The Right of Return to New Orleans

Two weeks away from my home in Albuquerque volunteering with the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans gave me a pretty good snapshot of what’s going on in that grievously wounded city, and it’s not a pretty picture. Most striking of course is the devastation of the Lower 9th Ward, where I worked, as well as the ghostlike emptiness of so many neighborhoods, including the fortress-like projects, all of which stand as silent testimony to an ugly truth about the nature of the world we live in these days, the increasingly vicious war against the poor.

It is one thing to see the Lower 9th Ward, to experience the despair and anger of the people who remain, struggling against all odds to rebuild their shattered lives, homes and community, but it is something else altogether to see the projects, massive brick structures built (unlike the levees) to withstand catastrophic storms, where damage is minimal, surrounded by fences, doors and windows covered with steel barriers to make absolutely certain that none of the former, legal, rent-paying residents returns to their homes. Here the message is unmistakable, as unequivocal as Israel’s separation wall in Palestine: We don’t want you. Keep out. Don’t come back.

Along with this of course is the issue of land. Once the poor are eliminated the reigning powers are free to exercise their dominion, to tear down the projects and build “mixed income” housing (a percentage of units for project residents, but not all-those left out are on their own), WalMarts (as in the case of the razed St. Thomas project), or anything else deemed acceptable, which is another way of saying profitable. In the eyes of the movers and shakers of the new world order, the projects, like Social Security, are tantalizing opportunities to turn “nonproductive” public institutions into profit-making enterprises. The fact that there are about 4,000 families waiting to return to their homes in the projects makes no difference. It would take a matter of a few months to refurbish these dwellings, but HUD remains adamant, proclaiming them “unsafe.”

What makes this outrageous situation even more despicable is the quiet complicity of good New Orleanians, black and white (though for undoubtedly different reasons), in preventing poor, overwhelmingly black, citizens from returning to their city. A good friend of mine, who is black, and in whose FEMA trailer I stayed for the two weeks, tells me that many in the black middle class speak openly about not wanting the poor to return. Whites, at least white officialdom, couch their objections in the opaque dialects of bureaucracy, legalese and fine print. In general, crime, drugs and dysfunction are cited as reasons why the projects should be torn down, but the reality doesn’t fit the stereotype. To be sure, there were serious problems, but the great majority of people living in the projects were responsible, decent, hard-working folks. I heard this said many times during my stay. Shockingly, some of the most ignorant comments I’ve heard have come from a few progressive acquaintances who have said that though the poor may be prevented from returning to their homes at least conditions in other places are better than they were in New Orleans. This is nothing but a kinder, gentler version of Barbara Bush’s infamous remark. How difficult is it to understand that people want to go back to their homes?

One of the few positive things to come out of Katrina is the opening up of a dialogue about class. There’s a kind of quantifying game that’s played now when trying to understand the reasons for the criminal neglect of people, again mostly black, stranded in their homes and in the horrifying cauldrons of the Convention Center, Superdome and overpasses after the levees gave way. Race and class are running neck and neck but the fact that class has entered seriously into the conversation is significant. A third element also universally discussed and with equal bitterness concerns the gross incompetence of the federal response and the political confusion, posturing and infighting at all levels during and after the hurricane.

A lot has been said about the importance of New Orleans as a world cultural treasure, and this is certainly true. People everywhere speak lovingly, almost rapturously, about the food, music and ambience of the Crescent City. Before my last trip I had visited many times, not, strictly speaking, as a tourist, but still removed from the reality of ordinary life. What struck me most powerfully then however, and still does, is not the food, the music, the city’s various charms, but rather the blackness of its population and its culture. Though the hapless Nagin was excoriated for his “chocolate city” remark he was absolutely dead-on. New Orleans is most definitely a chocolate city, and all the better for it. Or was. With over half the city’s black population missing, the character, the vitality, the matrix that created and nurtured this marvelous culture, is gone. Human beings make a culture, not restaurants, music festivals or second line photo-ops for tourists. I used to love spending a day in the French Quarter. This time it turned my stomach. It was too clean, and of course jammed to the gills with gawking, clueless people who can’t be blamed. How can they understand, or even care, that the French Quarter has nothing to do any more with the reality that surrounds it?

As the rich and powerful battle for control of dwindling resources while the world’s population expands towards unsustainable numbers, the poor are marginalized more than ever, pushed to the edges of survival and, as in the case of New Orleans, to the point of virtual non-existence. This is not just their problem. None is immune to disaster or displacement. Assuring that the rights of the poor are protected benefits everyone. In this sense we are all New Orleanians.

The people must return.

RICHARD WARD lives in New Mexico. He can be reached at:





Richard Ward divides his time between New Mexico and Ecuador. His novel about the early 70s, Over and Under, can be seen here. He can be reached at: