Eight Years After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Has Resurrected

Jason Berry marks the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by looking at the triumphs and failures of New Orleans today.

William Widmer/Redux

Eight years after the Katrina floodwaters soaked 80 percent of New Orleans, the holy city where jazz began has risen from the muck, a blue-town floorshow in the deep-red South.

New Orleans has 100,000 fewer people and 500 more restaurants than on August 29, 2005. The city that sank on global television has a booming film industry, thriving music economy, Mardi Gras, Bowl games, and festivals that have spawned a grassroots entertainment mecca.

But the living city carries the dead city, places where nearly 1,000 people perished, and many thousands more were too broke or broken to make it back. Most of the Lower Ninth Ward and chunks of New Orleans East, near Lake Pontchartrain, are still ghost towns. Husks of homes, some of them choked in jungular vines, furnish a tropical Pompeii for viewers on the disaster bus tours. Nevertheless, 79 percent of homeowners did rebuild, many after long battles with stiff-arming insurance adjustors that sent them into the labyrinth of Road Home, a federally-funded program that dispensed grants for construction costs at an achingly slow pace.

With more than 360,000 people, a resurrected New Orleans stands out in high relief from the spurious values of the Tea Party. Absent the federal lifeline that the social Darwinists who rule the House hope to slash, New Orleans would have been left a mud town of losses to rival Detroit.

True, New Orleans pre-K had deep poverty and rolling corruption scandals. The city was also a strategic port, a cultural diamond, and nowhere near bankruptcy. The levees failed because of shoddy maintenance by a federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. President George W. Bush and enough Republicans joined Democrats in the $7.5-billion Road Home program to give under-insured homeowners and businesses a leg up. A class-action lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers lost on appeal; but the corps has spent $15 billion to date on a major upgrade of the levees.

What, then, did Americans get for their money?

A city better girded for storm surges, with miles of streets being repaved, low unemployment, and a school system remade by the charter movement. The gun culture and drug trade make homicide a nightly show on TV news. And yet, New Orleans has become a city of the young, a magnet not just for teachers and NGO workers, but entrepreneurs, developers, software scribes, website designers and urban planners. With more than 100 art galleries, New Orleans has a flourishing bohemia of artists and creative folk driving gentrification of the Upper Ninth Ward.

The literary terrain is more fertile than ever. “For writers, a city can be a touchstone, an inspiration, a scourge, a beloved prison—or all of those things,“ writes Susan Larson in The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans, an elegant travelogue with cameos of writers who lived or spent consequential time in the city, including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, James Lee Burke, and Anne Rice, among sundry others.

A fiction judge for the Pulitzer Prizes, Larson was the Times-Picayune book editor until she took a 2009 buyout in the first wave of downsizing. Last year, 201 staffers—half the newsroom—lost their jobs as the owner, Advance Communications, cut to three print days a week. In our surreal rebirth, it makes sense that as newsrooms starve elsewhere, New Orleans has a newspaper war. The Advocate, a Baton Rouge daily recently bought by New Orleans billionaire John Georges, hired ousted Picayune editors and poached 35 of its staffers for a New Orleans edition going hard against a traumatized T-P.

Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO, a public radio station in the city, a pivotal venue for local authors and those on book tours. “Fresh literary energy emerged from the fact that every New Orleanian had a story—perhaps a tale of complete loss or a chronicle of exile and return,” Larson writes in an extensive update of Booklover’s Guide. “We began to see ourselves as individual strands in the great collective epic of New Orleans. Which may account for the hundreds—literally—of self-published Katrina memoirs and narratives and children’s books and the huge crowds that turned out for readings and literary events post-Katrina.“

A new episode in that “the great collective epic“ comes from Peter M. Wolf, author of My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal. Unlike the Katrina diaspora tales, Wolf, an authority in New York on urban policy, dwells on a loss layered in irony from his 1940s upbringing in a wealthy Jewish family barred from blue-blood carnival society. Today, about 10,000 Jews live in New Orleans, a slight increase since Katrina.

“It dawned on me back then that those finely costumed Mardi Gras kings and dukes riding spirited horses in the streets, and those courtiers up on the parade floats throwing trinkets down to us in the crowd, many of them business colleagues of my parents and grandparents, were all members of the parade-sponsoring social clubs that excluded Jews,” he writes. The family lived next to a country club they could not join. “My parents never once talked about this to me. There was no expression of resentment that I heard. But I wonder how they felt, way inside … I accepted discrimination without consciously thinking of it as such.”

