Author Archives: ubahar01

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans’ ‘transformation’ hurt residents who needed it most

New Orleans, once seen as a museum-piece for tourists, is now widely celebrated as an “economic miracle” that for the first time in decades is attracting new, entrepreneurial blood. But ten years after Katrina left 80% of the city underwater and wreaked large-scale devastation, there is another story to be told about the city: an estimated 100,000 of the city’s poorest African-American residents, notoriously vilified in 2005, have been unable to return.

While many black New Orleanians were treated as criminals by their host communities, they are now being congratulated in some quarter for leaving behind supposedly dysfunctional communities and seeking their own version of the American dream elsewhere. Somehow, the glossy “new” New Orleans, lauded for its recently cultivated social mobility, did not spell opportunity for them.

This story tells of a pre-Katrina city stalked by crime, violence and intergenerational poverty. By this account the storm was an “opportunity” for those otherwise mired in black “ghettoes,” long pathologized by sociologists and policy makers, to make a lucky escape. Meanwhile, their hometown was proving to be a site of opportunity for a very different face of the American dream.

As many noted soon after the storm, New Orleans became a hub of disaster capitalism, a neoliberal laboratory in which public housing, health and education came under attack. New Orleans’ large public-housing projects were shuttered and eventually razed amidst a sea of storm-battered and flooded homes and soaring homelessness rates. Katrina also became the excuse for the closure of Charity Hospital, a lifeline for low-income residents in the city for generations, in the midst of an emerging public health crisis. The firing of thousands of unionized public school teachers in Katrina’s immediate aftermath and the rapid creation of large numbers of charter schools similarly subjected the school system to market logic while denying traumatized children the familiarity of neighborhood schools. This virtual erasure of the public sphere has overwhelmingly affected black residents – including black homeowners, who have been subjected to widespread discrimination in the rebuilding process.

Social justice lawyer Bill Quigley, who took a leading role in challenging the demolition of public housing in New Orleans, commented in December 2013: “we’re a smaller town, we’re a whiter town, we’re a richer town, we’re the charter school capital of the world. We’ve privatized as much as we can privatize but we’re still looking to do more.”

Advocates of New Orleans’ market-driven transformation argue that they have saved the city’s impoverished residents from living in islands of “concentrated poverty.” But this supposedly noble mission overlooks the inconvenient fact that New Orleans hosts some of the most close-knit African American neighborhoods in the country whose roots can be traced back several generations – these communities are fiercely proud of and attached to the city they call home.

In an October 2014 interview, education activist Ashana Bigard explained: “the idea that black New Orleanians hate this city and want to leave – it is not true. This is an attack on everything that we are.”

In fact, there is evidence that the federal rollback of public housing that began in the 1970s was linked not to concern for concentrated poverty but rather to political dissent. Large numbers of black people living in close quarters increased the possibilities for community organizing and political activism and played into the Nixon administration’s fear of black urban insurrection.

Arguably New Orleans’ working-class black communities have for some time been carrying out a quiet urban insurrection in their daily celebration of a distinctive street culture that more closely resembles the Caribbean than the rest of the US. This culture has long been denigrated by conservative elements in US political culture as inextricably associated with crime and violence. In this sense the newly “cleansed,” gentrified New Orleans is more of a microcosm of the nation than it’s ever been. But contrary to the triumphalist success story, the city’s supposed “rebirth,” just like the scenes of devastation in 2005, showcases a story of US decline.

This is a story in which the post-1945 dream of rising living standards for all has been abandoned to a reality that redistributes wealth upwards while rendering those at the bottom of the social pyramid disposable. Those who insisted in 2005 that the scenes in New Orleans – which exposed extreme levels of racialized poverty – were “un-American” were in denial about the American provenance of the tragedy.

Ten years on, post-Katrina New Orleans is currently one of the most unequal cities in America, making it a leader in the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor across the US. On almost all indexes, the life chances of African-Americans in the city remain shockingly low in comparison with their white counterparts, and this can now be traced in part to the grotesquely unequal conditions fostered by the “recovery” itself.

