Let’s not have any illusions. People ARE leaving. And not just those stuck in FEMA trailers or those who lost their homes and don’t have it in them to stay, but homeowners and dyed-in-the-wool New Orleanians too.
I’ve seen some of my most fervent New Orleans-loving friends ditch the city in the last year. These were the ones who always knew more than me about the city’s heritage, culture and dynamics. And they never missed out on a chance to correct me if I made an inaccurate (by their standards) statement about a former street name or a particular colorful character in New Orleans history. They had a pride in their city that could be interpreted as arrogance. And they have their reasons for going and I have mine for staying.
See, even though I have been a frequent visitor to the city and even though this is my second stint living here and even though I pay property taxes here and even though I have done my best to study (formally and colloquially) the city’s populace, heritage and geography, it has been implied on more than one occasion that I wasn’t a REAL New Orleanian. I didn’t go to high school here and didn’t have a neighborhood I grew up in so I would never be anything more than an outsider. When I made certain points on subjects such as education or politics, my opinion was disregarded because I didn’t understand how it was here. Actually, I understood, I just didn’t agree.
Then the going got tough and a lot of them got going, right out of incorporated New Orleans and in many cases, out of Louisiana altogether. And, again, not just the ones that lost their homes (who could blame them?) but many who didn’t. They just up and left. Leaving an outsider here to do the dirty work with uncertainty, bewilderment and that tiny shred of aspiration that they couldn’t find within themselves.
Of course, they call me every now and then and sometimes come back in town “to visit” and it is inevitable that they begin chattering about how much better life is where they are and how messed up it is here (from what they read in the papers). They are horrified by the crime and how its getting worse; they can’t believe the election results. They say it with a sour grapes tone. They don’t realize their words are a vexation to my spirit. Or perhaps they do and they simply need to convince themselves they did the right thing.
Then they say something that is very profound and telling. They say, “It’s never going to change.” And this you don’t hear so often from an outsider. And perhaps it is that type of attitude that doomed the city in the first place. That learned helplessness that leads people to think they couldn’t create a great city from the corruption and decay of New Orleans, that the figurative gumbo that makes the city amazing couldn’t coexist with growth and jobs and, yes, even development.
It makes one wonder if people’s inability to convince themselves that they could oust crooked politicians or lower the crime rate also led them to think the levees could never be improved.
I admit there is a certain mystique about New Orleans as a “pirate’s paradise,” that the backwardness of its ways-and-means can be charming. But in the by-and-by, the system failed. The shores washed away and the levees burst, the criminals ran free in the streets and the leadership was infested by greed and manipulation. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am sure that there are those who wish it could all be like it was before the levees broke. But, not being from here, I’m not so sure that was so magnificent either. Because disaster seemed inevitable. Bums on the street even told me so. For a city that valiantly resisted change for so long, change was forced on them – whether they wanted it or not.
Now we are in an aftermath and the outlook is indeed muddy. And many are leaving in droves. Whether they are doing so because they are unwilling to face what New Orleans may become (wasteland or Disneyland), or because they simply can’t stand the stress of it anymore, one thing is for certain. In 2007 New Orleans, only the strong shall survive.
And perhaps, at the onset of this critical time in the city’s history, the strong are who need to be here anyway. Strength and inspiration are what’s needed right now. I’m here and I’m trying to do my part. I’m paying my taxes and arguing with jerks and buying locally and staying put.
So, can I be REAL New Orleanian now?