Masking New Orleans

Fatima Shaik

On Mar­di Gras Day, the nation will be look­ing to New Orleans to see if we are wear­ing masks. We’ll be wear­ing them in New Orleans, but they’re being worn in Wash­ing­ton D.C. too. That’s because the face of our tragedy is being cov­ered up with a big smile – we are hav­ing a par­ty and pre­tend­ing that the poor peo­ple can just go away.

The poor weren’t seen in the years before Kat­ri­na. Dark skinned women fold­ed down white hotel sheets for rev­el­ers in the French Quar­ter. Men port­ed and washed dish­es behind the screen doors of restau­rants where beer-sod­den tourists cheered. Chil­dren asked for a quar­ter to sing and dance as vis­i­tors from all over the world eyed them like a pass­ing parade. The poor of New Orleans remained a fea­ture of the local scenery as described in a 19th cen­tu­ry novel.

The masks we’ll see this year have been worn in the past by out­siders who arrived with cred­it cards and atti­tudes of priv­i­lege and indif­fer­ence. We too wore masks in our quest for the dol­lar. We smiled broad­ly and stepped live­ly – live­li­er per­haps than we should have. We made New Orleans a com­fort­able place for every­body but our­selves. For the sake of good busi­ness, we didn’t cry out that we were in dire straits.

At the last cen­sus, almost 40 per­cent of our house­holds made under $20,000 a year, and in my neigh­bor­hood, 46 per­cent made under $15,000. When the police dis­cov­ered that the sev­en square miles, which includ­ed the neigh­bor­hood where I grew up, led the city in homi­cides, we didn’t mobi­lize our­selves to sweep every block. Nor did we take to the streets scream­ing for more cops, courts and fed­er­al assis­tance when we threat­ened once again to become mur­der cap­i­tal of the nation in 2005.

We let the bon temps roulle.

Now, with the sight of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens exiled on high­ways, the paint should have washed off all of our faces. But instead, the government’s plan for the poor masks a car­ni­vaL econ­o­my with­out even a trick­le down. Joseph Canizaro, chief author of the city’s rede­vel­op­ment plan, who report­ed­ly raised $200,000 for Bush’s 2004 reelec­tion, told PBS’ New­sHour,” But I will tell you we will not have as many poor peo­ple. There’s no ques­tion. I’ve talked to a lot of them. They are bet­ter where they are. They want to stay where they are because they have a bet­ter life.”

In the past, we woke to the sounds of Mar­di Gras Indi­ans singing songs to wake the neigh­bor­hood. Home­made maskers walked to Canal Street, stop­ping at the wood­en, shot­gun hous­es of friends to eat break­fast. There was some­one to vis­it, a place to sit, some­thing to eat or drink and some­one to dance with every few blocks.

This Mar­di Gras, peo­ple will go to the parades, but most­ly for their children’s sake. To keep up their spir­its, they might even dress up and join the Blue Tarp cos­tume con­test. But they will remem­ber that the last march that met on the cor­ner of Clair­borne and Orleans – where Black Mar­di Gras is always held – was a month ago. Then, the sec­ond line clubs marched for housing.

Just as the nation watched and the first floats rolled out, Louisiana Gov. Kath­leen Blan­co announced a pro­gram that would give home­own­ers up to $150,000 to rebuild. But at its heart, New Orleans is home to peo­ple who loved where they lived – and that includes many peo­ple who rent­ed. They lived in the now hol­lowed out streets of down­town and they cre­at­ed much of the mag­ic of New Orleans.

For lack of homes, many of the friends who would usu­al­ly cos­tume on Mar­di Gras are scat­tered to the winds. The cha­rade is that they’re invit­ed to come home, but can’t get a guar­an­tee from the city or the feds that their com­mu­ni­ties will be safe, lit, have city ser­vices or funds to help res­i­dents with this over­ar­ch­ing challenge.

On the con­trary, accord­ing to Canizaro, with the rede­vel­op­ment plan, 50 per­cent of the peo­ple in a neigh­bor­hood must be com­mit­ted to com­ing back before we have a neigh­bor­hood to design.”

To look at New Orleans on the eve of its most cel­e­brat­ed hol­i­day is to see a city strug­gling with its own divid­ed loy­al­ties. No amount of tin­sel floats can cure that crisis.

There is a way at Mar­di Gras time to tell when the parade is com­ing. It is intro­duced with sirens and flash­ing lights. Then the drums sound.

Here’s the drum­ming we hear now: The rich and the devel­op­ers are try­ing to appro­pri­ate land, and the blacks and the poor are being squeezed out. Each new plan reminds us that the pres­i­dent was still on vaca­tion when we were drown­ing, and local lead­ers were con­found­ed like lizards frozen on a branch.

Now, these same peo­ple are try­ing to run a parade through the tragedy in the hopes that Car­ni­val can mes­mer­ize us away from gov­ern­ment respon­si­bil­i­ty, as if New Orlea­ni­ans don’t know that the aus­ter­i­ty of Lent begins at midnight.

Now, too many peo­ple who cook gum­bo are gone, as are the peo­ple who wipe off the restau­rant tables. Also gone are those who dance the alli­ga­tor, bel­ly down to the cement in the mid­dle of the crowd­ed street. Dis­ap­peared are the old men who sit on the steps and call hey baby” to any­one under 90, and the old ladies who stand at the bus stop and give free advice. And too many arro­gant peo­ple are say­ing out loud that New Orleans can do with­out poor peo­ple, as if they had no love of the place they were born.

In New Orleans, peo­ple are notic­ing that the poor just may not come back, giv­en the obsta­cles put in their paths. They also see that a house of cards, king high, may just fall. The poor not return­ing home will crip­ple the food indus­try, hotel indus­try and the econ­o­my, but most espe­cial­ly the joie de vivre that has rest­ed on them. The poor may not come home, but then, won’t New Orleans and the nation be sorry?

Fati­ma Shaik is the author of five books set in Louisiana and a for­mer reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Her most recent book is the short sto­ry col­lec­tion What Went Miss­ing and What Got Found (August 2015), a love let­ter to the enter­tain­ing, unpre­dictable and flawed char­ac­ters who pop­u­lat­ed New Orleans before Hur­ri­cane Katrina.
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