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?


At 6:39 p.m., Anonymous Kathy said...

Thank you for that list of organizations, Laine, where one can count on their donations getting to the people affected rather than one's dollars being used to ensure the U.S. admin can continue to throw big bucks at the military.

Naomi Klein is right on!

At 7:47 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have eloquently described the forces at play here. I have traveled to New Orleans from Iowa every Spring for the last 5 years to participate in the Jazz fest.

I have walked throught the neighborhoods of the wealthy and stepped across the street into the shanty towns.

I have found very angry blacks and very angry whites. I have found many more soleful and inspirational balck and white who love one another and don't find the separation we see in the north. I believe that connection is born out of a mutual love of art... whether it is visual, music, or vocal. The pateoa is not far from all of the local dialect.

You take away those who choose to live the simple life they are able in the south - and you begin to lose the essence of all the music and art that was created there.

But what industrialists gives a shit about that?

At 7:51 p.m., Anonymous Mary C. said...

Laine, you hit the nail right on the head with this comment:

"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."

That is so true. That is where the spirit of New Orleans comes from. The sultry, bluesy black rhythms and jazz were a unique kind of music born right in that area. If New Orleans loses that, it loses it's soul.

Great article, Laine!

At 7:56 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

forgot to mention the FOOD! Oh GOD THe FOOOOOD

At 10:23 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your "slameless self-promotion"; I had forgotten what you were calling this. And food is an art form, at least in New Orleans.

At 6:48 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are right it's a largly a disneyfication of the culture that the corporate elite wish to go for in NO. They also dream of a New Orleans cleansed of the poor whom they so despise.

Largly the corporate class hates culture and hates history. Two things they are anxious to erase in New Orleans much like they attempted in Iraq. They are okay with a colourful facade of culture only. Marvel at the funny talking cajun cook but let's not speak off the grinding intergenerational poverty that likely gave rise to cajun cooking (And likely soul food as well). Visit the voodoo priestess for your fortune but please let's not explore the history of enslavement and forced religious indoctrination behind Vodoun (spelling?)

Of course they will fail in the end because what they fail to understand is they need poor. Surely they are not expecting middle class women to clean their homes and care for thier brats.

The Culture will survive I believe because culture is about people and they will endure like they always have. But much history will be lost not that many care.

signed James

At 10:30 a.m., Blogger Asha X said...

Hello from Halifax! This is the first time visiting your site and I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful analysis of what is going on in New Orleans. Spirit of place not only lies in it's diversity of the people but, in the land itself. There is a relationship to cultural diversity and representation with biological diversity and I wonder how this relationship will take form given the extent of environmental devastation and the potential that exists to give a voice to so many.

At 11:03 p.m., Blogger Laine Lowe said...

James, I sure do hope the culture survives but with GWB's latest PR speakfest, there was mention of building trailer parks for the poor (on a lottery basis to boot). Such talk does not lend itself to hope.

asha x, you raise some very valid points. This catastrophe does represent an opportunity to address environmental concerns, including loss of wetlands. However, given the current adminstration in the US, I have my doubts that such concerns will even raise an eyebrow.


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