I recently won a contest with the Daily Beast which allowed me the
opportunity to write a guest column there. As you can see, I haven't
been writing much of late, but I wanted to document it here. As
enough time has passed, I'll post the original link and the full text
of the column, just in case it gets deleted at Daily Beast.
On Wednesday night, somebody was feeling generous.
As I was driving up Calliope Street along the Crescent City Connection
that evening, the usual line of beggars holding up cardboard signs
asking for help were gathered, although there was a new one I had only
first seen earlier that morning. He was younger than most of them,
wearing a sweater, and he didn't look like he'd been down and out very
long. The woman in front of me opened her door and handed him
something just as the light was turning green. As we were driving
away, I heard him scream, looked in my rear view mirror, and saw him
dancing for joy.
A rare happy moment under the Crescent City Connection bridge.
Further under the bridge, away from the road, dozens of homeless
people gather nightly. Some are mentally ill, others simply down on
their luck. The local homeless shelter requires people to be in by 6
pm, which is difficult for many of them who have no transportation and
gather what little money they can, either through begging or more
often in the case of long-term homeless, collect aluminum cans to take
to the recycling center in hopes of getting enough money together for
a bite to eat. I see the beggars multiple times per day on my way to
and from work. On the way to work, they're lined up along Calliope
Street on my way to the highway, and then again on Elysian Fields
Avenue as I'm exiting. On the way home, I'll often jump off of I-10
and onto North Claiborne Avenue, where I'll see more of them on the
The politics of Tuesday night are largely invisible when looking at
the people gathering under bridges to shelter from… if not the
elements, as least precipitation. A man without a residence cannot
provide proof of residence, so one can probably assume that these
people were not voting on Tuesday night. Indeed, there were no "Obama"
or "Romney" signs under bridges, only signs saying "Hungry, please
help" or "Disabled veteran".
Less severe struggles also exist in the City of New Orleans. While
President Obama exists as a sort of iconic symbol in a majority black
city which has seen more than its share of racial strife over the
centuries, evidence of his actual impact is harder to find. Louisiana
is not a swing state and the candidates did not bother campaigning
here. Some politicians trying to win black support will put up signs
and hand out literature positioning themselves as closely to Obama's
name or image as they can. Cynthia Willard-Lewis, running for the
at-large city council seat, grilled her opponent Stacy Head on whether
she supported Barack Obama in 2008. One could almost put the hierarchy
of icons in descending order of: Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr, and
Barack Obama. In a way, they speak to a similar "promised land"
mythology among the poor and disenfranchised blacks in this city, with
Obama showing that Martin Luther King's dream was attainable in a
concrete, if very distant, way.
In terms of day to day living here, however, very little has changed
since his election. The city has proceeded since Hurricane Katrina to
knock down public housing projects and replace them with expensive
apartment complexes, driving the surrounding housing prices up, even
in dilapidated buildings whose property value would probably increase
if they were razed, one of which I live in. Before Katrina, uptown New
Orleans saw a thriving community of waiters, bartenders, and other
service industry workers who largely supported each other by
patronizing each other's businesses and tipping well. Cheap housing
made that possible. While rent is still affordable compared to New
York, it has gone outside of the reach of those same waiters and
bartenders who have seen business go down and can no longer afford to
live in the neighborhoods where they work. The 2010 census counted
over 47,000 vacant homes in New Orleans, but rent stays high, defying
laws of supply and demand. The vacant homes often become places for
homeless to squat rather than rental homes for service industry
workers, or else havens for criminal activity. Nobody benefits.
The disconnect between the Villagers in Washington and the everyday
lives of Americans is staggering when one considers what they write
about. Not only do I see articles about Obama's victory and Romney's
defeat, followed with hindsight dissections of their respective
campaign strategies, but also questions about how Karl Rove is going
to weather the storm of angry billionaires seeking an explanation for
why they spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to lose the
election. There's a certain amount of schadenfreude in seeing these
masters of the universe not getting their way, but it's limited by the
frustration that our politics have little or nothing to do with
government and the people that government is supposed to serve. Our
politics are more concerned with the fortunes of Karl Rove's SuperPAC
than they are with whether the people sleeping under the Crescent City
Connection bridge will ever find a home, or whether they'll die in the
cold tonight. Even nominally progressive commentators talk about the
dispossessed in a detached, academic sort of way, betraying no actual
contact with the people for whom they profess so much concern.
Elsewhere in the city, streets are being torn up for renovation and
expansion of the streetcar lines in advance of the Super Bowl, which
is being hosted here this season. Word is also that the homeless will
be cleared out from under the bridge, no doubt also in preparation for
all the people coming down for the Big Game, but with no word on where
those people will go. Maybe nobody cares, but having to see so much
poverty when coming to town for such a major event is, no doubt,
positively distasteful, and one wouldn't want to offend the
sensibilities of tourists bringing so much revenue to the city's
coffers. I doubt it'll be mentioned in the pregame commentary, just as
it isn't mentioned in relation to the latest in a long line of Most
Important Election(s) of Our Lifetime ™.
Obama has given some people hope in this city, but what good is that
if he simply becomes another in a long line of iconic symbols giving
hope to the disaffected rather than actually helping them up? The
dysfunctionality of American cities is not limited to New Orleans, but
it is more raw and in the open than anywhere else I've ever been.
Perhaps amidst the philosophical discussions and political analysis,
we could have a discussion about why there is so much suffering amidst
so much wealth in this country and whether there isn't a better way of
doing things. Perhaps Republicans, Democrats, and their respective
partisans in the media could begin to pretend that they care. Hope
springs eternal, even in the City that Care Forgot.