The vast majority of black New Orleanians, who lost the most in 2005, are now locked out of the vision of the future that the reconstructed city is supposed to represent. But we should not make the mistake of jumping to the self-serving conclusion that they would prefer to be elsewhere – as so many disaster opportunists have done. The future of New Orleans is not yet a done deal, and many continue to struggle for an alternative that might better sustain them.








New Schools for New Orleans: #BlackLivesMatter

By Flickr user LightBrigading (via I’mNotTheNanny, licensed under creative commons).

By Flickr user LightBrigading (via I’mNotTheNanny, licensed under creative commons).

As #BlackLivesMatter continues to trend on twitter in the wake of events in Ferguson and the police shootings of countless unarmed black men across the US, a major experiment in urban education is quietly transforming the nation’s schools. These reforms are occurring in the name of severing the so-called ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline that has made so many young black Americans the target of the criminal justice system. Where events in Ferguson have brutally recalled the unfinished business of the civil rights movement that left the majority of African Americans socially and economically disenfranchised, this new school movement sees itself as heir to that transformative moment in the 1960s, aiming to deliver social mobility to America’s most marginalized populations.

Given the grand ambitions of these schools, the view from inside is unexpectedly oppressive and confining. In what have come to be known as ‘no excuses’ schools, children are frequently asked to walk on demarcated lines in corridors, observe silent lunches, and adhere to a strict disciplinary code. Many employ shaming rituals for so-called misbehaviour, and require students to track teachers with their eyes. The emphasis is strictly on ‘academics’, meaning language and maths, on which students are constantly tested. ‘Teaching to the test’ not only pushes the arts and physical education to the margins of the curriculum, but emphasizes rote learning and discourages dwelling on ambiguity that drives creative and critical thinking. Most strikingly, given the integrationist aspirations of at least the early stages of the 1960s black freedom movement, these schools are overwhelmingly populated by African American kids.

‘No excuses’ is not a formal label but a mantra invoked by these schools to suggest that they have ‘no excuse’ not to close the ‘achievement gap’ between black and white children, ‘no excuse’ not to graduate successful college entrants. The enormous pressure placed on teachers by these schools is reflected back on the students who are subjected to measures that many observers characterize as not just authoritarian but excessive and cruel.

‘No excuses’ has become shorthand for a subset of schools in the charter school movement that has swept the United States since they gained cross-party support in the 1990s. Similar to the euphemistically named ‘free schools’ in the UK, charters are publicly funded schools largely free from ‘government interference’ and are run by non-profit entities or private enterprise. Calls in the 1960s for the decentralization of schools initially came from parents and teachers seeking more local control, and were later hijacked by the language of ‘choice’ and the norms and values of the market.

Officially, the ‘school choice’ that charters claim to offer is encapsulated in a parents’ right to withdraw a child from a school at any moment, supposedly making these schools more ‘accountable’ to parents who can contemplate a marketplace of schools rather than putting up with failing neighbourhood schools. In reality, school choice has constituted widespread selection practices on the part of the schools that aspire to teach privileged sections of the population. In many urban areas, this has led to a two-tier system where some schools are left to educate those unable to meet a string of selection requirements apparently designed to exclude poorer students.

Charter operators like the pioneering Knowledge is Power Program, KIPP, have stepped into this gap in the market with an open-enrolment policy and the ‘no excuses’ brand, designed for survival in a system that closes supposedly ‘failing schools’ as soon as test scores fall below the mark. The ‘no excuses’ ethos fosters a highly controlled environment in which children are force-fed information for tests, the generally favourable results of which, a number of studies suggest, are subject to widespread manipulation. This system of ruthless competition has arguably reintroduced the principle of racially segregated learning via the backdoor.

As Sarah Carr’s work on ‘no excuses’ charter schools in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans shows, the foundations that often partially fund these schools ‘so view their mission as educating poor, minority children that they do not provide philanthropic support for schools with significant white or middle-class populations’, meaning that some charter operators are incentivized to ensure that their schools remain some of the most racially segregated in the nation.

