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Why New Orleans Matters

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Tom Piazza
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Friday, February 24, 2006; 1:00 PM

Tom Piazza, author of 'Why New Orleans Matters,' was online to discuss the indispensable history and culture of his quintessentially American city.

"New Orleans is a city of elegance, beauty, and refinement," Tom Piazza writes in 'Why New Orleans Matters.' "[But] it is also a city of violence, poor education, and such extreme poverty you'd have to see it to believe it."

Nevertheless, he maintains that the people of New Orleans, who have spun a culture out of their lives that has been recognized around the world as a transforming spiritual force, are not dispensable. And any scenario of a rebuilt New Orleans that does not find a way to welcome them back and make jobs and a new life for them, he asserts, will be an obscenity.

In a recent interview Piazza stated that, in his eyes, "New Orleans is...a small model of all the best of America. You have a truly multicultural city, in which all social and ethnic and economic levels of society have somehow managed to fashion a distinct and beautiful culture out of the tensions among their differences...In a larger sense that is the story of the United States culture also, but in New Orleans the expressions of that culture have included jazz, rhythm and blues, a distinctive cuisine and so much more. And an attitude towards life that includes a spiritual resilience which has spoken to people around the world-for a couple of hundred years."

Tom Piazza is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the author of seven books, including the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War and the short-story collection Blues And Trouble, which won the James Michener Award. In 2004, Piazza won a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He is a regular contributor to the Sunday New York Times and The Oxford American.

A transcript follows.

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Tom Piazza: Hi, and thanks for joining in on this discussion. I'm answering these questions from my apartment in New Orleans, which is finally habitable after six months. During that period I have spent about half my time in New Orleans, and the rest on the road in Missouri, Connecticut, Rochester NY, Middlebury VT, New York City, Tallahassee FL, San Francisco and many other places. While some of these destinations invited me to read from my fiction, all of them wanted to hear about how New Orleans is doing. The intense concern of so many people was very moving, and made me hopeful about the future of my city.

I had a number of questions waiting for me, so I will just dive in with the first one in the queue.

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New Braunfels, Tex.: Why do you call New Orleans the "best of America?" To me, it is the worst of America - I lived there 25 years.

It is the murder capital of the United States, witchcraft and vodoo thrive there as well as postitution and gambling. If this city is the best I hate to think of the worst city. Mardi Gras is a pagan celebration and I think the Lord has hafd about enough of New Orleans.

Thanks for letting me sound off.

Tom Piazza: Thanks for your question. I'll try to answer as well as I can.

First of all, you lived in New Orleans for 25 years and all you remember is witchcraft, voodoo, prostitution and gambling? It sounds as if you were hanging out with the wrong crowd.

I called New Orleans "a small model of all the best of America" because I have found here a vivid expression of my conception of what the United States can be at its best - a truly multicultural place, in which all social, ethnic, and economic elements of the society have somehow managed to fashion a distinct and beautiful culture out of the tensions among their differences. This embrace of diversity is a beautiful thing, when you can find it.

In the 11 and a half years that I have lived here, I have seen most of the downside aspects that you mention, along with horrible racism, corruption, official incompetence, crumbling public schools and so on - much of which, be it said, you can find in most urban areas of the U.S. to some degree.

I have also seen human beauty, generosity of spirit, humor, astonishing grace in adversity, and a heroic affirmation of life itself through music, cuisine, dance and fellowship unequaled anywhere else in my experience.

If New Orleans' particular mix of good and bad is not to your taste, that's fine. But I think we need to be careful about seeing the Hand Of God at work in events that confirm our own ideas, tastes, or prejudices. As we know from the Book of Job, if not from our own experience in daily life, the hard rain falls on the good and the bad, the just and the unjust alike. If there is in fact a God, it is the height of hubris to think that you can fathom His reasons for doing what He does on this earth, and near-blasphemy to imagine that He is serving your own ideas of who needs correction or punishment.

By the way, I notice from the lead story in the online edition of today's (February 24) New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung (the city website calls the town "a little bit of old Germany") that a local custodian at Smithson Valley Middle School in nearby Spring Branch has been arrested for alledgedly possessing large amounts of child pornography. That's only 25 miles from you; you might want to bring an umbrella later if you are going out.

One more thing in the Acts Of God department: the catastrophe in New Orleans is the result of human incompetence and error - not, so far as I can tell, divine malice. The Hurricane Katrina winds and rain were disastrous, there is no question. But the massive and, again, catastrophic destruction that we have seen in the city is mainly the result of the flooding that took place - from the failure of the levees. And the primary responsibility for that tragic turn of events, and for fixing it, lies directly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and they have admitted as much. And we need to hold them, and those whose job it is to oversee them, responsible until they have repaired the levees and made a good start on restoring the coastal wetlands that protect the entire Gulf Coast (including Texas) from the worst effects of these storms.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

It's been 8 years ago since me and a girlfriend of mine attended the Essence Magazine Fest in New Orleans and I will never forget that little city. The people, the food, the music was great. We had a wonderful time at the Superdome and the French Quarters. I am certainly glad that I got the chance to see and experience New Orleans before Katrina hit.

I had no clue how poor New Orleans was in its certain "wards" of the city and now that it is 95% white due to those who were not affected by the "mysterious" breaking of the leeves in the mostly Black populated areas of the city - what should we expect to see now? Does the government have plans to bulldoze those "poor" areas and make way for money-making-entertainment, or will there be plans to rebuild better homes and bring back the people who made New Orleans the city it once was.

Tom Piazza: Hi, D.C.

My answer to your question will also address concerns raised in a couple of other questions submitted to me.

As you can imagine, there is a huge and complicated arm-wrestle going on right now over these exact questions. It is my view that the city needs, in every sense, to actively encourage the return of its citizens from all economic and ethnic backgrounds, and from all of its neighborhoods. There have been enormous problems involved in doing this, which have amounted to a kind of logistical gridlock.

Here is an example of what I mean: The trailers promised by FEMA as temporary housing for displaced people have been slow to arrive, when they have arrived at all. Those fortunate enough to have a trailer delivered have often found that there is no electricity to serve the trailer. The best estimate I have heard is that about three quarters of the city is still without electricity. This includes areas in which there is no electricity restored at all, as well as areas in which there is electricity in principle but houses are unable to get hooked up to it. The local power utility, Entergy New Orleans, has declared bankruptcy and is operating on what could generously be called a skeleton crew - hence drastically insufficient personnel to perform the hookups, not to mention all the other necessary public electrical work. By the way, the parent company of Entergy made something like $800 million in profits last year and yet will not bail out Entergy New Orleans. Problems of this general sort exist in almost every area of the rebuilding process.

In any case, people who want to come back and rebuild their lives and property even in areas that have not been seriously compromised are having trouble finding places to live while they rebuild. Rents and property values have gone up astronomically in the areas that did not flood. Obviously this is going to weigh most heavily on the people with the fewest resources.

You suggest, correctly I think, that there is a racial dimension to the way some of these problems are being approached. The politics and economics of race in New Orleans, as elsewhere, are enormously complex. It is easy both to overstate and to understate the significance of race in this process. By the way, the rough division of black and white population in the city is more like 65% white to 35% black, roughly the mirror image of the pre-Katrina ratio.

Here is my feeling about this. There is no question but that the heaviest weight of this catastrophe has fallen on the poorest citizens of New Orleans. The heaviest weight of any catastrophe usually falls on the poorest citizens. In New Orleans, the poor are overwhelmingly African-American. As I said in WHY NEW ORLEANS MATTERS, most of those poor are people who work, or were working, very, very hard at low-paying jobs just to make ends meet. All of them were and are members of our community, in New Orleans and as Americans.

