Jack Palance and Pat Walshe in Panic in the Streets, (dir. Elia Kazan), 1950.
Environmental Justice Communities
After 18 months of lockdowns and travel restrictions, we decided it was time to hit the streets and visit some of our “environmental justice communities” on the Gulf Coast. Environmental Justice Communities (EJC) are non-white or working-class neighborhoods that have been flooded, burned, poisoned, or impoverished by the petrochemical, biomedical, transportation, real estate, timber, animal agriculture, or financial service industries. Another way of putting it is that residents in these neighborhoods are the screwed of the screwed. Whereas poverty and discrimination typically expose people to substandard housing, poor municipal services and street crime, industrial pollution in EJC communities additionally subjects residents to discomfort, ugliness, and disease. Global warming has made these impacts even worse, for example by flooding mines and factories, spreading toxic agents into adjacent residential neighborhoods.
Nobody has counted, but there are probably tens of thousands of EJCs in big cities and small towns in every part of the country. Our non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance, partners with about a hundred of them. We provide money (modest amounts), plus pro bono legal, scientific, grant writing, organizing and other help. In return, they provide us with knowledge, inspiration, and the opportunity to receive foundation support to pay our salaries. (We have six paid staff; I’m pro bono.) We think we give excellent value for money, but we’re still part of the non-profit industrial complex.
We mostly meet with our community leaders via Zoom, but sometimes it’s important to get together in their neighborhoods and on the streets. That’s why we went to New Orleans last week – to visit environmental justice leaders in the Lower Ninth Ward, the Treme, and Hollygrove. Before we left, we prepared ourselves by reviewing their circumstances, and by watching the quintessential New Orleans movie, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), shot entirely on location. The film is gritty and prophetic.
The city we visited isn’t much like the one in Kazan’s movie. True, many of the Creole-style buildings in the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods remain the same, and there’s still a port with docks, cargo ships (now mostly container ships) and warehouses. But the texture and complexity of the city – even its vivid contradictions – are diminished. To take one example, the working-class culture (sleaze) formerly available on Bourbon Street – burlesque houses, juke joints, hash houses, and dive bars – so effective filmed by Kazan, has been supplanted by bourgeois kitsch: souvenir shops, smoothie stands, pizza joints and NOLA themed bars and restaurants. On Saturday nights, Bourbon Street — now a pedestrian mall — is filled with tourists (often drunk), panhandlers, and amateur musicians. The smell of spilt beer mingles with marijuana. On Sunday morning, the aroma of vomitus predominates, but it’s the wholesome sight of families with children that arouses biliousness. Some places only get worse with improvement.
The residential neighborhoods and streets of New Orleans have also changed. On that score, the movie offers more limited evidence. The film’s protagonist, Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed (played by Richard Widmark) lives in a generic suburban frame house with his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and their young son Tommy (Tommy Rettig). It looks nothing like the Creole cottages or shotgun houses you still find all over New Orleans, or like the posh two-story townhouses in the Garden District. Kazan effectively isolated the family from both native and cosmopolitan New Orleans. The Reeds are the very picture of the white, post-war American nuclear family of myth, and their home is a refuge from the dangers — both ethnic and epidemiological — invoked by the film’s title.
Panic in the Streets takes the form of a police procedural. A crime is committed at the beginning, and the film follows the police, led by Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) and a forensic investigator (Widmark) as they track down the killer. But the story has an unusual twist revealed in the very first scene: Following a disputed card game, a man named Kochak (Lewis Charles) is chased through the streets and across a railroad yard by Blackie (Jack Palance), Poldi (Guy Thonajan) who is Kochak’s brother, and Fitch (Zero Mostel). After they corner him and begin to struggle, Blackie pulls out a gun and shoots Kochak dead.
