Levee Town

Weather can wipe out cities forever. It’s what happened to America’s first city, after all, as a visit to Chaco Canyon northeast of Gallup, New Mexico attests. At the start of the 13th Century it got hotter in that part of the world and by the 1230s the Anasazi up and moved on. As the world now knows, weather need not have done to New Orleans. There are decades’ worth of memos from engineers and contractors setting forth budgets for what it would take to build up those levees to withstand a force 4 or 5 hurricane. The sum most recently nixed by Bush’s OMB-$3 billion or so-is far less than what the Pentagon simply mislays ever year, even before its gone to the trouble of converting the appropriated cash into cruise missile or boots.

New Orleans has bounced back before. Though after the Civil War, the city never really returned to its former glory. According to Lyle Saxon’s Fabulous New Orleans the last great social season came in 1859 with the largest receipts of produce, the heaviest and most profitable trade the city had ever done. The total river trade that year was valued at $289,565,000.

On April 24, 1862, New Orleans fell to the federal forces. Farragut’s fleet broke through the blockade at the river’s mouth. Soon thereafter federal ships had passed the two forts below New Orleans. Tumult and confusion prevailed. To keep them out of enemy hands, 12,000 bales of cotton were rolled from the warehouses and set on fire. Warehouses crammed with tobacco and sugar were torched. Ships on the Mississippi, loaded with cotton, were burning too, and the sparks jumped to the steamboats. The Mississippi was aflame. As Saxon put it, “gutters flowed molasses: sugar lay like drifted snow along the sidewalks.” New Orleans was sacked by its own people. The years of poverty and misery began.

With misery came masks, though it had actually been in 1857 that some young men Mobile paraded during Mardi Gras as the Mystick Krewe of Comus, thus augmenting the traditional masked balls of the Creoles. In 1879 came the 12th Knight Revellers. Then in 1872, Alex Alexandrovich Romanov, brother to the Czar-apparent, was in town for carnival. They organized a parade for him, headed by a makeshift monarch, “Rex”, parody of the real thing.

In 1916, the first black krewe, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, in skirts, mimicked the mimicry of Rex, by making the Zulu King’s royal way the Basin Street Canal and his imperial float a skiff. As in the ‘life upside down’ banquets of the Middle Ages, the parades and the masques, parodied, or at least underlined, the real nature of things. As Errol Laborde, historian of Mardi Gras, describes it: “In the waning moments of the Carnival season, Rex and his queen great Comus and his queen. Carnival custom recognizes Rex as the symbol of the people and Comus as the symbol of tradition and high society. It is more than symbolic that at the ceremonial conclusion of Carnival, Rex bows to Comus, in this act the people bow to society.”

Hurricanes trump mime. In the wake of Katrina’s onslaught, the people greeted Comus, taking the unpleasing form of Vice President Cheney, with the finger and a four-letter word. But Comus will have the next laugh. The dearest wish of ‘society’ — in its true guise as the expression of power and property ­ has always been to push Rex and his people off all potentially profitable real estate in the Crescent City, with the whole shoreline gentrified and the poor driven into hinterland ghettos. Thus were the better housing projects-such as Iberville and St. Thomas-scheduled for demolition nearly a generation ago, and the SuperDome imposed upon what had been a thriving black neighborhood.

So, as Sonny Landreth puts it in his song Levee Town, “Don’t be surprised at who shows up, down in the Levee Town.” As the waters recede, poor neighborhoods will be swiftly redtagged for the bulldozers and their erstwhile occupants scheduled for permanent expulsion. The post-Katrina “reconstruction” of New Orleans promises to be the first really big outing for the Kelo decision. Kelo? It will be recalled that on June 23 of this year, the US Supreme Court’s liberals, plus Souter and Kennedy, decreed that between private property rights on the one side and big time developers with city councils in their pockets on the other, the latter win every time, using the weapon of eminent domain in the furtherance of “public purpose.” As Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent, “the spectre of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton. Any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.” Or any black neighborhood with some simulacrum of the Garden District.

For most of its post-Civil War existence New Orleans was always a pretty desperate city, despite its occasional boasts that it has the highest number of millionaires in America’s 50 largest cities. I remember that in the year that George Bush, Sr. accepted his nomination in the SuperDome in 1988 some 26 percent of the city’s inhabitants were below the poverty line and 50 percent could be classified as poor.

The scarcely suppressed class war in New Orleans was always what gave the place, and its music, its edge. And why, at least until now, the Disneyfication of the core city could never quite be consummated. Barely had the hurricane passed before Speaker of the House Hastert caught the Republican mood nicely with his remarks that the city should be abandoned to the alligators and Barbara Bush followed through with her considered view that for black people the Houston Astrodome represented ne plus ultra in domestic amenities.

Music and street food are what anchored the city to its history. On any visit, you could hear blues singers whose active careers spanned six decades. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown finally left us last week at 81. I heard him at JazzFest this spring, and though the Reaper had him by the elbow, Gatemouth still fired up the crowd:

“Goodbye, I hate, I hate to leave you now, goodbye.
Wish that I could help somehow.
So long, so long, for now, so long.
I pray that I return, return to you some day.
You pray that it shall be just that way.
So long, so long for now, so long.”

Note: this column originally ran in the print edition of The Nation.







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August 17, 2005


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.