The big decay

NewOrleansPaintingMaybe it’s because I’ve written more for magazines than for newspapers since the late 1980s, but I often find newsweeklies more helpful than other media for making sense of broad-sweep stories, such as Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans.

Both Newsweek and Time deliver the goods this week — dramatic photos from the miseries along New Orleans’ streets; long-form reporting rich with human-interest details; and aerial photos that show the flooding within the context of New Orleans’ neighborhoods and landmarks.

The strongest feature in Time is a one-page essay by Sonja Steptoe demonstrating that there was plenty of suffering — and plenty of blame to go around — long before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast:

While I understand the temptation to wax nostalgic about the architecture of the Ninth Ward homes, the beauty of the Garden District, the charm of the French Quarter and so on, such musings perpetuate a romantic notion of the place that doesn’t track with reality. Sure, there are isolated spots dotting the tourist maps that are well stocked with pristine prettiness and antebellum hospitality, but like A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche DuBois, the real New Orleans hasn’t possessed much beauty or charm for nearly 30 years. The deep wealth and class divisions, the decayed infrastructure, the lax civil-engineering management, the depleted city coffers, the lawless depravity, the history of political corruption by a long line of city and state officials, and the incompetent governance that television viewers are discovering are, to use the local vernacular, the roux of a long-simmering pot of gumbo that finally boiled over when Hurricane Katrina turned up the heat last week. Now the city is drowning in it.

. . . Those cheery tourists need only have peered out of their French Quarter hotel-room windows to see the ugly and abject poverty on full display at the squalid Iberville housing projects (average annual income of its 833 households: $7,279), sitting just next door to the Vieux Carré off Canal Street. If the visitors had taken a few steps beyond Tulane University and the nearby Garden District mansions, they would have found themselves smack-dab in the middle of a ghetto choked with rudimentary shotgun houses, dilapidated housing projects and living conditions that seem only slightly better than those in Port-au-Prince, Bangladesh or Baghdad.

About the photo: “We know the suffering . . . VIII,” posted on Flickr by carf (Creative Commons Deed).

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  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Garrison Keillor has a similar commentary over in Salon.com.

  • Stephen A.

    Okay, that comment floored me. And since it’s on the table, I get to comment.

    Keilor, like Limbaugh, is an entertainer pandering to his base, and both don’t seem to worry about facts much.

    Garrison writes: “There are large sections of town where the tourist is warned never to set foot. The schools are wretched and services are lousy and in a high-water-table city where even high ground is low and low ground is below sea level, the flood control system wasn’t ever more than modestly adequate, and so last week the Big Easy got to know George Bush.”

    Ah…Garrison, whose fault is that? The city, and the state, has been under the rule of liberal, “big-government” Democrats for decades. What’s prevented them from solving these problems? I suppose the Federal government? The nation-topping murder rates didn’t start because of George W. Bush and the Republicans. It only stopped last week with the Katrina’s arrival (actually, a few days later with the army’s arrival.)

    The mayor there likes to talk big and blame others. He and his liberal friends need to look in the mirror. There ain’t no “social justice” there for New Orleans’ poor, who Nagin left to drown rather than implement the city’s disaster evacuation plan.

    So let’s keep the snarky liberal entertainers’ hate speech against conservatives in perspective.

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  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Mr. A, I guess it’s a mark of the difference between us that the backhand crack about Bush didn’t particularly register on me. Or for that matter, that his thesis about the price of incompetence could or could not be extended down to the state and local authorities.

  • AlyD

    Steve A: Yeah, Keillor took a swipe at Bush – it’s to be expected, and not entirely unwaranted (and by that I mean, there is some complicity on the government’s part, given their slow response).
    But the column itself was a castigation of New Orleans government – as in, don’t be stuck in a postition where you have to rely on others (especially ones you may not like, which was where the Bush swipe came in).

  • Stephen A.

    I don’t see that in Keillor’s piece. He didn’t get into the Bush thing until the end, though. It kind of meandered until then, but it was Keillor after all. That’s his style.

    And yes, Bush screwed up the response and the perception of his response. FEMA *completely* screwed up – and they still are screwing up.