Following Tuesday night's contentious debate between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and white challenger Mitch Landrieu, yesterday's Washington Post had a disturbing story about the changing face of New Orleans: whiter, richer and with far fewer blacks. African-Americans' neighborhoods are still devastated and too often they can't afford to return. It's not only a personal tragedy for those who lost their loved ones and for those who now can't return home, but a cultural and economic tragedy for our nation as well.
Just over a week ago, I returned from Jazz Fest, and all the infectious music in the clubs and at the festival couldn't hide the ongoing ruination of New Orleans. Yes, the reviews are in for the New Orleans Jazz Fest that finished on Sunday May 7th, with the media arriving at a consensus story-line: "New Orleans Jazz Fest emerges triumphant," as USA Today reported. But even as the musical outpouring from stars ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon to Irma Thomas and other local treasures provided a sense of joy and hope to enormous crowds, the memory of the lost lives and devastation of Katrina was never far from the surface. The glorious music or the crowds of young revelers packing Bourbon Street with their beers and hurricanes in hand couldn't mask the underlying desolation of a city with large swaths still in ruins, whether it was the crushed roofs planted atop cars in the Lower Ninth Ward or the block after block of abandoned and ruined homes, eerily quiet with a few white FEMA trailers scattered among them, even in the more affluent, recovering Lakeview area.
Outside of a few tourist sites, parts of the city were like a ghost town, having lost more than 60 percent of its population, mostly African-Americans from 455,000 to about 150,000 people. Even in the once-bustling Jackson Square section of the French Quarter, where brass bands, solo musicians and street-vendors once plied their trade (and where George Bush promised to "do what it takes" to restore New Orleans), the place was nearly empty. Hotels and restaurants, the backbone of the city's essential tourism industry, were severely understaffed, scrambling to find workers because potential employees and those who want to return -- can't find a place to live.
"Make Levees, Not War" was a slogan featured on T-shirts and buttons at Jazz Fest, but it was a viewpoint that hadn't had any impact on government policy or the city's fortunes. Less than half of the city's 3,000 restaurants have reopened. Convention business has plummeted, and the lost revenue won't be recouped by the new Gray Line tour, "America's Worst Catastrophe," that takes busloads of tourists through lakeside areas devastated by Katrina although they're barred by city law from touring the wrecked black slums of the Ninth Ward. And even if the Army Corps of Engineers manages to repair the levees to a pre-Katrina level in time for the hurricane season that starts in June, there's no assurance that it will be enough to protect the city from future flooding.
"Don't let nobody fool you," a cab driver warned me. "After Jazz Fest, everything will be dead."
But for now, the still-struggling city could put on its best musical showcase, the French Quarter tourist mecca remained largely unscathed by the flooding, and there were oases of life and music scattered throughout the city that could make you believe, at least for a few hours, that New Orleans was back. Here are some snapshots from New Orleans you may have missed: