Thursday, February 19, 2009

Still so many houses still ruined. Most of them gutted out, but even now some were untouched. He couldn't understand the people who weren't striving to come back. It was so different from the time after Betsy, when there was no question. Everybody came back and started right in. Forty years after our liberation movement, Ronald thought, and we're further back than ever.*

I was, and still am, biased. I liked the man's journal. I really love Nine Lives. But when Dan Baum is saying things like this in interviews about his book, it makes me wonder:
People ask me 'What's going to happen to New Orleans?' And I say, look, you know I think that in 10 or 15 years New Orleans will be the disorganized, impoverished, violent, screwed up, corrupt city it was before the storm and that's really the way they want it.
Deep down, I hope he's wrong. Damn, did I say hope? Deep down, I know he's wrong, in so many ways. Maybe it's just the folks I hang with on a regular basis here, but I'm not seeing a whole lot of people here who don't want change. Neither is E:
Folks are not interested in transparency because of the thrill of the democratic process or intellectual curiosity. Certainly an efficient and effective recovery for New Orleans is way more important to me right now than the philosophical purity of a completely open direct democracy.

Rather, the reason the fight for transparency and open government has become consumed this city is because people are trying to figure out why the recovery has been such an inefficient failure to this point. The most poignant moments of citizen indignation came when people wondered why it was nothing was getting fixed, why there are no cranes on the skyline, and why we see so little evidence of the flowing recovery dollars Mayor Nagin continues to promise.

I care about transparency precisely because I care about efficiency and recovery. Quite frankly, I wouldn't mind if Nagin used city money to install a gilded toilet in Greg Meffert's stretch Escalade so long as he'd also crafted a long term vision for regional sustainability, brought home displaced residents, advanced the causes of economic and racial justice, improved city services, and raised our collective quality of life.
Here in New Orleans, we've been subjected to so much obfuscation in our government and have been repeatedly told it's what's good for us that many of us now want to see exactly how the wheels are turning - or if they are even moving.

Sometimes he found himself thinking uncharitably about the people who hadn't returned, and had to make an almost physical effort to haul himself back from that. Everybody's got circumstances, he'd tell himself. Not everybody can set their own destination. But it seemed to Ronald that a fundamental mistake had been made after Katrina. The government dangled a lot of resources, and it made everybody freeze up. Nobody wanted to start in until they saw what they were going to get.*

Of course, there are problems with that need for transparency as well: the extreme version of wanting to regulate the regulators creates a situation in which real action is pushed aside in the process of waiting for the government to do the right thing. Too much nitpicking can add up to jitters related to every teensy violation that comes down the pike. Everybody's a participatory critic and nobody is satisfied.

Is that what we really want?

The struggles seem to be getting harder and harder. The real problems - racial, economic, recovery-related, educational, medical, law enforcement-related, infrastructural - are not being addressed, which is sad, because it's what we need the most in this, one of the world's largest small towns.

This is tough to say considering it's Mardi Gras time - but there are way too many sideshows in City Hall these days. The focus ought to be on bringing the main events back in the place - the people of New Orleans and the still largely unmet promises made to them concerning their very real problems. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, not of the Walking Id, the City Council battles, and powder-blue clad police trying to divert our attention from their sorry crime-fighting record to testify against a take-home car assessment that does not apply to them.

We knew after Betsy we weren't going to get no help from anybody, Ronald often thought, and maybe that was better.*



*from Dan Baum's Nine Lives chapters on Ronald Lewis


Anonymous said...

thank you for thinking about my book, "nine lives." i appreciate it.
you're not the first to take offense at my comment on "marketplace." i offer no excuses, only an apology. it was poorly spoken, thoughtless, and not the way i meant to say what i was trying to say. i'm something of a rookie at the radio interview, and it was artless and offensive. i am genuinely sorry for any hurt i have caused.

Leigh C. said...

Apology accepted, sir! You've written a beautiful book about my city...just don't let what you say get in the way of that, OK? ;-)