The question of their return sits at the moral and spiritual center of the discussion of post-Katrina New Orleans. But it is not a straightforward question, partly because until we have a clear picture of viable, rebuilt levee protection, it is close to murder to invite people to rebuild and reoccupy areas that could flood again. These areas, by the way, include not just the largely poor and African-American Lower Ninth Ward but the largely white, upper-middle-class neighborhood Lakeview and upper-middle-class, mostly African-American New Orleans East, not to mention overwhelmingly white, working-class St. Bernard and Chalmette.

So it is not a straightforward issue of race, but it is plainly inflected by racial politics. Some, for example, have raised the above-mentioned flooding concerns as a way of saying, in code, that it is better that the residents of the overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods not return. I would raise it to say, straightforwardly, that it is a national disgrace that the Federal government has not moved more aggressively to do what is necessary to rebuild the levees and, just as importantly, restore the coastal wetlands that weaken hurricanes and absorb much of their impact as they approach land.

Everyone in New Orleans, and everyone who wants to return to New Orleans, has a major case of the jitters right now because nobody knows what will happen during the next hurricane season.

There are other major questions on the topic. Most of the evacuees in the post-Katrina shelters had school-age children with them. Most public schools in New Orleans are closed indefinitely. If they return, where will their children attend school? Most of the evacuees had no health insurance; presently Charity Hospital, which was the main public source of health care for the poor is closed indefinitely, and the number of beds in the hospitals that have reopened is down sharply. How will they get health care if they return? Where will they work? How will they care for sick or elderly family members?

It is not enough to use these questions to say, "Sorry - too bad about your old life, and good luck in your new one, as long as it is someplace else." That is just a way of not answering the questions in the first place. We need to use them to take a look at our priorities as a nation - a good, hard look at what we see in the mirror, and not just on the television screen.

One more thing that I do need to say before moving on to the next question: your quotes around the work "mysterious" are misleading. There was nothing mysterious about it. Engineers have been telling us for years exactly what would happen to the levees sooner or later, under certain conditions, and they have also told us how much it would cost to fix them. Nobody wanted to hear it, especially the second part. Some people, additionally, have suggested that the levees were blown up during the hurricane up to intentionally flood the largely African-American areas you mention. I have seen absolutely no evidence of this, and neither has anyone else. I am not saying that it is inconceivable that that kind of thing could happen, only that I don't believe it happened this time. The levees crumbled on black and white alike, poor and well-off alike. The outrage should be directed at the miserable and ineffectual response at the local, state, and federal levels alike.

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New York, N.Y.: What can those of us who care about New Orleans' history and culture do to help it through this period? Thanks.

Tom Piazza: Thanks for your question. There are a number of things that anyone can do, no matter where they are. One is to contact, by phone or e-mail, our elected officials, especially on the Federal level, to let them know that New Orleans is important to you, and that it is important that the Federal government live up to its stated responsibilities. That is number one.

Secondly, give money to organizations that have helped and continue to help in the rebuilding effort. Habitat For Humanity has been terrific, as has The Salvation Army, each in its own way. The website www.nola.com, which is the online version of the N.O. Times-Picayune, is full of good leads and info on relief efforts. Also, the website www.leveesnotwar.org has a useful list of relief organizations and advocacy organizations for issues like coastal wetlands restoration. There are others, and In the next couple of weeks I will be try to post as large a list as I can on my own website, www.tompiazza.com.

Thirdly, come to New Orleans if you can, and don't just visit the comfortable and obvious places. Go to Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, Gentilly, and the other hard-hit areas, then go back home and tell people what you saw first-hand. There is no way to really comprehend it without seeing it yourself. And the more people who know that, the better.

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washingtonpost.com: www.nola.com

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washingtonpost.com: http://www.leveesnotwar.org/

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washingtonpost.com: http://www.tompiazza.com/

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Medford, Mass.: Tom, whether or not New Orleans is the type of town you say (and the view from the outside certainly matches the description in your first question) why should we rebuild it? Why up here on a hill in Medford, Massachusetts, should we be paying to rebuild a city that is below sea level, that, except for human efforts, would not exist in its current form? It's politically unpopular to say, but I can't think of a good reason.

