Editor’s Note: Through its Writers in Motion program, the International Writing Program ( in Iowa City) brought together a group of eight international writers — poets, fiction writers, journalists, and one filmmaker — to tour a series of American cities, each selected for the writers to “read” as a variation on the theme of “Fall & Recovery.” The writers have spent the time on tour recording their observations and impressions of cities visited. In the next few weeks, Next American City will publish some sample works from this project.
Ruins Of The River City Always In The ‘Future’ – A Narrative of Transcendence
by Billy Kahora
Sometime during the tour I caught a late night stand-up comedian rant against the naming of American hurricanes and tornados. For laughs he blamed the ‘cute’ name Katrina for the disaster that became New Orleans in 2008 because people refused to take all forecasts seriously. The city however has a general long history of ignoring what it considers a different universe, America. It remains unbothered with the scramble into America’s popular post-industrial culture of the other big cities we’ve visited and economy-cultures of new technologies, coffee franchises, giant hospitals and universities. It is a large unending street of seafood, dance and jazz. The experiential outstrips the advertised and the mediated.
New York for the outsider always lives up to its hype, at least as a physical spectacle, a developer’s ego gone deliciously mad with concrete and steel towers with the world’s biggest set of tribal villages stacked below like overlapping dominoes in supplicant worship. New Orleans remains out of the reach of the new urban mega-planner who works in standard neon, strip-mall and freeway. It retains Frenchmen and Bourbon as street names, balconies that are a fingertip touch away across its streets, a street-car that crawls with charm, where the ancient art of walking is still a pleasure within its inner recesses. Row upon row of shotgun houses ignore the lemming call of the American suburb. Boiled crawfish rules over the cheeseburger.
It is a city that lies in thrall to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River-Gods who created it with deposits of land sediments for centuries. Then, the tide turned and it is now being eaten up by the Atlantic, cutely-named hurricanes, the oil and gas industry and Louisiana State negligence if not corruption. If New Orleans remains incomprehensible to America’s macro-economic psyche, oil and gas are still major facts. And maybe the reason that the federal government had the port running three days after Katrina as its citizens swam on its streets and huddled under its Convention Center.
Creator of The Wire, David Simon, told our group when we visited the set of Treme (otherwise known as Frenchmen’s Street) that New Orleans is still somewhat one of the places beyond the reach of American Capital and its crushing of labor and blue-collar traditions. And Treme, his poetic post-script after Baltimore, underscores New Orleans as a place that defies plot, where a major city-based show can be pitched on something as abstract as culture and become more concrete than TV’s hospital ERs or police departments. It is artistic refuge from the obvious T.V network hooks helped along by the elements of weather if not fiction. If The Wire is Simon’s Baltimore serial-novel,Treme, Writer John Biguenet says, is a fitting poem of a New Orleans and Katrina that has been completely misunderstood by America. For his own work on a city where he has lived for most of his life, Biguenet could only find reciprocity for the city’s new narratives and realities in Murakami’s post-earthquake Kobe, Günter Grass’s post-war Dresden and a Russia after Chernobyl.
If New Orleans refused to leave with the coming of the high water, winds and unrelenting heat, it might have also been in instinctual defiance of the larger idea of American mobility. And so one also feels an existentialism rather than America’s perpetual optimism. Many an American city has been destroyed by Hollywood’s meteors, aliens, giant insects and giant gorillas – New Orleans after Katrina remains an apocalyptic reality of human error through faulty Army Corps engineering. It is also American farce. All of America’s helicopters were in Iraq and unavailable for rescue when one of the largest disasters in urban America took place. New Orleans is no stranger to death. It has ‘died’ before many times – Spanish influenza almost wiped it out in 18th Century. Yellow Fever, cholera, fire and of course floods have taken their stab at it. And all those who passed on, ‘live’ in the present buried above ground in the city’s cemeteries floating above the low water table with the living.
New Orleans resists America’s addiction to rebuilding, its perpetual myth of a ‘New World’. Miss Sparrows, an old slave exchange establishment in New Orleans, is now a coffee shop that the City’s 10 million tourists pass through every year. It retains Spanish and French influences before Jefferson bought it as of the Louisiana Purchase. And thereafter refused to become part of the plantation South even if it began as a slave port. Biguenet described how the Civil War ended its growth even as industrial America came of age in the cities of the American South. Today, New Orleans retains one of the worst education and health systems in America. It is where Bush’s ironic mantra of ‘less government’ really meant ‘no government’ during Katrina. And where long-held ideas of the ‘individual’ and ‘family’ as key social institutions were put to the sword. Conspiracy theory suggests that its loyalty to the Democratic Party in a then largely Republican world ultimately led to federal indifference.
Charlie Duff, our guide in Baltimore, described New Orleans as a city of one million where two million people lived. But it was also where before Katrina that a happiness index was highest in urban America even as the poverty index remained lower than the national average. Greg Guillard, Cajun writer, among many other things, describes Cajun life philosophy as life as an exercise in ‘fun’ rather than the pursuit of the material. Realities in New Orleans however are now a kind of slow death by a thousand economic cuts. Big Insurance refuses to pay up for Katrina’s destruction and the middle-classes take to drinking and despair. The poor are largely unable to return after Katrina.
In contrast to America’s ‘open’ mythical landscape, New Orleans is surrounded by an increasingly tragic and complex hinterland of swamps, bayous, estuaries, wetland and submerged cypress forests. And they ultimately further create a singularity and transcendence to the city – and all the above become somewhat fitting narratives to the city. Elsewhere they would stupify. New Orleans tests the very idea and definition of recovery in America and to what ends the city after Katrina will strive for. The old New Orleans, Biguenet tells us, has fallen and the city will never be the same. Some might call this is recovery. One can’t help feeling that what happened in New Orleans beyond Katrina might have been a payment of dues for its exceptionality in a larger American psyche. But at the same time that the fall of New Orleans shows them up for what they are. Myths. That New Orleans transcends.