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Wolf is bittersweet on the philandering father whose business schemes nearly got him prosecuted, only to become his son’s mentor. Wolf has little good to say about his aloof mother. The parents who avoided synagogue enjoyed fine restaurants, jazz clubs, and relied on grandparents and a black woman servant to nurture the boy.

After graduation from Yale, Wolf lived in the French Quarter in the early 1960s, enjoying an exotic crowd centered on the jazz musicians at Preservation Hall. He found a leveler of elite society at Galatoire‘s Restaurant, where grandpa had a reserved table. “The secret kingdom,” writes Wolf, had “beveled, gold-frame mirrors, which laughed and sparkled with the reflections of the patrons … I learned how to brush my hand along the lane of the thick white tablecloth to indicate that a menu wasn’t necessary. No regular at Galatoire’s ever consulted the menu.”

Galatoire’s (now also owned by Advocate publisher John Georges) has a weird, quasi-egalitarian code of privilege. The main room does not take reservations; people wait in line on Bourbon Street. Although an upstairs floor takes reservations, at Mardi Gras the big patrons pay people to hold their place in line for hours. (In 1975, Sen. J. Bennett Johnson was summoned out of line by the maître d’ who ushered him to the kitchen, handed him a phone, stood back as he spoke with then-president Gerald Ford, and when they were done escorted Johnston through the main floor back to his sidewalk waiting slot. The senator, from Shreveport, had no stroke in Galatoire’s.) Once seated, old guard patrons stay the afternoon, drinking, talking, and drinking more. The scene is a riot of excess, soaring voice decibels—and precious. It lacks only an avatar of Toulouse-Lautrec to paint the human display items.

Wolf registers his aversion to the social alienation, yet ambivalence about his own privileged life produces little probing of how Protestant and Catholic society became so calcified. The first king of Mardi Gras, in 1872, was a Jew. And not one since. Why? No one in the local media talks or writes about it. New Orleans is a town of kept secrets. Wolf, who names no names, guards his feelings, replicating his parents. It is still a fascinating book, though the final chapters rush through his doctoral studies in art and architecture at NYU, marriage and divorce (after 17 years) in just a few pages, unto a fleeting return after the devastating hurricane, sentimental for a life that was.

The social stratification Wolf limns is the driving force in Sarah Carr’s book on the revolution in public education. A former Times-Picayune reporter, Carr explores a balkanized African-American society pulled into a reform movement of charter school start-ups that have been fueled by philanthropy and tough-love tactics. Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children is a well-textured narrative about people pushing against the odds.

As an example, Carr cites a 15-year-old girl named Mary, who goes to a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) middle school, and wins a $15,000 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship to attend stellar Metairie Park Country Day—Peter Wolf’s alma mater. A Country Day scholarship covers the balance of the $22,000 tuition. Her mother will pay just $600, as “the school wanted all parents to contribute some amount,” writes Carr. “For her mother, who worked in a restaurant, $600 was a significant expense. Mary would have to think about what she wore every morning—a frightening prospect—since Country Day had no uniform. She had always assumed all students ate breakfast once they arrived at school, but Country Day did not serve breakfast.”

Mary’s half-sister, Geraldlynn Stewart, attends KIPP Renaissance, a new charter. Geraldlynn is the navigational figure in Carr’s narrative, a teenage girl whose family was flood-displaced to an outlying neighborood, her mother and stepfather working long hours at low wages as the girl’s responsibility for reading and studying takes root.

By Carr’s lights, “the contemporary education-reform movement’s notion of teacher quality appears to rest on two principles. First, the teaching profession should become more elitist, even if that means increased turnover in the classroom and it lacks feasibility at a large scale. Second, teaching should be viewed as more of a science than art.”

Carr captures the brave artistry of teaching in the trenches through alternating chapters that follow a young Harvard graduate working with Teach for America, and a public high school’s black female principal who lost a son to homicide and works 80-hour weeks, rescuing students as she can while fostering an environment of genuine learning without the largess of corporate or foundation support by which many charter schools thrive. Carr weaves a memorable narrative on the human effort to educate a city’s forgotten students, away from violence, in some demilitarized zone less privileged than the milieu of Catholic schools, a mainstay of the black Creole middle-class. Schools serve as Carr’s prism on the African-American community and its baroque social tiers.

The legislature declared a Recovery School District well before Katrina, and used the mass evacuation caused by the flooding to shut down the Orleans Parish Public School system with 120 schools.