Tom Piazza: Hi Medford, and thank you for the question. I have heard this question a lot, and I will answer it as well as I can.

First of all, no city we know of would exist "in its current form" or any other form, if it weren't for "human efforts." I don't mean that to sound flip. I mean it to say that everything worthwhile that humankind has achieved involves a rear-guard action against entropy. And without continual effort it would all quickly revert to weeds and waste. Anyone who owns a house, tends a garden, raises children, shaves, or does just about anything else knows this to be true.

So our intitial stance has to accept the fact that we are always, in this sense, pushing back against nature. Secondly, the sad fact of the matter is that many of the major cities in America are improbable to say the least. Where are we going to make a stand and say that, as Americans, all of our country needs the efforts of all of us, whether up on a hill in Medford, Massachusetts or down home in Tuscaloosa our way out west in Texas?

If we say we don't help New Orleans, then what do we do when those silly people in San Francisco get destroyed again by an earthquake? Do we tell them, "Sorry, you are pretty dumb to build on a fault line"? Do we say the same thing to St. Louis and Memphis, both of which are on or near the New Madrid fault? What do we say when Los Angeles gets an earthquake, or is ravaged by wildfires and mudslides? Or when Mississippi and Missouri and Iowa flood again the way they did in 1993? Or to Florida, when hurricanes strike there, or to New York and Washington DC if, God forbid, some other city becomes a target for a terrorist attack. Do we say, "Too bad for you -- you were too stupid to live in Medford?"

I know this sounds sarcastic, and I guess it is, but I have heard far too many people advance this attitude, which to me sounds as if they are justwriting off the "United" part of the United States. To paraphrase Ben Franklin (I think) -- we must all hang together or we will certainly hang separately....

Plus, New Orleans is one of the most important American cities, culturally, historically, and economically -- the site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, birthplace of jazz music, location of one of the great treasure houses of vernacular American architecture.... we go to great lengths, or we used to, to protect our cultural patrimony. We need to continue to do that, it seems to me, and New Orleans is the main place we should be focusing our efforts right now.

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Arlington, Va.: Certainly, it is the poor and disadvantaged segment of New Orleans' population that has suffered worst thanks to Katrina. Are they best served, however, by efforts to rebulid and return, rather than resettling where they are? Are they more likely to escape poverty in a new community than if they return to N.O., which will certainly be in difficult circumstances through the near future, no matter how much renovation is undertaken? Should we be directing our public resources to help the resettlement effort rather than hoping for rebuilding?

Tom Piazza: Hi, and thanks for the question.

This is a very important question, with profound implications. The starting place for an answer is this: we need to move toward an answer by asking the displaced residents themselves what they need, and what they want. We need to have a much better and more honest and more open dialogue with New Orleans' scattered population than we have managed to have so far.

Many of those who are displaced may well decide that they have found themselves in a better situation than that in which they had lived before the storm. Many others may decide that the most important thing to them is to return to New Orleans, to the traditions and culture that they knew, to whatever extent that culture and those traditions can be revived.

In either case, the effort should be aimed at listening, with respect, to what they say, and then helping them, within reasonable bounds, to achieve their goals, rather than imposing a kind of abstract decision on them from above, arrived at by experts who have no true understanding of the residents' original milieu.

It seems to me that this is the necessary starting point for any conversation about this question, and the only way for people who have already suffered close to the worst things that a human can suffer to be able to rebuild their lives with dignity.

