The DC Bubble Hurts America

11.09.12

The City that Care Forgot

Darrell Kocha on the disconnect between Washington and the rest of America

On Wednesday night, somebody was feeling generous.

As I was driving up Calliope Street along the Crescent City Connection that evening, the usual line of beggars holding up cardboard signs asking for help were gathered, although there was a new one I had only first seen earlier that morning. He was younger than most of them, wearing a sweater, and he didn’t look like he’d been down and out very long. The woman in front of me opened her door and handed him something just as the light was turning green. As we were driving away, I heard him scream, looked in my rear view mirror, and saw him dancing for joy.

A rare happy moment under the Crescent City Connection bridge.

Further under the bridge, away from the road, dozens of homeless people gather nightly. Some are mentally ill, others simply down on their luck. The local homeless shelter requires people to be in by 6 pm, which is difficult for many of them who have no transportation and gather what little money they can, either through begging or more often in the case of long-term homeless, collect aluminum cans to take to the recycling center in hopes of getting enough money together for a bite to eat. I see the beggars multiple times per day on my way to and from work. On the way to work, they’re lined up along Calliope Street on my way to the highway, and then again on Elysian Fields Avenue as I’m exiting. On the way home, I’ll often jump off of I-10 and onto North Claiborne Avenue, where I’ll see more of them on the way back.

The politics of Tuesday night are largely invisible when looking at the people gathering under bridges to shelter from… if not the elements, as least precipitation. A man without a residence cannot provide proof of residence, so one can probably assume that these people were not voting on Tuesday night. Indeed, there were no “Obama” or “Romney“ signs under bridges, only signs saying “Hungry, please help” or “Disabled veteran”.

Less severe struggles also exist in the City of New Orleans. While President Obama exists as a sort of iconic symbol in a majority black city which has seen more than its share of racial strife over the centuries, evidence of his actual impact is harder to find. Louisiana is not a swing state and the candidates did not bother campaigning here. Some politicians trying to win black support will put up signs and hand out literature positioning themselves as closely to Obama’s name or image as they can. Cynthia Willard-Lewis, running for the at-large city council seat, grilled her opponent Stacy Head on whether she supported Barack Obama in 2008. One could almost put the hierarchy of icons in descending order of: Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr, and Barack Obama. In a way, they speak to a similar “promised land” mythology among the poor and disenfranchised blacks in this city, with Obama showing that Martin Luther King’s dream was attainable in a concrete, if very distant, way.

In terms of day to day living here, however, very little has changed since his election. The city has proceeded since Hurricane Katrina to knock down public housing projects and replace them with expensive apartment complexes, driving the surrounding housing prices up, even in dilapidated buildings whose property value would probably increase if they were razed, one of which I live in. Before Katrina, uptown New Orleans saw a thriving community of waiters, bartenders, and other service industry workers who largely supported each other by patronizing each other’s businesses and tipping well. Cheap housing made that possible. While rent is still affordable compared to New York, it has gone outside of the reach of those same waiters and bartenders who have seen business go down and can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods where they work. The 2010 census counted over 47,000 vacant homes in New Orleans, but rent stays high, defying laws of supply and demand. The vacant homes often become places for homeless to squat rather than rental homes for service industry workers, or else havens for criminal activity. Nobody benefits.

The disconnect between the Villagers in Washington and the everyday lives of Americans is staggering when one considers what they write about. Not only do I see articles about Obama’s victory and Romney’s defeat, followed with hindsight dissections of their respective campaign strategies, but also questions about how Karl Rove is going to weather the storm of angry billionaires seeking an explanation for why they spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to lose the election. There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude in seeing these masters of the universe not getting their way, but it’s limited by the frustration that our politics have little or nothing to do with government and the people that government is supposed to serve. Our politics are more concerned with the fortunes of Karl Rove’s SuperPAC than they are with whether the people sleeping under the Crescent City Connection bridge will ever find a home, or whether they’ll die in the cold tonight. Even nominally progressive commentators talk about the dispossessed in a detached, academic sort of way, betraying no actual contact with the people for whom they profess so much concern.

Elsewhere in the city, streets are being torn up for renovation and expansion of the streetcar lines in advance of the Super Bowl, which is being hosted here this season. Word is also that the homeless will be cleared out from under the bridge, no doubt also in preparation for all the people coming down for the Big Game, but with no word on where those people will go. Maybe nobody cares, but having to see so much poverty when coming to town for such a major event is, no doubt, positively distasteful, and one wouldn’t want to offend the sensibilities of tourists bringing so much revenue to the city’s coffers. I doubt it’ll be mentioned in the pregame commentary, just as it isn’t mentioned in relation to the latest in a long line of Most Important Election(s) of Our Lifetime ™.

Obama has given some people hope in this city, but what good is that if he simply becomes another in a long line of iconic symbols giving hope to the disaffected rather than actually helping them up? The dysfunctionality of American cities is not limited to New Orleans, but it is more raw and in the open than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Perhaps amidst the philosophical discussions and political analysis, we could have a discussion about why there is so much suffering amidst so much wealth in this country and whether there isn’t a better way of doing things. Perhaps Republicans, Democrats, and their respective partisans in the media could begin to pretend that they care. Hope springs eternal, even in the City that Care Forgot.