After Katrina, New Orleans became the epicentre of the charter school movement when the Orleans Parish School Board undertook the mass firing of 7,500 public school workers, most of whom were African American. In the meantime, rules for the creation of charter schools were relaxed, leading to the rapid emergence of a string of charter schools largely staffed by Teach for America recruits – non-unionized, predominantly white, ‘fresh faced’ graduates, many of whom, initially at least, come from Ivy League universities. Encouraged to view their students as ‘blank slates’ where ‘data’ might be banked, these inexperienced recruits – who receive about five weeks training – are expected to solve the problems of racialized poverty in these urban education laboratories, while students are asked to leave their poverty, their hunger and their histories outside the classroom. This is a strikingly different approach to the one that still governs teaching practices in predominantly middle class schools – where personal agency and the arts are still deemed important tools for social empowerment.

New Orleans parent advocate Ashana Bigard suggests that the philosophy behind these schools is that ‘poor black traumatized children apparently have different brains, alien brains, that we cannot educate the same as middle class white kids.’ Bigard argues that these schools – that emphasize not independence and assertion but submission to authority – are not educating black children but ‘conditioning them for low-wage jobs.’ Or prison.

I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Ashana Bigard in October 2014. She told me that while working with an organization representing the families of incarcerated children, she was asked to identify at what point most of these kids were entering the criminal justice system. Ashana explained that on examining these figures for New Orleans in 2008, her jaw dropped as she realized that most children were going directly from schools. Against the conventional wisdom that says that keeping poor kids in school and off the streets is the best way of avoiding jail, in fact, as Ashana puts it, ‘your kid who is cutting school is a hell of a lot safer than if he’s in school every day.’ Where the commonplace of, for example, two eight-year-olds getting into a fist fight in the classroom would have formerly received an in-house response, now teachers routinely call the police and involve a criminal judge. ‘The same eight-year-old is going to be handcuffed, put in a police van, gain a record of some kind, and could be expelled.’

The militarization of US schools has gone hand in hand with corporate penetration and the rollback of state welfare that has had such a devastating effect on African American communities, already suffering the results of systemic racism, all over the US. Just as militarized policing has become the norm in neighbourhoods from Ferguson to Detroit, public schools that resemble prisons have proliferated in urban areas across the country.

Ashana tells the story of one six-year old boy put before a criminal judge for bringing into school rolaids, common antacids, under the mistaken belief that they were candy. This child was charged with possession and distribution of drugs and sent to an ‘alternative school’, commonly viewed as a warehouse for prison. It took Ashana and her co-workers five months to get this child back into his regular school, by which time he was too frightened to even take a pen into class.

The first time I visited New Orleans after Katrina was in April 2008. This was two and a half years after Katrina: many neighbourhoods had not yet been cleared of storm debris, while at the same moment the authorities started pulling down the city’s public housing projects. These scenes of demolition jarred sharply with the large homeless encampments that could be seen gathered on the Claiborne neutral ground under the shadow of the 1-10 overpass, and in other parts of the city. At the same time, I was invited into comfortable, air-conditioned offices by various non-profit entities and learned that these scenes of destruction were in fact part of a ‘benevolent’ project to ‘cleanse’ the city of blight. The representatives I spoke to were as convinced by the rightness of their mission as are those who are turning many urban schools into segregated laboratories.

Back in 2008, the slogan ‘housing is a human right’ underscored by large groups of protestors betrayed the fact that the federal government in league with city authorities and non-profits were not in fact doing public housing residents any favours. These residents, who had spent years demanding that their homes be maintained rather than left to suffer ‘benign neglect,’ were vocal about their wish to return to their homes after Katrina. Unlike the thousands of houses that had been utterly destroyed by the storm and subsequent flooding, these structures had weathered Katrina remarkably well. Indeed, the ‘bricks’ – public housing projects – had long been seen as potential refuges during storms. These incongruous scenes of destruction, and the inspiring movement that gathered to oppose them, was my first tangible lesson in neoliberal reform and the ways in which it seeks to cannibalize dissent.

