Fushan kids back in bus

New OrleansMay 2011:
Putting My Feet Up in New Orleans



After buying food and beer, I walked back to Flo & Joe's, stepping high over all the cracked sidewalks. The "infrastructure" of New Orleans is not good these days. I don't know if it was ever good. But with Katrina it may be worse. The federal response, especially in the black areas, has not been good, I'm told.

A couple of night ago, back at AAE Bourbon Street Hostel in the kitchen, I had the start of an interesting conversation with a young woman. I had noticed her for a day or so out in the living room, mostly slumped in a chair. She was a curiosity. Most of the young women there are very lively, especially when there are young men around. She was a good-looking young woman but seemed to just slump in a chair no matter what was going on, young men present or not. I don't know how the conversation began but I believe she started it. Most conversation begin with some trivial comment that either ignites a real conversation or doesn't. But I remember no trivial remark in this case, just the conversation.

"I'm really tired," she said, standing next to the refrigerator with one hand on a counter.

"I've noticed," I said. "You just seem to sit."

She told me she was doing construction work—eight hours a day in the hot sun. She was a Katrina volunteer worker.

She said she drank about eight bottles of water a day while working but peed only about once.

"It just evaporates through my skin," she said smiling.

Then she mentioned the racial tensions. It was due to the rate of black-verus-white rebuilding after Katrina. The blacks felt like the whites were getting all the help. Maybe that had something to do with the dirty look I got from the little girl over near the projects.

I don't remember what interrupted our conversation. Probably a group of revelers, returning from the French Quarter, made normal conversation impossible. It is pretty hard to talk over five or six people all shouting "Hey, dude," "Ohmygod," and "what the fuke."

She was a nice young woman—dedicated, at least temporarily, to a cause— and wore no makeup at all. She was rather different from the other young woman there. I wished I could have talked to her more about Katina rebuilding. But that is the way it is sometimes with conversations. The long ones, the inane ones, you wish you could have cut off sooner; the short ones, the good ones, you wish you could have prolonged.

A few days earlier I had seen an article in the Times Picayune about new, low-income houses in an area not far from AAE Bourbon Street Hostel. In particular it mentioned their design as including various classic New Orleans styles. I was curious and, taking a walk, easily found the address. Indeed, some of the houses were very nice, and they did not look at all like the "projects" that I had seen in San Francisco.

There were some guys on the porch of a nearby house, and I did my usual, although I had only come to look:

"Can I ask you a question?" I said.

I felt like an intruder until one of the guys turned and smiled.

"Sure," he said.

Suddenly I had everyone's attention. They were all African-American.

I told them I saw an article on some of the houses over this way and came to take a look. I held up the article. I said I thought they looked pretty nice.

"What do you guys think?" I asked. "Like 'em?"

"Yeah, they're pretty good," one of the other guys volunteered.

"Might be a little more space between 'em," said the first guy, "but they're good; I like my place."

"Everything works," said another.

I had the feedback I needed, and not from a PR person but from people who actually lived there.

Although it was a "tract" of sorts, all the houses were of different styles with different colors and had porches and grass and trees. I wouldn't have minded living in one myself. I don't believe they were free; I think you had to show that you were below a certain income level to qualify. Not a bad idea, really.

They pointed down the street to some other houses that were even better looking than the ones in the newspaper. I thanked them and went on down the street to have a look.

So why was that little girls scowling at me the other day? Who knows? Maybe because of deeper injustices from long ago that she had heard about. Injustice can have a long memory. Some view it as "water under the bridge," like my friend Pierre in San Francisco; he just wants to move on. Others hold it tight and can't let it go.


Where Else But New Orleans?