The Power BrokersPrint
How New Orleans came back
By Wayne Curtis
June 11, 2015
Anniversaries of significant events—the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, for instance—are a time for remembering and commemorating. But they’re also a time when politicians and bureaucrats clamber over one another to shape a narrative for future generations. So we shall see an uptick in warbling and shoulder-stepping to claim paternity of various feel-good stories. (The failures, as always, shall remain orphans.)
Which makes a book published this week, We’re Still Here, Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City, an important document in crafting a long-term narrative that’s both truthful and useful.
It’s by Roberta Brandes Gratz, a New York author who became a part-time resident of New Orleans shortly after Katrina. (Full disclosure: we’re occasional lunch buddies.) Among her earlier works is a fine volume on the battle for New York that took place in the 1960s between citizen-urbanist Jane Jacobs and powerful planning honcho Robert Moses.
Gratz understands the dynamic between the few with power and the many without. And through extensive interviews and on-the-ground observations of the New Orleans recovery, she found that much of the good that came out of the post-Katrina rebuilding was due to a cadre of citizen-activists who accomplished what they did despite the grandiose plans, billions of often-misguided dollars, and the blocking maneuvers of those in power.
A recurring theme in the city’s recent history? “Local leaders working to fill the gap left by government,” she writes.
She cites many examples. These include a reluctant activist who organized a group that demanded—and received—more responsible levee oversight. And a neighborhood booster who understood that the rebuilding of a single home on a decimated block could serve as a catalyst for the rejuvenation of others. And a committed blogger who helped saved historic, perfectly salvageable buildings slated for demolition by shining a light on how demolition permits were being handed out like hall passes. (All the above are women—Gratz also devotes an illuminating chapter to the long history of women who’ve managed to shape the New Orleans we know today.)
In the focus on the decade-long grassroots recovery, We’re Still Here serves as an admirable companion volume to Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which looked at how the immediate response to a disaster can bring out the best in people—not the worst that the media breathlessly covers. Katrina reporting was initially all about rapes at the Superdome, Mad-Max like bands of prowling looters, and rescue helicopters coming under hostile fire—stories that mostly turned out to be fictional. The story behind the turmoil is more positive.
“New Orleanians started saving themselves and their city during Katrina and before any level of government officially lent a hand—and they haven’t stopped since,” Gratz writes.
Still, her book is not all campfire singalongs and barn raisings. Gratz notes plenty of setbacks, and saves plenty of vitriol for leaders with big plans—often formulated from afar—who did manage to ram them through in the fog of confusion following the storm, rarely to the city’s benefit. This includes the fiscally imprudent abandonment of Charity Hospital, followed by the demolition of hundreds of homes to make way for an expensive new hospital with no connection to the community; the stunning rise of charter schools (New Orleans has more than any other city) that displaced neighborhood schools in a city that prides itself on its neighborhoods; and the widespread demolition of historic low-income housing that officials claimed couldn’t be salvaged after the storm, replacing it with Disneyfied faux villages. In each instance, plans for change were in place prior to Katrina, but had been stymied by grassroots opposition and other obstacles. Katrina offered cover to change the storylines and force through plans that may well have remained stalled otherwise.
That presents a story more complicated than the ultimate power of grassroots organizing. Among the many lessons learned in the wake of Katrina: it’s not enough to provide fertilizer for the grassroots. After a storm, you’ll also need herbicide and power mowers to keep down the noxious weeds.
Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.