Who am I, who has never lived in one of these buildings, with the stigma and hopelessness that have come to be associated with them, to have a say? Who am I, with my own aforementioned and tenuous notions of home, to say don’t come back? Who am I, with my own priveleged experiences of home, to invite people back to buildings I wouldn’t inhabit, to deplorable amenities and to the first line of the New Orleans trenches? According to some, the classifieds contain many job openings for janitors, dishwashers, valet parkers, sweepers, bank tellers (but not really, some of my friends in the service industry say). Who am I to say come back to these jobs, with no hope for upward mobility and, while you’re at it, work three of them at $7-10 per hour each, while your children go unattended? Who am I to welcome you back to being the wage slaves of the Copelands, Brennans and Impastatos of the city? Who am I to ask to have your kids in better school systems re-enter this mess so they, too, can grow up to be janitors, dishwashers, valet parkers, sweepers and bank tellers, if they somehow manage to avoid lives of crime and despondency? Yet, who am I to say, no Ms. Rosie, you may not come back home to the only world and culture you’ve ever known because this city cannot take care of you who were once a contributor but are no more? Who am I to say you’re better off or not in Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge or New York City, anywhere but here?
More importantly, are any of my aforementioned thoughts even the damned point?
Out of sorts and out of town for the last ten days, I am now playing catch-up with New Orleans news, especially blogger encounters of the tasering/pepper spraying/riots kind that took place outside City Hall on the 20th.
Meanwhile, Oyster keeps track of exactly how many public housing units are available in New Orleans today:
Why didn’t activists press hard on this dubious, evolving HUD number upon which the T-P based so much of its reporting and editorial opinion? Wasn’t this a politically exploitable “soft spot”? If the T-P was forced to retract its false subheading about the “fact” that “hundreds” of units were available “right now”, and if HUD was shown to be lying about the 154 unit number– a distinct possibility in my view– wouldn’t the activists be in a very strong position to demand a second opinion on, say, HUD’s rehab vs. redevelop cost numbers?
Activists, like some bloggers, possess a certain usefulness; they call attention to issues that would normally be twisted or swept under the rug by the government-media complex. Unfortunately, what has formed here are two wrong sides to this story and, since most people cannot think beyond a pre-packaged and two-sided morsel, this has come down to a battle between Theatri-vists/neo-Yippies and Vitter/Head/pro-demolitionists. The saddest aspect of it all is that none of them would live in the housing units they are fighting over.
Arguments like those of Karen‘s, Cliff‘s and Breez‘s which address the situation of the people who would live, have lived, will continue to live in such housing is lost. Life has been good to me so far; heaven forbid that I ever experience such a situation where wealthier and more secure people address me as a castoff or in the third person, while arguing amongst themselves over my fate.
Again, I know people extremely well who’ve had to start over from bankruptcy, prison, divorce, family disownment and single motherhood, who scrounged food out of trashcans and hitchhiked cross-country to avoid getting on government assistance. Do we want our fellow citizens to live like that? Conversely, would we prefer them living in public housing permanently? What’s the right formula?
The elephant in the living room: Race. Black people. Karen talks of it as deconcentrating large populations of poor black people, ostensibly to help them merge in with Normal, Productive Members Of Society like you and me. The question is How? How have black people, or any grouped minority, historically come out of the ghetto and where do they go? Cliff says it took his grandmother 19 years to exit and to what? What did she and her fellow “escapees” work their way into? What concrete avenues do we as a people set up to help those wanting to get out? One idea is scattering low-income and affordable housing throughout the city but this is normally met with NIMBY backlash. Where can these folks get on Assimilation Express if that’s what the nation really wants?
The next person who says “Mixed-income housing has worked in Atlanta, it can work here, too” is going to be bitch-slapped. Have you experienced the dysfunction of this city? Where do folks go once the projects are torn down but promised housing remains undelivered? D and I recently listened to a Bob Edwards Show special on homelessness in America and were stunned by the statistics:
… the fastest growing homeless population in the United States is homeless families. Increasingly, single parents are unable to provide basic necessities for their children – food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. Forty percent of homeless Americans are homeless families with children. In New York the number of homeless families is at an all time high, with 9,500 in shelters. In Washington, DC the only emergency shelter for homeless families has been closed, causing hundreds of families to be put on a waiting list for housing.
Such problems in DC and New York, cities that hold a lot more political and economic sway than New Orleans does. This is America today, folks, coming soon to your very own sterile town. Do you now see why this cannot be a rhetoric-filled, false dichotomy between Government-Subsidized Housing Good vs. Government-Subsidized Housing Bad? Projects aren’t the answer, homelessness is also anathema, so we’d better start discussing and doing in constructive terms. Now I ask: is that possible here?
Like I’ve said before, if HUD/HANO, Senator Vitter, Stacy Head and her City Council and the cast of government thousands could find their way out of a wet paper sack, I’d change this blog’s day count to something utopian actually taking place in this town. If recovery/rebuilding for everyone were really on the minds of the architects of New New Orleans, I’d honestly plead, “Come back, everyone!” If people were to realize that government is the problem, not the solution, there would be no issue here. But, this city backed by this government just cannot, will not do it. With this in mind, do I want the poorer of my fellow citizens to become embroiled in this mess again? I’m not so sure.
These are my vertiginous thoughts about this potential-ridden city on December 31, 2007, 2.35 years after the storm/flood. My sincere hope is that 2008 brings nicer things to New Orleans. She sure could use them.