Thursday, December 8, 2011

Do You Know What It Means: Conviviality in New Orleans

Tom and I just got back from a trip to New Orleans. When we first alighted in that fair city, we made a trip to Audubon Park, on a Sunday afternoon. It was lovely: the weather was mild, and citizens of New Orleans were disporting themselves next to the lagoon, full of twittering ducks. (Yes, the ducks there don't quack; they twitter.) There's a track that goes around the park, and one side of it is for cyclists, and the other side for walkers. People were out on trikes and bikes, with dogs and babies, all kinds of people.

"The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people passing by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They're really saying, I love you.
I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

I went back to Audubon Park every day while we were there, in good weather and bad, and it was always wonderful, although during the week not blessed with so many of the good citizens of New Orleans. On some days it was cold and rainy, and only the hard-core joggers were there, and the ducks. You walk past huge, rather opulent-looking houses that face right onto the park, though, so you don't feel alone: you are in somebody's backyard! I thought how unusual it is to have a public park right next to the houses of rich people, and they don't fence the park out! On one side of the park, some of the houses have a fence or a hedge between their yard and the park, but on the other side, the big Victorian houses' porches open right onto the park. They have put swings in the trees in front of their houses. One swing had the word "Saints" painted on it. You can sit in that swing and think about the fact that the Saints won their game the day before. Maybe the resident of the house will come out and chat with you about the game.

Sorry to be mean about this, but this would never happen in Houston. For some reason in Houston, rich people are afraid of everybody else. And really, the crime rate in Houston is probably much lower than in New Orleans. But the huge houses on River Oaks Boulevard have walls around them so high that you can hardly see the houses. And they aren't anywhere near a public park.

We have public parks in Houston, of course, but they are almost all hard to get to, separated from neighborhoods by the high-speed parkways that run alongside the parks, with inadequate or expensive parking, traffic jams on nice days, and little access via public transportation.   By contrast, anybody in New Orleans can get to Audubon Park easily on the street car that goes up and down St Charles Avenue, to and from downtown. It costs $1.25. You can open the windows on the street cars. It doesn't go very fast. Getting to the park is almost as good an experience as being in the park itself. The streetcar runs down a grassy "neutral ground" area that is used by joggers when the streetcars aren't there. The streetcar is not particularly big: it's on a human scale. It makes a sort of rumbling noise as it trundles down the track, but it doesn't belch toxic diesel fumes like a bus does. You don't have to wait long for one to come. I was reminded of that old axiom, or maybe it's a song: "Pretty girls are like streetcars; there's another one along every few minutes." I think it's something you say to a guy when his girlfriend breaks up with him. There were a lot of pretty girls, and handsome guys, as well as just happy-looking old folks and interesting dogs, in the park every day I was there.Not to mention the variety of ducks and waterfowl in the lagoon.

People in New Orleans love their city, and it shows. We had supper with some friends who have spent the years since Katrina rebuilding their city, and especially its schools. Their passion for the city was palpable, and admirable. They talked of the terror and insanity of the days immediately after the hurricane, when everybody was "wigged out," and doing any sort of productive work seemed impossible. They talked about the sadness of children who were exiled from their city and their friends for months. They talked about the deep fissures and dysfunction that the catastrophe of the hurricane brought to the surface, and even more about their efforts to heal those revealed wounds. The new charter school movement in New Orleans is actually trying some exciting new things, and although the process is politically fractious, new schools are opening all the time. People are getting together across race and class lines to make sure that kids get what they need.  I was so happy to see this.

We went to the Lower Ninth Ward, which is still empty, largely, although inhabited by ghosts. Brad Pitt's new houses there form a little exuberantly-colored village in the midst of the vacant lots. The new Industrial Canal levee looks pretty strong, and there are new houses defiantly erected right next to it, as if daring the water to come in again. We saw a photography show where the photographer, Kevin Kline,,  celebrated his neighborhood's inhabitants by thumb-tacking photographs of them to the outside of his house, in a new form of street-blogging. This installation brought up the sadness of the street-blogging of the Katrina days, when residents spray-painted words like, "F@ck you, Katrina!" or "Defend New Orleans!" on their houses, and the even sadder marks spray-painted by rescue teams that indicated whether a drowned person was in the house. But these photographs on a rather run-down shotgun house in a working class neighborhood of New Orleans were  different: a hopeful statement that people were still there, including some young people growing up in a new New Orleans.

New Orleans is a city with a lot of inequality, just like Houston. But somehow the people of New Orleans manage to think of themselves together as citizens first. That love of home is a kind of universal solvent that doesn't dissolve all their differences and conflicts, but it prevents the kind of balkanization that happens in Houston, where people lock themselves into neighborhoods of identically-priced houses and drive around in steel bubbles so that they never have to touch or speak to another person. Does car culture cause the kind of rampant individualism that kills civic spirit, or does rampant individualism, and disregard for place, cause car culture? I don't know. But people in New Orleans have protected their parks and their great neighborhoods, to a large extent, from being fractured by freeways and automobiles, and as a result they have a real city, not just a chaotic jumble of individuals.

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