Saturday, September 03, 2005

When Bad Things Happen to Good Towns


I love that NOLA's near-death experience is embarrassing BushCo, but it's a lousy bargain----so much suffering and loss weighed against: the shame pressing down on the shameless, the failure earned by he who always seems to fail upwards.

NOLA is, or was, the 5th blackest city in the U.S., and the one with the most residents who have been in place for some generations. It's strange to see those suffering black faces and think back a few hundred years to when their ancestors on the African side arrived in slave ships and were auctioned off and shipped upriver. The connection remains close, the distance in space and time almost negligible. Is this flood a drowning, a retribution, a baptism, a sign of things to come?

Even with the commercialization and of Superdomization of NOLA, it managed to retain an authenticity, a Creole saltiness, possessed by no other American city of its size. It was our cheerful Sodom, jazztown, Storeyville, America's whorehouse & honkytonk, gateway to the Caribbean, wildside, partee-town, tropictown, blackbottom, darktown, rottenville, naughtyville. But maybe what really anchored it was the generations-long heritage of suffering of its predominantly black citizenry. Sure, there are other blacktowns in America. New York and Chicago and Cleveland and Detroit all harbor huge black communities, for example. But those communities grew out of the great 20th Century migrations from the formerly enslaved populations of the South. Their roots aren't so deep, because they were founded by the relatively recently uprooted. NOLA was the original North American receiving station for countless African imports. There they were unloaded off stinking slaveships, sorted out by size and strength and health and age and comeliness, cleaned and fattened up a bit, and auctioned off. Some, at least in the form of their descendants, have lived there ever since. Or, if they were shipped out for a time to some godforsaken plantation in the bayou, or outside Hattiesburg, or Vicksburg, or Baton Rouge, well, they remained in orbit around, in the sphere of influence of, the great rivertown, and eventually, after being "freed," their offspring gravitated back to it. And on a clear day, it might have seemed to them as if they could see all the way back to the continent they were stolen from.

College kids dropped by Bourbon Street to get drunk, trade beads for breasts, and listen to party jazz. But the music of NOLA was deceptive. Cheerful and celebratory and sassy as it might have seemed, it was devised to express and release and deliver from centuries of oppression and poverty and misery. It, jazz & blues & zydeco alike, may be America's greatest cultural invention, but it is the expression of one of the nation's two greatest crimes-----three hundred years of slavery followed by 150 years of oppression, exploitation, and discrimination. The other crime, of course, is the near-annihilation of the original Americans, some of whom mixed their blood with the Cajuns. Which begs the question: Do the Indians have a cultural invention to express THEIR pain?

The Indians had their own shattered and ravaged cultures. Because they were not brought here but were already here, they didn't re-invent themselves and re-combine themselves and their culture in a New World the way African-Americans did. And because they were not useful to the new invaders the way black labor was useful, they and their cultures were scarcely permitted to exist. All that remain are vestiges of tribes and survivors: the ragged remnants of what once were a thousand Amerindian cultural traditions, such as Navajo rug making, are practiced on the reservations they have been herded onto, along with suicide-by-drink and casino management. Perhaps more Indian cultural tradition exists as artifacts in the basements of natural history museums than in the battered reservations and their inhabitants.

What makes the destruction of New Orleans so horrifying is that the city is, or at least was, a nexus and a gateway and a birthplace. It was not a museum but a living membrane between the present and the past in a nation which all too often mindwipes its own memory or so bastardizes and commercializes and lobotomizes and Disneyfies and corporatizes it as to render it meaningless, misleading, and worse than worthless. It was a nexus because the conflicts and confusions and wonders of all incoming cultures: African, European, Amerindian; Hispanic, Gaullic, Anglo; Haitian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Venezuelan, Panamanian, were here braided together and interwoven into a startling new tapestry. New Orleans was a hellhole and a bunghole, but also a loom and a womb.

What will happen to it when the waters recede? What will be left when corpses and chemicals and raw sewage and the debris of all the little shotgun shacks is cleared away? Will the city that is rebuilt here still remember, truthfully, in its dark blood, its history?

N'Awlins was ever and always a place to trade, a place to leave, a place to arrive, a place to fuck, a place to party, a place to suffer, a place to celebrate and make music and dance, and a place to die. Death and rot was in evidence there as it was nowhere else in America. The very graves sat above ground, as if the dead didn't really want to leave, as if they considered the city as much theirs as it was the living's. If anything, the houses of the dead, being marble mausoleums, were more permanent than the houses of the living, which were of wood which was assaulted continually by ferocious Formosan termites, by tropical rot, by floods, by sun.

Only once before in America's history has a city of this size been so completely destroyed by nature: San Francisco, 1906. But San Francisco was a very young city on an inconceivably beautiful and desirable site, gateway to the Pacific and goldengate to the Golden State. The earthquake and fire were a mere clearing away, a prelude to a grand future, and everyone knew it. Scarcely a voice asked of the quake and fire: Can this be the death of San Francisco? In no time, a Pan American Exposition celebrated its rebirth.

Republican Congressman Dennis Hastert, a renowned gasbag, has already suggested that New Orleans, as a site, may be untenable, may need to be rethought. Maybe, he suggests, this flood is trying to tell us something: that the city and its site deserve to be "bulldozed." The Republican Party isn't admitting the two dozen hurricanes lining up this year to assault the Gulf Coast are fueled by globalwarming. The Republican Party isn't even admitting globalwarming exists. But it knows the water is rising and the city is sinking.

Maybe the thing to do, it's suggesting, is leave this problematic site well-enough alone. Nature is trying to tell us something. This riverport was a heathen place, a place of orgies, dark skins, race mixing, wild music, Frenchies, Catholic festivals, punishing floods, bad memories, and worse NFL & NBA teams. Let's cut our losses along with our history and our culture. There's no rebuilding all those little shotgun shacks anyhow. We can turn the surviving architecture, the French Quarter on the high ground, into a theme park. As for the rest of it: to hell with it. It's drowned and gone and why throw good money after bad? Let's build us a big ol' new port for container ships, sumpin' ever so much more efficient and dehumanized than that troublesome drowned town.

Let's say goodbye to the dark memories of slaveships and slaves and black ho's and white ho's and rainbo's and jazzbo's and say hello to a brave new city that's hurricane-proof and history-proof and heathen-proof and Negro-proof and Cajun-proof and Creole-proof and foolproof and blues-proof. The New New For-profit Orleans will be a money-machine replete with high rises, corporate headquarters, Capitalist Christians, and winning football teams. There won't be no problems with Formosan termites and tropical rot because the condos won't be wood but pre-stressed concrete. And the French, those cheese-eating surrender monkeys, will have to take their old franchise somewheres else. And they can take their wicked Mardi Gras with 'em. This New NOLA will be fundamentalist Protestant, not Catholic. And no more in yer face above ground dead folk, either. The dead of the New New Orleans will be buried below ground if we have to move the cemeteries all the way to the Rocky Mountains to get them above the water table.

Not only will the dead be properly disposed of, but so will the poor and the dark, which were most of the old, decadent, town. With the exception of some employment as household domestics and sanitation workers, there will be no place in Profitville for the original inhabitants. So let's ship 'em the hell outta here as we've been yearning to do ever since they got uppity in the '60's. They can go to any Blue State they please. And they can take their damn memories of the way this drowned town used to be with them, because Profitville has been washed, by Katrina, in the Blood of the Lamb, and won't be looking back, or slowed by no jazzbo, no mo'.