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Feature Article - September 8, 2005

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September 8, 2005

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A lament for NewOrleans

Editorial by Jeff Green

Much has been written about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on communities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. In the case of New Orleans, coverage of the tragic consequences of the Katrina have also focused on questions of emergency preparedness, issues of poverty and race, and a descent into anarchy on the streets of the Crescent City.


As it happens, I spent a few days in New Orleans with my wife, Martina, five years ago last January. While this hardly makes me any kind of expert, it did provide enough of a context in the kind of city New Orleans is, and made what has happened there less of a shock to me than it would have been otherwise. It also makes this tragedy more real for me, having walked the streets that are now under water, and met some of the people who are now suffering or perhaps even dead.

The first thing about New Orleans is that it has a reputation for violence. As Martina and I drove from North Florida to New Orleans, people would see our Ontario plates and ask us where we were going. When we said New Orleans, they either said we shouldn’t go, or we should be very careful while we were there.

By the time we reached New Orleans we were on edge.

On our first night in New Orleans we went to Bourbon street, as many tourist do, and found it less than compelling. Late in the evening, we were eating a sandwich in a bar, when one of the musicians sat down next to us.

“I’m embarrassed to see you eat that,” he said, “to think that’s your introduction to my city.”

He was the first of many New Orleans citizens who helped us to understand their beloved city. He told us we should go eat at Dunbar’s restaurant to experience New Orleans’ Soul food.

The next morning we headed out on foot from our hotel on Canal Street towards Dunbar’s on Freret street, which was about 30 blocks away. We thought we would see the sights on the way.

As we walked down Freret street we realised we were not in Kansas anymore, as they say. We saw a building and yard surrounded by barbed wire. It was a school. We began to feel the colour of our skin very keenly as we looked at the people milling about the concrete block buildings. We were in the Projects, government housing plans from the sixties that never worked and ended up entrenching poverty and violence throughout American cities.

New Orleans is, physically, a small city, hemmed in by water on all sides, and wealthy districts such as the fabled garden district exist in close proximity to extremely poor neighbourhoods. In the Projects there were no gardens, no trees, no grass.

We abandoned our trip to Dunbar’s and stumbled out of the Projects.

For the next few days we went to restaurants and clubs, asking people where they thought we should eat, what music we should go and see. When we ran into the musician who told us to go to Dunbar’s, he said he hadn’t intended for us to walk along Freret Street, but he also said he was glad we had. “You saw a part of the town you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and you learned something, didn’t you?” he said.

Most of the people we met in New Orleans loved the place, but they were all aware of its failings. They all knew that New Orleans attracted the world’s wealthiest tourists and contained masses of impoverished people. Everyone knew that most of the poor people were, and still are, black. Everyone knew that the police had tight control over certain parts of the city, and exercised that control in a brutal manner, and other parts of the city were basically lawless. The breakdown in the social order happened long before Hurricane Katrina

A huge aspect of New Orleans is its culture, which is mainly expressed through music and food, and this is something that will regenerate when the waters subside.

It is also expressed through architecture, and the fate of many of the historic buildings is a concern to many, although when as many as 10,000 people are dead, concern about buildings is less than secondary. Nonetheless everyone who has travelled to New Orleans has their own special places. For us they are the Mid-City Lanes Rock’n Bowl and Tipitinas’, where so much of Soul and R&B music was invented and has been reinvented 7 nights a week until a week ago.

And then there is Dunbar’s

We eventually got there and it was a beautiful place. The food was impeccable, the fresh oysters in the Po’ Boy were coated in the lightest batter and fried to perfection. The red beans and rice, as simple a dish as can be, was perfect. The owner of the restaurant was as gracious a woman as we met anywhere in the southern United States, which is saying something.

We talked to her about music, and she said we hadn’t heard the best music in New Orleans. To do that we had to go to her church on Sunday and hear the choir. We had no reason to disbelieve her.

Unfortunately we had to leave New Orleans on Saturday night, so we never got to hear the music in the Dunbars’ family church. We would hear it on our next trip to New Orleans, we promised ourselves.

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