The officials who sought a complete overhaul of the New Orleans education system in the flood’s wake marshaled plenty of evidence to support their case: the failure of nearly two thirds of the schools to meet the state’s minimum criteria for academic performance; the school system’s impending financial ruin; nearly $70 million in federal money not accounted for properly; the FBI investigators who moved into the school system office to probe financial irregularities; crumbling facilities where hallways smelled of urine; the near complete abandonment of the public schools by the city’s middle and upper classes.

A mighty windfall of foundation and philanthropic money for New Orleans charter schools was predicated on “technocratic governance, weakened teachers’ unions, and the relentless use of data to measure student progress,” writes Carr. “New Orleans offers a test case, on an unprecedented scale, of how this vision plays out.” But reform had a darker side: the state put into unemployment 7,500 unionized teachers, who lost their health coverage. Although some found jobs in new charters or the old system’s remnant of best-performing schools, a state judge recently ruled that the Orleans school board and Louisiana Education Department wrongfully terminated the teachers. With $1.5 billion in damages at issue, the defendants have appealed in federal court.

Carr faults the state for its callous tactics in sacking teachers to kick-start the charter takeover; but she views the rise in standardized test scores as a sign of hope. “Black students in New Orleans have started to outperform their peers in the rest of the state,” she writes. “Dozens of nonprofits have opened to support the schools; and hundreds of energetic educators have come to work in them. Most important, the changes have brought renewed hope to thousands of poor families, many of whom felt undeserved by the schools for decades.”

The money that flowed into New Orleans to back charters was part of a larger tide pushing toward other ends. On December 21, 2007, the city council with three black members voted 7-0 to demolish 4,500 units of public housing in four sturdy, low-rise brick developments built during the New Deal. This happened amid fiery protests of people trying to return to flats where they had bona fide leases; consultants and grant-supported groups supported city officials. As Congressional legislation was bailing out home-owners, a HUD program spawned by President Clinton helped developers and local governments tear down old units and construct mixed-use townhouse complexes. Every city has its own land-use politics. In New Orleans, as displaced poor folk clamored to return, they met a “post-Katrina deluge of foundation-backed nonprofits that helped to consensually introduce the privatization of public housing,” writes John Arena in Driven From New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization.

A sociologist at the College of Staten Island, Arena spent several years in New Orleans as a researcher and activist with the coalition that tried to halt what Nicolai Oroussoff of the New York Times called “a human and architectural tragedy of vast proportions.” News coverage of those hearings carried a subliminal story. Crime, violence, crack dealers and teenage mothers had come to symbolize so much of what was wrong with the city. The social safety net was in tatters, and the NOPD was wracked with scandal; but elected officials sold the razing of innocent brick that Oroussoff rightly eulogized as crime-prevention in the costume of redevelopment—construction jobs, a more handsome urban patina at the back end with a fraction of old lease-holders given apartments next to middle-class arrivistes. The city and its then-mayor, Ray Nagin, pulled out the stops to keep poor people from coming back. It worked; but the city is so poor that a great many managed to return anyway. (Nagin faces a federal trial this fall on bribery allegations for a business with his sons selling granite countertops during his mayoralty.)

Scattering the truly disadvantaged was much easier when so many were flood-displaced. Arena skirts the crime issue. Taking a doctrinaire-leftist approach, he focuses on the protest movement, beset by internal divisions, clashing with the city and nonprofit groups that won grants from the government and developers to hitch onto the demolition train. Although the book is overlong with theorizing, Arena smartly echoes Naomi Klein’s critique of disaster capitalism. “New Orleans’s public housing wars, even when the people lost battles and took casualties, did provide valuable insights into the real role of the nonprofit foundation complex,” he writes. “They operated, as the record shows, as wolves in sheeps’ clothing, as the Trojan horse of neoliberalism.”

Even if the stock of replacement housing achieves marginal success at social engineering—fewer poor people, less drugs, lower crime—New Orleans still has at least a quarter of the population living at or below the poverty line; too many of them are functionally illiterate. The greatest barrier to improvement is probably adult illiteracy. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s lifted many educated blacks from working-class origins into politics and middle-class careers. The closest thing to a program like that now, at least in this city, as it faces a severe funding struggle for core services as the FEMA spigot runs out, is the charter-school movement, which gives some poor youngsters a better chance at finding a place in the big parade.

In a larger sense, New Orleans is an urban miracle, a city remade by the resilience of people who loved the place too much to leave; the military who brought stability in the early weeks after the flood; federal funds; an army of volunteers from church, college, and civic groups who arrived from far-flung places; and pivotal support from foundations and even foreign countries. Eight years post-Katrina, as the news media turn to climate change as a global narrative, New Orleans, flaws and all, is an encouraging sign that battered places can rebuild and begin to prosper.