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Tom Piazza: And one more thing in response to that last question. My strong feeling is that as many people as want to return to New Orleans, no matter who they are, should be able to come back, and a place actively made for them. At the same time, the questioner has a point: the fate of those who were displaced needs to be addressed more seriously as well. As most of you probably know, those with the fewest resources are in many cases hanging on by the skin of their thumbs in hotels across the country, waiting for FEMA to pull the plug on them. I don't know what the answer is to this situation, but the fact that noone else seems to know either scares me.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm prone to agreeing with you that "New Orleans is one of the most important American cities, culturally, historically, and economically," but I'd like to hear your thoughts on why this is so. Thank you.

Tom Piazza: Hi --

In answering your question, I thought I would paste in a thought from a questioner from Salt Lake City:

"perhaps you might remind people about the economic significance of New Orleans as a major worldwide shipping port, (and) that the Gulf Coast is second only to Alaska as a source of seafood."

Thank you, Salt Lake City. All very true. Certainly anyone who is affected by the import and export of grain, textiles, hard or dry goods of any sort, electronics, automoblies -- which is to say anyone in the US -- depends on the health of New Orleans as a port. Likewise seafood, espeically shellfish. For that matter, anyone who uses petroleum products should recognize the importance of New Orleans, and Louisiana in general, to the supply of oil on which we depend for heat and mobility -- not just imports through the Port of New Orleans but the offshore rigs miles out that are supported by New Orleans' economic and technical infrastructure.

From a cultural standpoint... it is hard for me to get that into a small space. It took me over 160 pages to get it into WHY NEW ORLEANS MATTERS! But I will say this: beyond it's just being the Birthplace of Jazz, which is, after all, a fact of its past, New Orleans is today, still, one of the most remarkable cultural ecosystems in the world. The interaction, not just historically but in real time, in the present, between the deep cultural strains of France, Spain, Africa, the Caribbean, Italy, Germany, Croatia, Cape Verde, Ireland, and so many other cultures, has produced a music -- many musics, as I say in the book -- a cuisine, a style of dance, of architecture, of humor, of celebration and of mourning that, taken collectively, is one of the glories of human history.

The side of New Orleans seen by the casual tourist during a weekend spent on Bourbon Street is not New Orleans, although it is a face of New Orleans. New Orleans is deep, and it must live, or something truly irreplaceable will be lost forever.

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Omaha, Neb.: I hear some people say things like, "They shouldn't live there; it's not our problem....Why should we pay?" Can you help me with a concise response to this?

Tom Piazza: Hi, Omaha. I hope I answered this in a previous answer. Basically it boils down to the Golden Rule, I suppose.

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Tom Piazza: and another word on that, Omaha -- the other thing to remember is that the largest part of this problem -- the flooding -- was a result of the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers. If anyone you know cares at all about having a working federal government, that government must be held accountable for its mistakes as well as its successes.....

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New Orleanian in DC: Tom--

Thanks so much for your book, and this chat. As a New Orleanian who has chosen to live elsewhere due to the dearth of professional careers for people of my age (26), one of my hopes is that Katrina will bring about a positive change in fixing some of the issues with New Orleans, and attracting (eventually) more industries and businesses, so that I (and my friends) can go home and succeed there. Do you see this happening?

Tom Piazza: Thank you, New Orleanian.

I see everything in New Orleans in a state of flux right now, and it is very hard to predict where anything is going to land. This makes it, by turns, exciting, scary, depressing, invigorating, depressing again, and inspiring to live here right now. I think that many of the things that make New Orleans most charming and valuable are closely tied in with things that have held it back from improving the quality of life here. This is known as a tragic situation. The best we can hope for is that some things will improve, and that the poorest citizens will not be left behind in the process.

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Tom Piazza: I can't believe that this time has gone by so quickly. I don need to close out now. I hope the chat was interesting to you. It was stimulating to me to have to answer these questions in real time. Unfortunately there were MANY more questions than I could answer in this short time. Anyone who would like to get a response to an unanswered question may feel free to contact me through www.tompiazza.com and we can continue the dialogue as time permits.

Thanks, and all good wishes to everyone. Long live New Orleans.

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