Volume 75, Number 18 | September 21 - 27, 2005


New Orleans swing; stages of grief

By Andrei Codrescu

A listener who heard me on the radio accused me of writing premature elegies for New Orleans. The city isn’t dead, he said, we’re bringing it back. O.K., so that’s how I feel, too. On Tuesday. On Monday I felt like crying. On Wednesday I got mad at everybody, starting with Bush and going on down the line to my listener. On Thursday I was all three: sad, stubborn, and angry. And so it went and so it goes, day after day, my moods swinging along with everybody else’s moods, sometimes in sync, sometimes not. What doesn’t change is the swinging, but to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t matter.

If you’re going back to New Orleans you have to think positively and fight to bring the city back. If you’re not going back, you’ll still have to think positively about your future. There is no point in indulging swinging moods, they’ll always swing. What needs to be done is thinking about how to do what you have to do. It’s all technical for a while. The absolute necessities are: accurate information and some idea of the future. The first is hard to discern, but is doable if you can navigate between the various media, from television networks to the word-of-mouth e-media of e-mails, phone calls and hearsay. The second is harder because there are several futures: your own, your neighborhood’s and your city’s.

If you can think of all these as one thing, that’s good. It’s also hard because nobody ever did, except at Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, or when somebody in another city looked genuinely impressed that you were from New Orleans.

For outsiders, and that includes the national media, there is no Uptown, Treme, Ninth Ward, Downtown, Bywater, Marigny, the French Quarter (well, maybe the French Quarter): there is only a place called New Orleans. Before the storm, this “New Orleans” was a place attractive enough to bring tourists to town. Tourists came for the colorful history of pirates, jazz and the red-light district, for old architecture, for the rich music, the spicy seafood, the voodoo, the ghost tours, the bars open 24 hours, all real things with beginnings rooted in legend.

After the storm, a new “New Orleans” showed up on the map, a New Orleans of poor people living in flood zones, huge masses of the poor, sick people untended to, inept officials and criminals. Between these pre- and post-storm New Orleanses there is a blank place on the map that will have to be bridged by the people rebuilding. New Orleans will need its legends and its mystique to bring back tourism, its biggest source of revenue, but the tourists won’t come back right away. New Orleans will have to reinvent itself on the basis of a different economy. This is the time to ask: is the New Orleans of the immediate future going to be a city for New Orleanians or for tourists? Is it going to be one big Mardi Gras or a sane place like, let’s say, Portland, with a decent infrastructure and responsible government? Maybe that’s a premature question, too, and another listener will bring me up short.


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