My mom and a group of her Episcopalian friends have arrived in New Orleans for a week of volunteering in New Orleans East. Simon and I drove Uptown to meet Mom for dinner at Lebanon’s. She said that her group had stopped at the house on the way in from Atlanta to see the house and the work they’d be doing. “I had no idea,” she said, referring to the degree of devastation in New Orleans East.
“Hadn’t you seen it before on the drive in?” Simon asked.
“Seeing it from the interstate isn’t the same,” I said, realizing that I’ve only seen it from the interstate, myself. I’d warned my mom that it might be a strange and difficult experience, installing sheetrock in a house in the East. When she asked why I said, “Well, it’ll be one half-alive house in the midst of a whole bunch of devastation.”
“Kind of drop-in-the-bucket-like,” she offered.
I am really proud of my mom for doing what she’s doing. She’s sixty-five! And here she is giving up a week to help some guy who’d evacuated to Georgia sheetrock his home. I, myself, have done nothing to help since I’ve come back. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.
That is, unless you count getting up and going to work every day something. Or attending a Memorial Day rally, something. Or offering ideas for making our neighborhood safer and cleaner on the nola.com Marigny/Bywater forum, something. Or living here in the midst of this at all, something. Most days I do call it something. It is, after all, all that one can do some days: getting up and going, teaching and sleeping. But there are those days when I feel, well, utterly hopeless/helpless/powerless and I want either to a) punch in the teeth anyone who would suggest that I pull myself—that we pull ourselves—up by the bootstraps, or b) punch myself in the teeth. I grind them, instead.
So I am proud of my mother, and grateful to all those like her who have helped us when we cannot (for a variety of reasons) help ourselves.
I worry about this “drop-in-the-bucket-like” approach to rebuilding.
I worry that Nagin’s free-market approach to rebuilding is a complete non-plan—the total opposite of a plan (“let’s just see what the people do,” when the people can’t do anything until we know the plan)—and I think that most New Orleanians would agree with me. We are, after all, a largely liberal group. And liberals recognize that the free-market approach can be dangerous at a number of levels.
But we are also in Louisiana—which is All About Property Rights. Which means that many homeowners believe that, damnit, they should be able to put their f-ing drop in the bucket, period. Damn the exorbitant costs to all NOLA taxpayers of providing basic services to isolated pockets in the city. Damn being surrounded by blight and raising children in the midst of school-less neighborhoods. Damn the fact that there is no specific support for Louisiana hurricane protection in the Army Corps of Engineers' latest report. Damn conscientious urban renewal. Damn planning. Damn you: I bought this f-in’ house and it’s mine to rebuild, period.
A couple of weeks ago I got all worked up talking about the plan/non-plan for rebuilding New Orleans while talking to a philosophy professor from UNO at the Parkview. Leave it to a philosophy professor to break me down. I can’t remember now the details of what he said, but the gist of it was that imminent domain is dangerous, and that WE ALL have the right to rebuild. He had me thinking. I still am thinking.
I don’t know.
It just seems irresponsible to allow isolated pockets of the city to rebuild. Moreover, I find it self-centered for these homeowners to demand services in their sectors of the city when New Orleans can barely afford to keep the less-ravaged parts of town alive. When you move into a city, you move into a community. You are buying into something more than just your individual property. You agree to adhere to the aesthetic guidelines of your neighborhood. You agree to pay higher taxes on just about everything. You agree to be a decent neighbor because you are living in close proximity to others. In short, it’s not Just About the Homeowner. It’s about everyone living collectively in the city.
Exactly, my philosopher friend would say.
I am conflicted. And I am tired.
Meanwhile, my mom called this evening to report on her first day of volunteering in the East. She said they’ve been moving stuff all day, and you could hear how tired she was. Tomorrow they will be painting, but they’re worried about that because in peeling back the wallpaper, mold was discovered, and evidently the homeowner wants to simply paint over it.
“Well, I guess you just have to do it,” I said.
“I know,” she said. She described how in the Saint Andrews orientation this morning they were told that their task was not to tell people how to rebuild—to offer advice or suggestions—but simply to aid in the recovery that those people saw fit.
Again: the conflict. Wouldn’t some outside advice and guidance right now be a good thing? When our mayor is MIA, don’t we need a little help deciding?
This is the thing: we need a plan.
Until then, it all feels like meaningless drops in one big, grim bucket.