The minefield that is post-Katrina school reform has marked the last trip to New Orleans that I’ll undertake for this project. Against the backdrop of Ferguson, it is hard not to see these new schools as places that establish the idea that poor African American children are always already on the wrong side of the law. How do we square this with the view articulated by so many soon after the storm that the post-Katrina city could be the scene of the next major phase of the civil rights movement? I’ll leave the last word to Ashana:

One of the biggest barriers is public perception. Somewhere along the way the nonviolent resistance movement in the 1960s got told a different way. That Martin Luther King and everyone were being polite and non-violent. That’s not what the hell happened, but it’s what is put in the books. And so if I raise my voice or I’m passionate about it, I’m crazy about it, no one can listen to me. The destruction of my community, my city, and the lives of so many of the children in this city that I am from, I am damn passionate about. And yes I’m angry, I’m hurt, I’m distraught. And how could I not be. This I my city, it’s my daughter’s future. We’re being destroyed – you want me to be polite about that? No I’m not polite. Here’s the thing, I’m that angry black woman. You can’t be perceived as that, because then no one will constructively listen to what you have to say. So you must be calm. The problem with being calm is that you have to act like this is not a crisis.



Rupture, Crisis, Transformation: New Directions in US Studies at the End of the American Century – by Pippa Eldridge and Alex Williamson

You can listen to podcasts of the conference sessions here.

By Pippa Eldridge and Alex Williamson

Has the American exceptionalist road-trip hit a dead-end, or is it merely at a crossroads? This was one of the key questions posed at Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature’s recent conference, Rupture, Crisis, Transformation. At a conference rich with imagery of twenty-first-century America as a debased, petrochemical wasteland, traversed by the indefinitely disenfranchised, the problematic spectre of ‘disaster tourism’ loomed large. Still, while many of the papers uncovered a paradoxical, melancholic attachment to life lived under the panopticon of American power, they did not simply dwell at the site of loss. Nor was the exposure of America’s geo-political and social flaws the focus of the day. Rather, the very ‘ongoingness’ of narrative, and the resilience and adaptability of ‘networks of feeling’ in the face of disaster, degradation and precarity, bolstered a fragile optimism. Or perhaps, with a nod to Lauren Berlant, something more akin to a kind pessimism.

Wai Chee Dimock2

In the opening keynote address, Professor Wai Chee Dimock (Yale University) persuasively argued that cultural networks of people ‘brought low’ by defeat, poverty and marginalisation might successfully transcend territorial and sovereign boundaries, to generate global affective networks. In endeavouring to reclaim Faulkner – long considered part of the American literary elite – as a regional and trans-Pacific writer, Professor Dimock intimated that the American literary field, whilst heavily disciplined dialectically, has never been watertight or entirely unified. Instead, it represents a domain open to renegotiation, connected by ‘intersecting pathways continually modified by local inflections’. Peace and reconciliation might remain only theoretical in Faulkner’s domain, but his exposure of resilient, low-bar but non-trivial emotional networks provides a hopeful counterpoint to displacement, destitution and loss. And, as Professor Dimock concluded, ‘if people are too successful for too long, something dries up’; disaster has long been considered generative.

The notion that humiliation might offer an antidote to the hubris of exceptionalism was examined in several of the papers. Delivering her paper on HBO’s ‘anti-humanist’ True Detective against the backdrop of wide-angle shots of oozing refineries and lifeless genuflecting bodies, Professor Georgiana Banita (University of Bamberg) considered the series’ environmental humbling and existential debasement as evidence of a ‘nation confronting the limits of its own making.’ By languishing in the ‘petromelancholia’ of the loss of energetic supremacy and the integrity of illusions, True Detective refuses to convert humiliation into a new triumphalism. Nevertheless, Professor Banita suggested that its sordid focus on decay might represent a process of abjection; an energy pumped into the environment, paving the way for a post-humiliation world. The unravelling of the relationship between knowledge and power was also addressed in Pieter Vermeulen’s paper on ‘Future Readers: Narrative Knowledge in the Anthropocene’.  Focussing on the figures of the future archaeologist and the future historian in Teju Cole’s Open City, Max Brook’s World War Z and Oreskes and Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilisation Professor Vermeulen (University of Leuven) considered the institutional challenges facing American studies and the difficulties of narrating the present moment. Tropes of legibility were fundamental to the paper, which argued that the oscillation between imagined geological and historical futures betrayed an uncertainty about whether the future could be imagined at all. Nevertheless, in the texts’ invitation to read ourselves as though we were no longer living, Professor Vermeulen discerned a rallying call for more radical political engagement in the present.