The next morning, police find the body and transport it to the morgue where an autopsy reveals that Kochak had been sick with pneumonic plague. Lieutenant Reed, an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, is called in to investigate and quickly takes command. He cremates the body, mandates that everybody who came into contact with it be inoculated (nobody refuses) and begins the work of tracing all the dead man’s contacts in order find the killer and stave off a pandemic. By the way, in 1950, there was no effective vaccine for plague and there still isn’t. If left untreated, pneumonic plague is 100% fatal.
The film is shot in quasi-verité style, which amplified its brutality, and raised the blood pressure of Joseph Breen, head of the Hollywood Production Code Administration. He required Kazan to omit explicit references to illegal drugs and prostitution, and to make sure scenes of violence — like the one where Blackie and Fitch drop Poldi off a three story fire escape — “should not be too realistically gruesome.” The production team agreed to all the changes, but the film is still tough from beginning to end. The break in the hunt for Kochak’s killer comes when Lieutenant Reed visits a maritime union hall and receives a tip that the dead man had been a stowaway from Southern Europe or North Africa. That information leads him to Poldi and thus to the murderer. At the end, Blackie and Fitch are discovered hiding on the docks where they lead Reed and the cops in a dramatic chase. Fitch, played by Mostel as an obedient schlemiel, trips and stumbles until he is captured. Blackie makes a desperate effort to climb aboard a freighter but falls into the harbor.
New Orleans Now
New Orleans today remains a music mecca. The bars and clubs on Frenchman Street have topflight jazz, blues, funk, and soul every night of the week. But the metropolis is plagued by poverty, crime, degraded infrastructure, and corruption. It has the highest poverty rate of the 50 biggest cities in the country, with almost 40% of children impacted. (Louisiana is runner up in the contest for poorest state in the country after perpetual winner, Mississippi.) City streets are cracked and full of potholes, especially the areas with highest Black and Latinx populations. For good reason, our taxi driver delivered us at a snail’s pace to meetings in the 7th and Lower 9th wards. While the city’s new, $14.5 billion system of levees, dikes and pumps withstood Hurricane Ida, the electrical grid did not, and much of the city was without power for weeks. (Entergy’s electrical poles and power lines were not built with hurricanes in mind.) The average high temperature in New Orleans in late August is 92 degrees and humidity 80 per cent, and about a dozen people died from the heat following Ida.
Shooting deaths have dramatically increased in New Orleans and Louisiana in recent years. The state now has the highest murder rate in the nation. In response, Democratic governor John Bel Edwards recently signed three bills making it easier to carry guns into gyms, parks, playgrounds and places of worship, and to obtain guns during declared emergencies. Coincidentally or not, U.S. states with the biggest recent increases in gun sales have seen the fastest spikes in murder rates.
NOLA residents are exposed to unsafe levels of contaminants in their drinking water, and lack confidence in their city’s ability to fix the problem. They have good reason for concern. While we were in town, the FBI raided the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board and hauled out so many ledgers and card files, observers thought a bookmaking operation was busted. (Apparently, office records at the S&WB have never been computerized.) Agents were acting on information brought to light a few days earlier by TV journalists who exposed a web of self-dealing, corrupt licensing, and faulty inspections.
Corruption isn’t a secret in New Orleans. The former local head of the FBI said in 2017 that corruption in New Orleans “can’t get much worse.” The reason, he speculated, is the inbred nature of the political culture. Politicians occupy the same positions for decades – for example Sheriff Martin Gusman (since 2004) — and build up patronage systems that defy reform. And while improvements have been made to the police force since a 2013 consent decree, corruption in the force lives on. One of our community leaders, Dee Dee Green, was part of a group, Eye on Surveillance, that successfully fought to prevent the installation across the city of TV cameras with facial recognition features. She was certain that the software would be used to target young Black men for arrest or harassment. Videotaped evidence proves she’s right.
