Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Unlikely City

A personal history of a hometown that was

Twenty years ago, during one of my many visits to New Orleans, my cousin Jude asked me to go with him to watch a hurricane roll in. I tried to calm myself and appreciate the drive, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how weird it was to be going to the lake to welcome a hurricane. When we got there, Lake Pontchartrain wasn’t much to look at, just a great broad plate of salt water. In the late afternoon, the water and the sky both looked grey, but not particularly threatening. We stood there, by the car, drinking beer, with the occasional gust of stinging wind. Jude wasn’t impressed: he seemed almost apologetic about troubling me with a pissant storm. I’m not sure what he hoped for, but I was relieved.

On the ride back along Chef Menteur Highway, the car behind us tailgated for a while. I wasn’t paying much attention until Jude sped up. He turned quickly off the road, killed the headlights and took his gun out from below the seat. New Orleans has always been a town with libertine and libertarian notions about guns and drinking and whatnot. You need to factor your own attitude about risk into the equation—or someone else would do it for you. He aimed the gun at the road and turned to me.

“They were following us, maybe to rob us. If they turn off, I’m gonna shoot ’em, yeah.”

Thank God they stayed on the road and that Jude was the son of a police officer. I believed he knew what he was doing. If only Katrina could have been as easy to handle.

 

When people ask my race, I often respond by saying, “I’m from New Orleans.” If pressed for what that means, I say, “We marry our cousins.” Sure, I’m joking, but I’m serious about the place being more than just a city you happened to be born in. History is thick there; everywhere you go you experience it, from the Congo Square to the French Quarter. It’s a city that probably shouldn’t have come into existence but did, in spite of being located in an inhospitable malarial swamp. Built with the blood and sweat of slaves, it was one of the richest cities in the world, because it was one of the centres of the global slave trade. As a result, New Orleans developed a complicated colour code that made it possible for Creoles, those octoroons and quadroons, to prosper. The city’s attraction for me, therefore, isn’t that it’s the perfect place to get your drink on and party down with the frat boys. No, it’s that the Big Easy explains me and my tribe of miscegenated Americans—we coloured folk, even the occasional black folk with blond hair and blue eyes. When we talk about the old country, we mean New Orleans.

As sprung as I am about the city and all that it has given me, I can’t deny that it has since become a terrible place to be poor. Oddly enough, for some newscasters covering the Katrina disaster in September, encountering this truth was like discovering an amazing secret. The housing projects in New Orleans are arguably worse than Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs in Los Angeles—and that’s saying something. The joy of eating an oyster po’ boy doesn’t change the reality that the city has one of the highest homicide and infant-mortality rates in the nation. Seeing barenaked ladies shaking it all in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras beads doesn’t salve over the pain of a world-class failure of a school district. Hearing Dr. John in New Orleans is divine, but it doesn’t make a city awash in guns any safer.

The worst scourge of inner-city life, however, isn’t drugs, gangs or poverty. It’s the fact that if you’re a young man, the odds are good that you will get shot. If you live in a hot incubator of rage, like New Orleans at its worst, you must live an extremely cautious life. If you want to wash cars, sell ice cream from a cart, deliver pizzas, sell crack or insurance, you must have eyes in the back of your head. It’s the logic of “Shoot first, because I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

This is what we expect in poor neighbourhoods in the United States—and New Orleans is the United States, even if we sometimes want to pretend otherwise. It’s hard to accept that, in the world’s richest country, we have poverty that compares with conditions in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic. It’s poverty with a dark face, a black face. It’s poverty that makes it easy for me to imagine the post-Katrina Superdome as some kind of vicious experiment by an ambitious social Darwinist: Put the combustible elements of race and class under one roof, add extreme pressure and watch the results. Tens of thousands of black people experience cruel deprivation, while a few ruthless thugs terrorize the many. Everyone waits for deliverance that never comes.

 

My parents, like many people, left New Orleans for greener pastures long ago. Back then, they wanted to get ahead of the hurricane of social unrest that was about to unload on the city. (With impeccable timing, however, my family ended up in south Los Angeles two years before the Watts riots.) New Orleans didn’t just experience white flight, but Creole flight, black middle-class flight. Some members of the Tervalon clan made their way to Philly; some disappeared and were never heard from again. We abandoned the old country because, like most old countries, it didn’t work in the modern world. And something scared my parents. Maybe it was the image of a black militant or a tan Huey Newton talking about the coming revolution. Or maybe it was all the bloodthirsty white cops of the NOPD who wanted to kill and beat ungrateful Negroes. My parents didn’t want to be caught between that hammer and anvil, so they got the hell out.

But we, their sons and daughters, came back to visit. We fell in love with the old country, in spite of the poverty, the blight and the danger. I have never visited the Desiree Projects —my aunt suggested it wouldn’t be a good idea to get too close, even on the highway. She told the story of how one of her former husbands, fresh out of Angola Prison (the largest state penitentiary in the US), took her there to visit his brother. Because of her light skin, everyone knew she was an outsider. Suddenly she and her husband were besieged by a crowd until her brother-in-law arrived in a car and rushed them to safety. The moral most Americans would find in this cautionary tale is: Leave these people alone. That’s what we do as a country. We practise quarantine and pretend that there isn’t Dickensian bleakness right around the corner of this shining city on the hill.

Death and disaster, either from a monstrous hurricane or bullets tearing into your body, never seem that far from the citizens of New Orleans. A couple of weeks before Katrina struck, a producer and I discussed writing a script about a disaster movie set in the city, but we both thought it would be creepy to spend that much time writing about the destruction of a place that means so much to us. And yet, thanks partly to my cousin Jude, the potential destruction of New Orleans has been in the back of my imagination for years. Many times I’ve envisioned a Category 5 hurricane blowing in, as Lake Pontchartrain exploded the levees and overwhelmed the gigantic pumps meant to protect the city. The streets would flood and the water would have nowhere to go, creating a funky Atlantis. New Orleans would become the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States. I pictured the world forming a giant “second line,” like those dancing spectators who follow a parade’s procession, bidding farewell to a beloved city in high New Orleans jazz-funeral style.

Hurricane Katrina didn’t turn out to be a Category 5, but it’s still a catastrophe. Many in our family are now homeless. My aunt Barbara in Gulfport, Mississippi, had her house totally obliterated; her daughter in New Orleans, fifty miles away, found her home under eight feet of water. Other relatives have scattered to Texas; Jude is a refugee looking for work in Atlanta. And depending on how things go in the coming weeks, months and years, we may have need for that second line. But my father, who lived in New Orleans before Work Projects Administration built the seawalls, remembers how the water would just come in and flood everything. He also remembers eating noodles and prunes during the hurricane of 1928 and says that I’m full of it. His opinion is that, if New Orleans gets knocked down, we’ll just have to rebuild it all over again. It won’t be easy, but I guess that’s how we have to be, those of us who love New Orleans and are reminiscing with tears in our eyes—we have to be as optimistic as my father.