A bad dream made real: nighttime in the city of New Orleans.

A house in the Lower Ninth Ward devastated by Hurricane Katrina
A house in the Lower Ninth Ward devastated by Hurricane Katrina (Nikki Page)
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 26, 2007

DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS

Reflections from a Drowned City

By Billy Sothern

Univ. of California. 346 pp. $21.95

Two years ago this week Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast. Coastal communities from Louisiana to Alabama were pulverized, and the city of New Orleans was awash, so devastated as to teeter on the brink of destruction. You know the rest of the story, or at least you think you do. The performance of government at all levels was abysmal, except in a few smaller cities and towns where vigorous local leadership brought about relatively effective reconstruction, and interest elsewhere in the country gradually faded. With so much else on our minds -- "American Idol," Paris Hilton, the iPhone -- how could we possibly concentrate on New Orleans?

It's still there, though, even if just barely. The French Quarter seems awfully quiet now, but at least it's open for business. The Garden District and Uptown -- the latter made a little bit famous by the peregrinations of Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces-- came through in good condition. It's possible for the visitor who picks and chooses with care to see parts of the city much as they were before Katrina came to town. Elsewhere -- most famously in the decimated Ninth Ward, but in many other neighborhoods as well -- it's another story. For all the brave talk coming out of Mayor Ray Nagin's office and the lairs of the city's business elite, it's still far from clear whether the city ever will recover fully and, if it does, what kind of city it will be.

Already the fate of New Orleans has been the subject of numerous books, and doubtless will be the subject of many more. Mostly they don't rise above the level of hasty journalism, which is to say that for the most part they're already gone and forgotten. I predict a similar fate for Billy Sothern's mildly amiable, occasionally smart but thoroughly ephemeral Down in New Orleans. The author is a transplanted Brooklynite who had been in New Orleans for four years when Katrina arrived. A graduate of New York University School of Law, he was doing "social justice work in the cracks of the edifice erected in the wake of the civil rights movement," more specifically "running Reprieve, a charity that [brings] lawyers and volunteers to the Deep South from abroad to work on death penalty issues." Therefore, it will not surprise you that in this book he's touching a number of bases:

"The story of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina is, even though it may be hard to accept, the story of America at the beginning of a new millennium. Though we see ourselves as leaders in the world and attempt to spread abroad our ethics of democracy and equality, though we celebrate the supposed 'victory' of the civil rights struggle with various holidays each year, we face many of the same grave obstacles to human and civil rights that we condemn in other countries and regret in our own past. These shortcomings were made plain by Hurricane Katrina's landfall and its consequences in New Orleans."

Though Sothern's hectoring can get more than a bit tedious, he certainly has a point. New Orleans is a vastly more complicated place than is generally realized by tourists who happily grab strings of beads on St. Charles Avenue during Mardi Gras, dine grandly at Commander's Palace or munch on beignets at Caf� du Monde. Even after thousands of its poorest residents (most of them black) were forced to move elsewhere after Katrina, New Orleans remains a city defined significantly by race and poverty. Sothern gets close to an important truth about New Orleans when he writes: "For those of us who live here, even the wealthy and the privileged, it is impossible to ignore race and poverty; regardless of one's politics or beliefs about the causes of poverty and its link to race, these factors are central in our civic discourse and define daily life in the city."

To say that race and poverty "define daily life" in New Orleans strikes me as an exaggeration, but not by much. It isn't merely stooping to clich� to say that New Orleans is also defined by music of many kinds, by the best food in the United States and by its domestic architecture, in particular the classic shotgun house. Beyond that, if there is, or was before Katrina, a large population of poor blacks in New Orleans, by the same token there was, and still is, a substantial black middle-class population; Mayor Nagin, for one, is a member of it.

Sothern doesn't pay much attention to this, and it weakens his arguments, for it is possible for blacks to fare well in New Orleans just as it is possible for them to do so in Washington, Atlanta and other cities known for prosperous and prominent black communities. It is also the case, though, that the poor of New Orleans have been mistreated -- long before Katrina -- by an economy that limits them to menial service jobs, by a police force too often brutal and corrupt, by a failing school system that offers their children no real chance in life, by a government -- local, state and national -- that ignores them at best and stigmatizes them at worst, by an appallingly high crime rate of which they are the principal victims.

For readers whose knowledge of New Orleans is limited to tourist spots and who assume that the city is just a wild and crazy place where the operative word is F-U-N, Sothern provides a useful antidote. He describes a talk he gave in New York a few weeks after Katrina: "I took issue with the media's characterization of post-Katrina New Orleans as resembling the third world as its poor citizens clamored for a way out. I suggested that my experience in New Orleans working with the city's poorest people in the years before the storm had reflected the reality of third-world conditions in New Orleans, and that Katrina had not turned New Orleans into a third-world city but had only revealed it to the world as such."

Again, Sothern exaggerates. Go into the most desperate neighborhoods of just about any big American city and you'll find something that looks a lot like "third-world conditions." New Orleans doesn't have a monopoly on that. When Sothern says that "even long before the storm, [New Orleans] failed to provide much of anything to its citizens," he's making an insupportable generalization; many of its citizens, then and now, are more than amply provided for. Still, there can be no gainsaying that "for many people in New Orleans, and in poor communities around the country, the government [is] merely an antagonist, a terrible landlord, a jailor, and a prosecutor." If the poor people of New Orleans feel they have been ill-served by government -- before and after Katrina -- it's because they have reason.

Sothern goes on in this vein at length, and though much of what he says is founded in reality, it doesn't take long for his preaching to grow tiresome. It comes as a considerable surprise, therefore, that just as he borders on repeating himself for the umpteenth time, he reverses gears and writes a sensible, unemotional chapter about the debate over whether New Orleans must remain a smaller city -- having a "smaller footprint," to use the vogue phrase -- in order to avoid having many of its citizens return to areas that cannot be fully protected against flooding and its consequences. One would expect Sothern to parrot the line that "a smaller footprint would prevent poor people and minorities from returning to their homes," but he comes out in agreement with Pierce Lewis, the author of New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape (published originally in 1976), that "allowing people to return to homes in flood-prone areas [is] neither 'particularly humane' nor in accord with civil rights, when 'you know that they could drown there.' " Sothern says the real question is "whether it is possible to shrink the city . . . in a manner that achieves justice for the people displaced and a better, safer, more functional city for everyone," and he's right.

All of which is well and good, but to get to the occasional flashes of common sense, the reader has to wade through not merely a lot of ranting but also extended passages about the author's personal life that have no business being here: "We ate an amazing lunch of catfish, hush puppies, chocolate cake, and sweet tea," "It was very late by the time I finally left Tennessee and entered the more familiar state of Virginia," et cetera. It baffles me that with all this irrelevant stuff, Down in New Orleans somehow passed muster at one of the country's more respected university presses. Whatever happened to scholarly review? �

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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