April 15, 2007
The Lower Ninth Ward sits segregated from the rest of New Orleans, stashed in a corner of the city like the messed up cousin everyone pretends isn’t really in the family. You’ve got to drive over a bridge and down, and take a left into the super-ghetto that snakes along the water — along the levee that holds the Mississippi River back from flooding the whole neighborhood and a good portion of the rest of the city.
While other parts of NOLA only sort of look like a second-world country, the post-Katrina Lower Ninth might as well be Mexico or India. There are no signs of future gentrification here — absolutely zero poor white kids will pay sub-standard rent to live in this place. This writer resides in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area of SF, so not much scares us … but we would not put a deposit on a place here. No sir.
[Editor’s Note: We actually ended up purchasing a house in the Lower Ninth Ward in 2010. Proof you don’t have to actually say the word ‘never’ for ‘never say never’ to apply nevertheless.]
Since we were busy at the dirt rave in the desert in ‘04 when New Orleans first got storm-ravaged and then submerged, we only saw a few pictures and heard a few stories. No benefit of television to bring the horror home, not out there.
Since rolling into NOLA, we’ve heard accounts from buddies who were here at the time of apocalypse — riding through floodwaters on tallbikes with shotguns strapped to their backs; floating around in canoes with their dogs to ogle the destruction; holing up in the Abbey bar for a three-day drunk while the rest of the city screamed in panic and shot each other over food and stabbed gas tanks with screwdrivers to siphon enough fuel for themselves to try to escape.
Those who witnessed the immediate aftermath in the Lower 9th — either visiting to witness the devastation first-hand, to scavenge through trash piles for tools and artifacts, or to work on debris-removal crews — they have decidedly darker stories.
Those emergency workers who tried to help masses of migrating, newly-homeless people navigate the city streets amid skittish National Guardspeople and overworked and/or racist cops — they’ve got the darkest stories of all.
This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper — and maybe some gurgling noises.
Anyhoo, so coming up on three years later, we saw the Lower 9th with our own eyes.
Along the main road, the ratio of re-furbished houses to homes that are abandoned and completely thrashed is the opposite of the rest of the city: Hardly anyone lives here anymore. At all. We turn into the hood, and a few kids playing basketball at the only house with any life in it on the block wave at me, friendly and smiling.
Maybe it has something to do with the graffiti-covered car; maybe they’re just happy to see someone who’s not dripping gold jewelry whilst ogling them in a tour bus or an air-conditioned SUV.
The levee towers above the neighborhood, overshadowing all that lies at its base, an ever-present reminder of the dangers of trying to play ball with nature. Nature bats last. For the Lower 9th’s erstwhile residents, the subtext, of course, was this: You’re too poor to live anywhere else besides a place that’s sure to go down. Death is imminent at all times, so fuck everything.
We’ve heard stories of houses slammed upside down on top of other houses; cars sitting in trees on top of coolers and vacuum cleaners; one foundation and an empty concrete porch among the ruins with no missing / corresponding house in sight.
The part we didn’t expect, since we came to the place long after the demo crews had gone, was a flat, massive stretch of land that would remind us of a messier Crissy Field in San Francisco … except rather than all grass, there are concrete foundations.
From the distance it looks like a downtrodden dog park — but it used to be entire blocks of houses, now gone. Lots overgrown with weeds, strewn with trash, forlorn and abandoned and everything terrible and oh God the sadness. Kanye West was right. George Bush does NOT care about black people.
Another friend told us of a third potential theory of what happened that fateful day. In addition to the supposition that either the levee just broke and the barge floated through it, or the barge was the thing that broke the levee … there’s also the very ugly but wouldn’t-put-it-past-this-administration chance that the National Guard BLEW THE LEVEE themselves.
The Lower Ninth might well have been the sacrifice to the gods of weather … because if they flooded the Lower Ninth, then the rest of the City — the richer parts, farther away — would experience far less flooding. Only the poor people trapped on the artificially-stopped-up bank of the mighty Mississippi would die and/or lose everything.
[Editor’s Note: After living in the Lower Ninth Ward for a year and a half, this writer found out pretty much everyone in the Lower Ninth Ward knows — knows — they blew the levees. After Katrina had passed, they heard a big BOOM at 4:30 in the morning, and the water rushed in and killed all those people in their sleep. Residents all told the same story.]
Also, the same friend said the powers that be are currently endeavoring to eminent-domain that entire area, to prevent anyone else from moving back there — to re-purpose the land to build… who knows, probably a casino and riverwalk shopping monument to capitalism or whatever. Makes sense not to move anybody back to the L9 though, we told the friend. That place is screwed. Yes, he said — but we like things on the dangerous side too, and p.s., tell that to someone who’s lived in the Lower 9th their whole lives.
It’s kind of too much to take.
Of course there’s the charity outpost, in the form of one makeshift tent with hand-painted signs that read SHAME ON YOU, TOURIST, FOR DRIVING BY AND NOT STOPPING. We drove by without stopping. Inside the temporary shelter, a white man with a ponytail clutched a brochure and talked to a tableful of hippie kids with backpacks and Guatemalan clothing.
Our companion sighed and rolled his eyes. ”Here comes Whitey,” he said, “to save the black people.” Good for them for trying, we said — but we wish some “liberal activists” would learn that opening a dialogue with the words ‘SHAME ON YOU’ is not the most enticing way to get people to listen to anything you have to say.
The weirdest thing we’ve seen in New Orleans since we got here: Amid the rubble and destruction and shittiness down there on the football field that used to hold blocks upon blocks of loving families and crime and chaos and joyful second-line parades and the smell of barbecue and secret Caribbean-derived religious rituals and blaring hip-hop and bouncing tricked-out cars and heart-of-the-block barbershops and corner groceries and bucketloads of SOUL … we heard the unmistakable sound of a lawnmower.
Lawnmower? Lawnmower. We drove toward the noise … sure enough, one muscular bald man in a neat white T-shirt and pressed khakis was mowing his lawn.
No house there, to go with the lawn. No houses around his lot, either. Everything else all rocky and weedy and trashy, and here was this man mowing his got-dang perfectly manicured lawn. Brought the mower out in his truck to his old place and made sure that even though George Bush does not care about black people, he sure as hell wants to let everyone know he cares about himself, and his property, and his neighborhood. He’s not gonna let developers take it.
We’re sure the Sissyphean nature of the task was not lost on him.
On the way back into the Bywater, we pulled into the gas station to fill up, and parked behind a bumping SUV full of attractive, good-time-having people George Bush does not care about. When we got out of the car, our ears picked out the chorus of the song they were blasting:
EVERYBODY SAY ‘FUCK KATRINA!’ (fuck Katrina)
‘FUCK KATRINA!’ (fuck Katrina)
‘FUCK KATRINA!’ (fuck Katrina)
‘FUCK KATRINA!’ (fuck Katrina) …
(Turns out it’s a bounce song by 5th Ward Webbie. Please encourage everyone you know to seek it out & buy local New Orleans bounce and rap albums, if you can’t do anything else charitable… thx)
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