We all know the story, like the intro sequence of a self-serious, binge-worthy TV drama. New Orleans is your lovable, but unfortunate friend. The city who can’t seem to get our act together. We suffer disaster after avoidable disaster. If only the right people cared at the right time. If only we were different than we are.
Because of corruption we missed a chance to remain one of the most populated cities of mid-20th century America. In the 80s, the oil bust left us with mud on our faces as many production jobs left for Houston and never returned. We suffered brain drain through the George H.W. Bush years, the Clinton years, the early George W. Bush years. By the time Category 3 Katrina missed the city and the federal levees failed flooding every street where the 99% lived, many neighborhoods were already decimated by decades of a fraudulent War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and graft the likes of which lined the pockets of po-boy loving robber barons. Meanwhile, our plantation-descended, socio-economic system that has apportioned local wealth and property for centuries has run without interruption in the background of our civic life like a malicious cell phone app selling our data to all takers.
The Post Katrina-era saw waves of occasionally altruistic out-of-towners flood the city, buy houses, start families, realize the city wasn’t for them, and leave. Even before the pandemic, many owners in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, fled. Others bought creole cottages in hopes of starting Airbnb empires only to have karma deal double blows in the form of legislation curtailing the prevalence of residential rentals and now a pandemic that will likely make travel to the city unpalatable for years to come. Cascading foreclosures are highly likely.
But it’s not just Airbnb owners headed for the wood chipper. New Orleans already had high unemployment; go figure that when you build a bifurcated educational system designed to create networking opportunities for the most privileged kids and offer educational dregs to Black and Latinx children, a community will not flourish. Your city will not become a hub of finance, technology, or industry. Your city will not have a robust economy that affords opportunity to all its citizens. And your city will not quickly rebound from disasters.
Instead, your city will trap the majority its citizens in service and hospitality jobs that don’t pay a living wage, don’t offer adequate healthcare, and don’t open a path to the receding American dream of middle-class stability.
So now we stand on the wreckage of our decisions with a rouges gallery of problems we failed to address waiting to punch us in the gut again and again. Our jails and prisons are over-prioritized. Our public schools are not preparing our children for the vast possibilities of life in this new millennium. Our professional class citizens hoard resources for their children and away from the children of the poor and working-class. We won’t survive a direct hit from a very powerful storm because no one survives that. And thanks to unaddressed climate change, all the waters of the world are rising up around us, clawing back our delicate shores so that one day New Orleans will look like Venice, Italy–If we’re extremely lucky. If we’re unlucky, New Orleans will become a smudge on a map that no one remembers.
This isn’t an essay. It’s an enumeration of our collective failures.
But it’s also a call to action for everyone who ever loved this city to wake up and support a New New Orleans. There are no intractable problems. There’s a failure to mobilize.
The Netherlands made robotic arms to hold back their rising tide. In the Colombian city of Medellin, murder rates dropped by 90% after the government invested in transportation infrastructure to improve the lives of locals. Germany, South Africa, and other nations addressed racial and ethnic reconciliation head on instead of joking about the issue in the backrooms of fancy restaurants.
Anything is possible in a town like New Orleans. We’re a city of practical dreamers. A people who reinvented ourselves many times before. New Orleans has burned, flooded, and suffered under a combined 100 years of Yellow Fever (not to mention the Spanish Flu), but lived to Second Line about it. We can choose to be any city we want. Let’s choose to be a city worth living in. Let’s choose to be a city that loves all its people.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of We Cast a Shadow, which was published by One World Random House. The novel was finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Ruffin is the winner of several literary prizes, including the Iowa Review Award in fiction and the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Award for Novel-in-Progress. His work has appeared in the Oxford American, Garden & Gun, and Kenyon Review. A New Orleans native, Ruffin is a professor of Creative Writing at Louisiana State University, and the 2020-2021 John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss.