cared too little to make necessary repairs to the levees.

This new wave of “migration” is actually forced resettlement with the victims of Hurricane Katrina being bussed to such temporary holding pens as the Houston Astrodome by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. Plans are underfoot to figure out what to do next with the evacuees but rest assured, people like Barbara Bush see a silver lining:

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this [she chuckled slightly]--this is working very well for them."

Meanwhile, suburban evacuees have been returning to examine the extent of damage to their homes. No talk of resettlement for these folks who are probably not black, and most certainly not poor. According to one such suburban resident, "We're going to rebuild it. You know we're going to come back."

By contrast, survivors who managed to ride out the storm and consequential chaos, thanks to the delayed rescue and relief efforts as coordinated by federal agencies, are insisting on staying put in their central New Orleans homes.

"There is absolutely no reason to stay here. There are no jobs. There are no homes to go to. No hotels to go to and there is absolutely nothing here," New Orleans Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley told a news conference.

For those who chose to stay in central New Orleans rather than join their poor black neighbours who have to resettle and find new jobs, there will be no more goodwill and compassion. According to a representative of a search-and-rescue team tasked with finding these survivors and persuading them to leave, “no relief materials, such as food and water, would be provided for these people”.

Rebuild or resettle? I sure know what I would choose.