The Sunday afternoon after Rising Tide found me in a bar on St. Claude Ave, having a drink or three and talking to a guy named Charlie who was splitting a pitcher of beer with his friend. Charlie lived in the St. Roch neighborhood, born and raised in New Orleans and he was telling me about the lives lived on either side of St. Claude Ave, especially since Katrina, five years before, to the day.
He spoke of a lot of new people on the Marigny side and a lot of old families on the St. Roch side. He talked about the hard life in the city, his work as a social worker, his degree in sociology, his travels with the church. I liked to think we were both honest, talking about the respect of faith despite my own atheistic beliefs and the respect of community, showed in different ways at different times by different people with different cultures. He talked about the many years of caring for his infirm father and his struggles with alcohol, but how his faith is helping him keep things toned down.
“We all doing what we do to get by,” he grinned, “Especially in this town.”
I nodded, “Sometimes, easier ways than others.”
We shook hands before I left. Had to leave, though enjoying the conversation it had been approaching four, and I had a long hike ahead to get to Jackson Square for the ceremonies marking the fifth anniversary of the storm.
Walking in a drizzle, I got to the square and found it empty. A guy from CNN was packing up equipment and he confirmed the ceremonies had been moved to the Mahalia Jackson Theater so I quickly grabbed a cab on Decatur. Reaching the theater, it wasn’t clear where to go or how to get inside. A couple headed towards a door adjacent to fountain in Armstrong park; it seemed as good a way as any other and following, found myself inside where I was immediately stopped by what appeared to be some sort of volunteer.
He asked if I had a pass. Disappointed, I shook my head no. He asked if I wanted one, and not so disappointed now, nodded yeah. The volunteer pointed me to a set of stairs and with the pass round my neck I bounded up the steps and almost ran smack into about a dozen Mardi Gras Indians. I’d never seen them in person before. The costumes were huge, amazing…neon greens and oranges and purples and, huge. Caught completely off guard I just kinda stopped, a bit overwhelmed by the sight…all the movement, the designs. One nodded my way and I sheepishly said, “Hello sir,” before I shyly worked my way between them to the doors. Almost immediately after I sat down, the program on the stage began. The crowd listened to a choir, we watched the Indians perform, we listened to a few short speeches and then, Mayor Landrieu took the stage.
And he began:
“We are here tonight to mark the anniversary of the day that everything changed. It has been five years since that fateful storm barreled through the Gulf. Five years since the levees broke and drowned our city. Five years, and we still grieve for the one thousand eight hundred thirty-six Americans who lost their lives and left us in mourning.”
He went on to speak of the losses, of the city’s residents coming together, of the city’s resilience. Obviously, so much went wrong back then and continued for years to go wrong at the city, state and national level. I won’t rehash this here. We all know what the problems were/are and probably would disagree on some of it so I’ll simply leave it at this: FEMA, GW Bush, Nagin…incompetent assholes with their own agendas, I got nothing for these guys, but I was enjoying the emotion in the theater, of the people reacting to the mayor’s words, teary eyes and laughter as he spoke of the common familial struggles, of trying to be better and doing this together.
And Mayor Landrieu closed his speech by saying:
After the storm we were forced to find higher common ground. From such great heights, we will renew our city. We will meet our new challenges just as we have before, together. Come hell or high water, we aren’t going anywhere.
“Together we learned again a lesson long forgotten. The value of our lives is not measured by the things we own -not by a house, not by a car, not a building or a corner store. When we walked back into our wet, mud caked houses the things we reached for first were the pictures. Pictures of our lives that reminded us that we belonged to a family– something bigger than ourselves, something that gave us root. As long as we have each other, we have a home.
As long as we cling to each other we will always have New Orleans. There is no storm big enough to take that from us. The only way we will lose it is if we give it away. And this we will not do. Our journey will not end here. We have spent five long years proving that we can live again. We believe that tomorrow will always be better than today.
America, hear this. The people of New Orleans are still standing, unbowed and unbroken. Still standing because of our desire to uplift and overcome. Still standing because the fabric of our collective strength is unmatched. Still standing because our spirit is undying. Still standing, empowered by our shared struggle, determined to bestow the city of our dreams unto future generations forever. Five years, still standing. Committed to strive, to seek, to find, and never to yield. Thank you. God bless you and God bless the people of New Orleans.”
It was a good speech, it was a hopeful speech, one I was glad to be present for to see and hear in person.
Can Mayor Landrieu be the guy to get things done?
I don’t know. He’s got a lot on his desk and Nagin really screwed him by doing very little for five years while leaving the budget 67 million dollars in the red this year, but for the first time in a long time, I’m willing to take a wait and see approach rather than just condemning the guy at the outset for being just one more politician. Over the past hundred plus days I have both agreed and disagreed with Landrieu’s decisions. Maybe its Nagin fatigue that allows one to be happy with a mayor that at least makes any sort of decisions at all, and on top of it, seems to have the will to try to follow through on his words. Maybe it’s more than this…I don’t know yet but despite his endorsement of Cedric Richmond (Check out AmZombie’s investigative reporting) I’ll admit I’m curious to see what he can do. Landrieu’s come up with a recovery plan for the city and it’s often said that if a plan leaves people both satisfied and dissatisfied, it’s a good place to start and Landrieu’s plan (see link at bottom) appears to have accomplished this feat. Okay then, I’ll do my best to set aside my cynicism with City Hall and try a wait and see approach, maybe even gingerly cross the line into…hope?
Might be too much to ask for, but I’ll try.
After Landrieu’s speech, Rebirth and Trombone Shorty played, the crowd danced, people were laughing, talking loudly and the largely festive atmosphere circulated through the crowd both fast, loose and fun. The woman dancing next to me was grinning away and I wanted to ask her opinion of what she saw tonight, but I’m kinda shy so I didn’t really say anything to anyone at all, and soon enough, the music ended. The ceremony was over.
I sat for a moment, watching the people file out as the theater emptied. The words of the many speakers kind of drifted through my head, especially the mayor’s and they mixed with the earlier, scattered conversation at the St. Claude Ave bar.
Both Charlie and Mayor Landrieu have a lot of hope for the city, and like I said I’m trying to be hopeful as well, but I also felt a little guilty.
As pleased as I was for the experience, I’ll admit, I felt kind of bad for being there. I don’t live in New Orleans anymore, not right now. I used to, and will be moving back soon enough but today, as I write this, I am 892 miles away and sitting in that theater, I kind of wished Charlie had been there instead of me.
Maybe he would have enjoyed it, maybe not, but I’m really curious to hear what he might have had to say.
To read the full text of the speech:
To read his recovery plans, as reported by the Lens:
Have a nice day.