The Quality of Life
“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in the short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. The nearness of death brought the story’s grandmother to a moment when she was the person she wanted to be. For much of the year after Hurricane Katrina, going through a cataclysmic experience together brought out the best in many New Orleanians. As time passes, though, and we get further and further from the storm, pettiness and more selfish concerns are more and more in evidence.
After the storm, many clubs that lacked permits for live music hosted bands anyway, giving musicians work to help keep them in the city. In October, a French Quarter neighborhood association complained that Angeli on Decatur had live music, and the restaurant was forced to stop offering it even though it was acoustic, traditional jazz. The neighborhood associations cite noise concerns and have worked with New Orleans’ city council to only allow live music on Bourbon Street and near Canal Street. The same neighborhood association fought allowing the Funky Butt on Rampart Street to reopen with live music fearing that the continued presence of live music — perhaps New Orleans’ defining characteristic — would adversely affect their quality of life.
This anxiety about quality of life existed pre-Katrina, and the city’s Master Plan for Arts and Culture written in 2002 reflects this, observing that small, neighborhood music clubs are an essential part of the city’s musical development. But nobody seems to want them in their neighborhood. Now there are only a few parts of town where new clubs can start, and they theoretically have to be restaurants, making 51 percent of their income from food sales.
Recently, St. Bernard Parish Council passed an ordinance that restricts homeowners from renting to anyone but blood relatives. African-Americans realized immediately that in a predominantly white parish, that meant renting to them was against the law. “Our motivation is simply to do what’s best for our recovery and to restore and maintain our pre-Katrina quality of life,” parish councilman Craig Taffaro says.
The anxieties that fuel these concerns come from a valid place. The Louisiana Recovery Authority’s Road Home program was established to administer the federal funds earmarked to help New Orleanians rebuild or relocate. At press time, fewer than 50 people had actually gone through the process and received a check. When Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco pressured the agency to pick up the pace, it sent out preliminary letters notifying homeowners of their awards, then warned them that the amount announced might not be accurate and that they should not make decisions based on the dollar value quoted.
Life here may be dispiriting in a whole new way, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some moments of levity. We have enjoyed the spectacle of celebrities sympathizing with us. Some have done it with some awareness and tact, such as Steve Earle, Tom Morello and members of the Future of Music Coalition, who performed a benefit show at Tipitina’s. Others, not so much. At the Voodoo Music Experience, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips advised us to help each other, and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance told us about the horrors he saw driving in from the airport — the other side of town from the worst of the damage. Their comments and the equally daft comfort of Simon LeBon and almost any other out-of-towner who addressed life in New Orleans were well-meaning, but they had the tone wrong. We’re living in hard times now, but we’re not living in a ghost town anymore.
Unfortunately, the hard times have also become violent. Central City was dangerous before the hurricane, where many shootings had the earmarks of a gang turf struggle. For much of October, it was worse than ever, suggesting that a new element was added — people who tried to take over someone’s turf while the neighborhood was largely empty. This is all officially speculation; the New Orleans Police Department doesn’t talk about the cause of the spike in shootings and murders. If this is the case, it’s sad to realize that not even a hurricane can wash away such things.
Then again, a young entrepreneur trying to start a new rap label interpreted those shootings as people who felt ripped off by the American Dream, and there’s a lot to that. While it may have been stupid and greedy for looters to rip off big-screen TVs while waist-deep in water, such thefts showed how thoroughly they’d bought the notions of the good life. They were getting the flat-screen they saw on MTV’s “Cribs” — what did it matter that they couldn’t plug it in?
Now they’re living in an area that isn’t famously devastated, so little is happening to rebuild their neighborhood. Some are living in FEMA trailer parks, others are living in half-gutted houses; their friends and family are scattered and no one’s talking about how to get them back. In that context, drugs and small-time power grabs might be sad and shortsighted, but it’s understandable. Doesn’t their quality of life count, too?