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<nettime> More new orleans
Dan S. Wang on Wed, 7 Sep 2005 23:11:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> More new orleans

I think Ronda's telling is a pretty fair account of the low-priority
assigned to the outstanding flood control issues faced by New Orleans for

The other aspect of this whole disaster that needs to be mentioned,
especially for an international audience, is the city culture of New
Orleans, and to some degree the culture of the entire bayou region. But
especially New Orleans.

I've never been to New Orleans. That I would want to say anything about the
city and what it means to me only serves to illustrate the power and reach
of that city's culture and history.

New Orleans is America's only afro-caribbean-franco-latin city. I think of
the city as a capital of a deep-rooted American counterculture found almost
nowhere else, and certainly nowhere else in such city-wide breadth and
historical density. The crucible effect of such countercultural
concentration and longevity has given America and the world, most obviously,
a vital, living, legacy of music almost without equal. New Orleans stands
alongside Jamaica and Cuba as small places disproportionately influencing
global music listening, playing, and dancing. New Orleans, as a
music-producing city, has been influencing the world's ears almost since the
inception of recorded music.

There are any number of iconic present-day musicians traveling with the
million or so homeless. I read that Fats Domino was rescued from off his
third floor and his entire family lost everything. So did Irma Thomas. Alex
Chilton is at some unknown temporary shelter. Peter Holsapple's home was
reportedly flooded in nearly 7 meters of water. These are just some of the
famous people who come to mind quickly. The hundreds and probably thousands
of unknown New Orleans musicians, who play outside for dancing audiences,
who fiddle with mixers in their cramped homes, and who sing to the born, the
unborn, and the dead, all as a way of life--what about those people? No
doubt we see a few of them setting up their cots in the Astrodome and

It is not just that New Orleans was a hip, music-filled city. It is that the
culture of the city--that same culture that produces the music for which the
city is famous--goes against the grain of mainstream America. In completely
simplistic terms, the culture suggests that it is possible to choose
participation over spectatorship, creativity over consumerism, collaboration
over competition, and multi-ethnic/multi-lingual life over homogeneiety and
exclusion. Values-wise, the culture's priorities translate into practices of
hospitality and tolerance.

I should say, I am not imagining New Orleans as having been some kind of
heaven on earth. The fact that many people in New Orleans have never
prioritized the almightly dollar contributed to poverty levels, which of
course breed their own social problems. And then, as long as there is some
true presence of tolerance, there is also some abnormal measure of sleaze.
It is true of Amsterdam, it is true of San Francisco, and from what I've
read and been told, it has always been true of New Orleans. But both of
these negatives only reinforce my basic point about the city's culture
running on a different track than that of pious, work-obsessed square

As New Orleans people who have been made homeless fan out to other cities by
the tens of thousands, I wonder where the culture shock will be felt most
intensely. Mormon Utah? Lutheran Minnesota? The places where the refugees
are housed en masse on disused isolated properties, or where they are being
housed with volunteers who have opened their own homes in scattered fashion?
I also wonder about the human-scaled relationships that will develop as
white religious midwestern folk, for example, take in homeless families from
New Orleans. No guarantees, but I think there is the chance that the walls
that separate people in this country will be broken in some places. I should
say, that is what I hope. They could just as well be strengthened.

(The opening up of people's homes to strangers is quite an inspiring thing
to see happen. On the other hand, the unregulated, unscreened web-based
connectors such as craig's list seem also to be attracting some small time
profiteers and sleazebags...yesterday I saw an entry posted seeking a
Katrina survivor who needs a home, and is a young asian female who likes to
cook, and wants to start a new life helping to run a small lodge with a
single white guy in Colorado. What is fascinating is that the opening of
private homes makes visible the social fault lines in this country on a
rarely seen scale--people offering shelter can specify the "types" to whom
they are open. Gay only, single mothers only, christian only, student only,
etc, listed all alongside each other in a spirit of "helping" and
"generosity." We help who we want to help...this is the new brand of public
service in neocon america.)

The fate and effect of this diaspora-within-a diaspora is one thing. (Even
the great flood of 1927 displaced "only" an estimated 330 k black people,
the movement of which made a huge and historic impact on Chicago and other
points north.) Then there is the future of the city itself. A lot of people
are already having nightmares of the formerly messy and organic city being
rebuilt as one monolithic prefab strip mall or disney-fied, sanitized
simulacrum, with greedy mega-developers already licking their chops over the
prospective bonanza. One whose wishes for New Orleans deviate from such
visions might even hope that the insurance companies refuse to underwrite
that kind of investment. That may be the only way to stop the reconstruction
from being railroaded toward such an end.

I guess for me the whole point of calling attention to the culture of New
Orleans is not simply to mourn the loss of a cultural treasure. Though
saddened and outraged, I am not feeling the same kind of shock and anger
that I did when, say, the museums and libraries of Baghdad were being
looted. Here is a situation where the cultural product--the music, dances,
festivals, language, costumes, rituals, and cuisine--were never
authoritatively canonized and preserved as museum pieces. Or if they were,
that process was never the priority in terms of production of prestige and
status, simply for the fact of the culture not belonging only to antiquity,
but being a live, evolving thing. Thus I wonder, is there any more potential
in this case for New Orleans people to apply their cultural power and
creativity to the area of politics, since politics will determine the shape
and structure of the reconstruction. The importation of non-New Orleans
people who are alien to and even dismissive of the regional culture as the
builders and planners is already being contested by people like Jesse
Jackson, who are using the terms of affirmative action and set-asides to
frame the issue. But I think we need to use broader terms and somehow find a
way to articulate the challenge in such a way that anyone who at all
identifies with an American counterculture sees a stake in the way the
reconstruction plays out.

Dan w.

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