Technologies of Crisis

Chaired by Dr Zara Dinnen (University of Birmingham), the second panel discussed the technological conditions of crisis in US culture, contextualised within the wider crises of technology in the twenty-first century. Dr Dinnen’s scene-setting paper – ‘Some Reflections on Technological Slow Time’ – attempted to articulate the conflict between the concept of change as habitual praxis and the rapid technological advances of the new millennium. Citing the example of the temporal scale deployed by Richard Linklater in Boyhood (2014), Dr Dinnen reflected upon how the contemporary is now experienced in a state of permanent mediation, with consciousness operated on by the twin pressures of time and technology and new technologies assimilated into a culture with eye-blink rapidity. In her paper, Dr Clare Birchall (King’s College London) turned to the end of privacy and the push towards profitability by the duopoly of transparency and entrepreneurialism within the new ‘dataveillance’ culture. Narrative, philosophy and espionage came under consideration in the second paper by Dr Kristin Veel (University of Copenhagen), who presented two short films each offering a critique of the culture of surveillance and ‘datavasion’: I Love Alaska (2009), Lernert Engelberts and Sander Plug’s response to the AOL search data scandal, partially-restored the voice and identity of an anonymised American female through her leaked search queries; and The Orwell Project (2006), in which interdisciplinary US artist Hasan Elahi responded to being investigated by the FBI after 9/11 by initiating his own self-surveillance project, a negotiated process of self-affirmation and surveillance negation. Both films invited questions relating to personal security and privacy, and the geo-political implications of mediated, digitised selfhood. Closing the panel, Dr Seb Franklin (Kings College London) considered positioned networks as metaphors of empire, drawing on his research into the cultural logic of digitalism, in particular the pioneering work of Friedrich Kittler in the fields of new media and computational literature. For Franklin, digital ecriture in the new millennium had effected a logical extension of the poststructuralist project, extending new structures, networks and systems into the literary domain.

Contemporary US cinema panel

Eschewing traditional presentations, Dr Richard Martin, Dr Ozlem Koksal and Dietmar Meinel enlisted the audience in an ‘old fashioned close reading’ of selected scenes from three key US films of the last decade: Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008), Margaret (Kenneth Lonegan, 2011) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012). Evocatively titled ‘On Weeping and Knowing Why’, the panel reflected upon the forms of knowledge that might be generated by prevailing notions of vulnerability, precarity and mourning, and sparked a discussion on the politics of contemporary US cinema. In her reading of Margaret – itself a peculiarly unstable film, existing in two versions – Dr Koksal (University of Westminster) paid close attention to the film’s audio-visual rendering of a decentralised and destabilised nation of competing voices in the wake of 9/11. The clip generated a discussion on the relationship between genre and crisis, and the radical potential of melodrama and fictions of excess. Following an excerpt from Wendy and Lucy, a film influenced by the sudden instability created by Hurricane Katrina, Dr Richard Martin (Kings College London) drew on Lauren Berlant’s theories of ordinary crisis to evoke a character whose modest ambitions cannot extend beyond the basic desire for survival and shelter. Shot on 16mm in just 18 days and edited in Reichardt’s apartment, this sparse, minimalist drama was considered a possible embodiment of an ‘aesthetics of precarity’; albeit a problematic one, which places a white Hollywood star (Michele Williams) in a marginalised role. The question of cinematic disaster tourism was engaged further with the final screening of Tarantino’s lurid slave-revenge Western Django Unchained, selected by Dietmar Meinel (John F. Kennedy Institute for American Studies). Meinel’s examination of Django’s literal rags to riches story and his close focus on the scene of his ‘liberation’ inspired a fierce debate about the ethics and politics of genre, centred on Tarantino’s transposition of a white man’s Spaghetti Western fantasy onto a narrative of black slavery.

Caryl Phillips 3

The closing keynote, delivered by prize-winning author Caryl Phillips, aimed right for the heart of American cultural identity: the national anthem. Dispensing with academia’s more formal lingua franca, Phillips’s address carried a more personal inflection by examining the evolution of The Star-Spangled Banner from Civil War poem to the contemporary chorale of questionable cultural value. Phillips deconstructed three contrasting public performances of the national anthem: the devotional, the distorted, and the ambivalent. First, we witnessed Whitney Houston’s Gulf War-era Superbowl serenade, which with its depoliticised vocal acrobatics and exceptionalist tropes seemed to “gleefully endorse the excesses of US military foreign policy”; from the same period, comedian Roseanne Barr’s performance – featuring trailer-trash caterwaul and mimed spitting – offered a subversion of the masculine origins of the anthem, those which were “deeply connected to national pride and identity”, with one of transgressive self-abasement; and finally, a performance by Motown legend Marvin Gaye dating from the early 1980s, offering a restorative hymn of ambivalent reconciliation, recognising the song’s tradition while reflecting contemporary social-political concerns and his own personal experiences of exile from the US. “The more I hear it, the more I miss it”, reflected Phillips, observing that it was one of the “finest pieces of performative ‘writing-back’ in the American tradition”. As recent events in Ferguson and New York have shown, the US remains less than a home for the disadvantaged and dispossessed. At these moments of crisis, traditionally transformative texts like The Star-Spangled Banner become a cultural crutch to prop up the ruptured, crumbling country they represent: in this sense, the root of the contemporary remains forever embedded in the soil of the past. In closing, Phillips seemed to suggest that even during this period of scathing post-American critiques, for good or ill we continue to look to America to tell us ‘what’s going on.’

You can listen to podcasts of the sessions here.

Photos by Alex Williamson.

‘Neighbourhood Blues’

In the gym this morning I was drawn to a reality-tv offering called Neighbourhood Blues, a programme that, despite the patronising double-entendre of its title, possibly is really quite earnest in its attempt to explore the dynamics behind neighbourhood policing. Indeed there was some attempt to explore this double-entendre as the blues in uniform penetrated the decidedly dystopic neighbourhoods to draw out various examples of neoliberalized misery. ‘Bobbies on the beat’, the upbeat presenter explained, ‘are a welcome sight anywhere’, and nowhere are they more needed, we are told, than in the decaying urban landscape of Hull. The programme depicted cheerful members of the Humberside police entering homes framed by mould, unemployment, poverty and addiction. One particularly voyeuristic scene featured a violent encounter between one of the friendly ‘bobbies’ and a young man resisting police arrest probably because, as our bobby speculated, he was in the painful throes of some kind of withdrawal.

It was hard not to note the contrasts between the scenes in Neighbourhood Blues and the adjacent screen in the gym, featuring super-rich (incidentally, American) women sitting in a swimming pool discussing anti-aging techniques to preserve the bounce in their cheeks. The screen to the right, showing Sky News, switched part-way through the Neighbourhood Blues episode to scenes in Ferguson, Missouri, where protestors are clashing with police over the shooting of yet another unarmed black man. These three screens seemed to ominously be part of the same cultural continuum, featuring grotesque and ever-widening gaps between rich and poor. The final screen seemed to represent a stage where the mythology of the friendly policeman who, in UK neighbourhoods at least, does not routinely carry a gun, has been well and truly buried.

The frightening world of militarized policing has been part of the US landscape for decades now, arguably emerging with the so-called war on drugs declared in the 1970s. But the scenes in New Orleans immediately following Katrina exemplified the catastrophic consequences of the shift from neighbourhood to militarized policing – a shift that many African Americans were very familiar with long before the storm in 2005. After Katrina the humanitarian assistance programme took the form of a militarized response that criminalized the storm victims just as law enforcement has long criminalized the racialized poor. Many of the ‘boots on the ground’ in post-Katrina New Orleans were in fact mercenaries from private security firms like Blackwater and the Israeli firm, Instinctive Shooting International. These security forces held many of the disproportionately African American storm survivors at gunpoint during the evacuation, while white vigilantes were able to terrorize Algiers and beyond, shooting possibly hundreds of unarmed black men – crimes for which they have never been punished. 