Dee Dee has not however, primarily directed her attention to combatting corruption, bad roads, crime, or poverty. She and her Hollygrove Neighbors Association has instead, like our other partners in New Orleans — Beth Butler (A Community Voice), Amy Stelly (Claiborne Avenue Alliance) and Arthur Johnson (Center for Sustainable Engagement) — focused on something more existential: keeping streets, businesses, schools, churches, and homes from sinking beneath Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, and the Gulf of Mexico. That threat exists today and will be even greater tomorrow. Sea levels are rising globally, but for complex reasons of climate and geography, rising more quickly along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts than elsewhere in the U.S. And the rate is accelerating. To make matters worse, New Orleans is actually sinking at a rate of about five inches a decade. As early as 2023, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the vaunted new levees will no longer be able to stop hurricane driven waters from inundating the city.
Community leaders in New Orleans don’t suppose they can by themselves head off climate change and save their city. But they do think they can prevent flooding from moderate storms, as currently happens. By installing green infrastructure – permeable paving, bioswales, rain gardens, and urban forests – enough water can be absorbed to at least delay the inevitable. The idea is to utilize some of the more than 15,000 vacant lots in the city to establish a kind of green archipelago that will function as a sponge and carbon sink, and at the same time become urban oases in a city notoriously short of parks. (A few other organizations, such as Healthy Gulf, are pursuing similar ideas.) Dee Dee, Beth and Arthur also want to combine these catchments with community gardens to help alleviate widespread food insecurity and reduce rates of diabetes. Amy Stelly wants to tear down the two-mile long expressway over Claiborne Avenue – its removal has been endorsed by President Biden — and restore to life a once vital, urban corridor while at the same time reducing run-off and pollution from the interstate. While panic is absent from grassroots leaders’ conversation, their sense urgency is contagious.
Art vs Life
The biggest difference between New Orleans today and the fictional city of Panic in the Streets is that nobody we spoke to was confident that effective government will be quickly restored. They understand that greed and corruption – another name for the neo-liberal capitalist order – has the upper hand and may retain it for some time. Panic on the other hand, presents a corrupted social and political order – symbolized by crime and the threat of pandemic — that can be cured by science and the democratic state. The police in the film are gruff but have big hearts. If they occasionally violate the rules, it’s for noble ends. Scientists face public and institutional resistance, but with patience overcome it. Politicians are well-meaning. The reporters in Panic are aggressive seekers of truth; when one of them learns about the threat of a pandemic and promises to publish a story about it — thus compromising the investigation — Captain Warren finds a pretext to arrest him, but the mayor steps in to prevent it. Freedom of the press is not to be trifled with. On the home front, Lieutenant Reed takes his frustrations out on his strong but patient wife, Nancy. She confronts him about it – Bel Geddes is radiant when she is most earnest – and Reed apologizes, albeit in somewhat patronizing fashion. And at the end of the movie, the bad guys are captured, and the pandemic is averted.
Nothing about the current politics in New Orleans or Louisiana promises such a neat resolution. The state fared particularly badly in the pandemic; it currently ranks fourth worst in per capita Covid deaths. (Mississippi of course is first). The state ranks last, or near last in every other measure of well-being – health, education, economy, crime, infrastructure, the environment, and corruption. The money allocated to Louisiana in the just passed federal infrastructure plan will be distributed by the state government, almost guaranteeing that the bulk of it will go to the cities and neighborhoods that need it least, not the environmental justice communities that need it most. (Though the governor is Democratic, Republicans have a super-majority in the Legislature.) Biden’s Build-Back-Better plan, though a shadow of its original self, and still facing obstacles to passage, will offer only limited help in the fight against the global warming that threatens to literally sink New Orleans.
But the leaders of EJCs in New Orleans and elsewhere in the country are not without resources; one is memory, and another is wisdom. They recognize the crimes behind them and death before them, and the need to act swiftly to protect themselves and their children. The oil and gas industry, animal agriculture, real estate developers, timber companies and the rest are their enemies, and solidarity is their friend. If local and state governments let them down, they will offer leadership and take action on their own as members of a vast, grassroots movement for environmental justice that has taken root across the country.