The immediate post-Katrina response vividly demonstrated the ways in which welfare and the penal arm of the state, usually perceived as separate, have increasingly merged in a neoliberal context, with the consequence that the former is de-emphasized and downsized, the latter upsized. Katrina’s ongoing social fallout continued to illustrate this merging as the Housing Authority of New Orleans used the storm as an excuse to push through its long-held goal of demolishing the city’s public housing projects, while simultaneously dramatically expanding its police force – in spite of the fact that a large part of HANO’s rationale for getting rid of public housing was that it would reduce crime. These post-Katrina measures were anticipated by the Clinton administration, which began the task of demolishing public housing while at the same time investing in a massive expansion of the nation’s prisons.

My research has been trying to explore the various ways in which this vicious social policy has foreclosed on a vision of the future that has long been claimed as part of a larger US mythology, formerly known as the American dream. And the ways in which various constituencies have tried to fight back. John Arena’s excellent book, Driven from New Orleans, is a sobering account of the ways in which parts of the movement to save public housing in New Orleans were coopted by non-profits that managed to channel opposition into consent; while those unwilling to be sponsored by such organizations often faced insurmountable financial obstacles.

Some are saying that the protests in Ferguson are beginning to look like a movement against not just police brutality but a much larger nexus of social forces including political and economic exclusion. While the police have done their best to crush what has on the whole been peaceful gatherings in Ferguson, their determining role in escalating the violence has paradoxically cemented the opposition: human rights lawyer Purvi Shah, after being tear gassed, tweeted: ‘To the police: you just organized a bunch of freedom fighters. Thanks.’

These freedom fighters have much to teach fans of Neighbourhood Blues. One of the most disturbing scenes of the episode I watched depicted police officers at a Humberside stadium, coaching supposedly disaffected teenagers in the dos and don’ts of riot policing. The message seemed to be that you need to catch them while they’re young: get them on the right side of the law. As the presenter told us, the stadium’s booking room for suspected criminals is nicely transformed into a classroom – another detail that sent me back to New Orleans and the increasingly militarized discipline of post-Katrina ‘no excuses’ charter schools, in which students are subjected to silent lunches, walk on yellow lines, and for which school authorities are exploring various technologies that will track eye movement to ensure that students are following lessons.

This is of course not the scene of Neighbourhood Blues. Britain’s school children have for too long been subjected to the damaging and dangerously short-sighted meddling of former education secretary Michael Gove, but schools in impoverished neighbourhoods here are not yet holding sites for a career in prison or the army. And undoubtedly, the police youth programme in Humberside is well-meant (though it should perhaps also be noted that UK police are no strangers when it comes to the harassment of protestors and racial minorities). But the bizarre idea that the police be tasked with addressing the ‘blues’ that arise in neighbourhoods rapidly abandoned by a retreating welfare state suggests that we may not be too far behind. And the fact that the UK’s most mainstream tv channel – BBC One – is busily conscripting its viewers to the cause of ‘law and order’, and the idea that the police might have the answer to the problems of social exclusion, suggests that we may already have silently consented.


The Natural History of Memory: New Orleans and water

I was meant to be going to Ghent University today to participate in a symposium titled The Natural History of Memory. This will be a fascinating meeting of scholars across a large spectrum of disciplines, all engaged in some way in memory studies, who want to say something about memory’s relationship to environmental agency – or rather the way in which environmental agency might shape/ interrupt memory. To be honest I can’t quite get my head round what ‘the natural history of memory’ actually is or might mean, which is part of what makes the title of the gathering for me so provocative and compelling. Unfortunately due to industrial action on Belgium railways I’m not going to be able to make it to Ghent. So I thought I’d post my paper here instead.

A preface to this piece: my work is really only tangential to memory studies, but increasingly my research on post-Katrina New Orleans has become about temporality: the intersection between what I am thinking of as an ‘American time’ (the time of an ‘American Century’ that seems to have run its course), ‘Katrina time’ (a term used after Katrina to describe the fate of many pre-charge detainees held in New Orleans prisons who were literally ‘lost’ in the system, which I am appropriating and expanding in my work as a way of describing not only mass incarceration but also its larger context, the time of a neoliberal capitalism that has no vision of a future, or indeed the past; a collapsed temporality that challenges the narrative of progress and optimism intrinsic to ‘American time’) and what I am trying to formulate as ‘New Orleans time’, a time that resists both the fantasy of ‘American time’ and the nightmare of ‘Katrina time’. This particular event gave me the opportunity to think about the place of water in New Orleans’ cultural memory – part of the city’s ‘natural’ history that I think is central to what I am calling ‘New Orleans time’.

Published under a Creative Commons licence

Published under a Creative Commons licence

Unfathomable City: Excavating Urban Ecologies after Katrina

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a number of populist slogans emerged in New Orleans to express dissatisfaction with the disastrous government response to the storm and the subsequent flooding of 80% of the city. One of these slogans was ‘make levees not war’. While some felt that the government’s disinclination to protect its own citizens resulted from benevolent adventures abroad, too much time ‘helping’ those in Afghanistan and Iraq while the home front suffered, for most this slogan was indicative of a more thorough-going critique of the war in Iraq and the response to Katrina on the part of a hollowed out neoliberal security state. What’s left unsaid is the physical and discursive violence inflicted by the levees themselves, structures that have literally and imaginatively waged war on water.

This paper suggests that the city’s water management policies mean that disasters like Katrina are over-determined by a discourse of trauma, which in turn conceals the ‘slow violence’[1] of long-term environmental degradation and coastal erosion. And yet the city’s curious amnesia in relation to its watery foundations is offset by other cultural spaces that powerfully bear witness to New Orleans’ deeply precarious project of urbanization. These spaces register an environmental agency that profoundly shapes understandings of temporality and the formation of public memory in the city. 

Water as trauma

Despite the fact that it was obvious from the perspective of engineers, urban planners and environmentalists that it was only a matter of time before a Katrina-like catastrophe occurred, it was politically expedient for government representatives to cling to the idea that the storm was an unanticipated rupture. They could get away with this largely because most New Orleanians experienced the storm, and in particular the failure of the levee system, as a profound trauma, and hoped only to be delivered back into a state of normalcy. This perception of normalcy is in large part based on a policy decision made in the early twentieth century, which in turn evolved from attitudes towards Southeast Louisiana forged by the early colonial settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

On discovery of the mouth of the Mississippi River, European explorers realized that the settlement of the area that became New Orleans was environmentally hazardous but economically indispensable. As a city that had been in decline for decades prior to Katrina, it’s easy to forget that New Orleans was once one of the world’s great ports, described by one nineteenth century observer as ‘the most important commercial point on the face of the earth.’[2] According to geographer Pierce Lewis New Orleans is the “impossible but inevitable city.” And as Craig Colten writes in An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2005), ‘keeping the city dry, or separating the human-made environment from its natural endowment, has been the perpetual battle for New Orleans’.[3] Consequently the city’s historic core is huddled along the natural levee that lines the Mississippi River. As New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella explains, while states were increasingly granted federal powers to build levees and drain swamps from the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the city committed to a ‘levees only’ approach, pushed by military engineers and challenged by civilian engineers who argued that it was dangerous to make no concessions to ‘nature’.[4]

The ‘levees only’ approach coincided with the development of pumping technologies that enabled the city’s vast backswamps to be cleared for development that sprawled towards the lake on reclaimed land. Already a flood-risk due to its low-lying topography, this land, along with the rest of the levee-bound city, is sinking at an alarming rate. This is due to the fact that the levees themselves deprive the land of the natural sediment carried in water that builds more land. And so the levees are repeatedly raised as New Orleans descends into a giant bowl, vulnerable not only to storm surges but to the enormous volume of rain dumped on it by increasingly frequent hurricanes, requiring massive pumping stations to prevent the city returning to the swamp-like conditions from which it has gradually emerged during the course of the last hundred years.

As Richard Campanella argues, short-sighted approaches to water management means that the region’s repressed waters are ‘waiting to create a mega-catastrophe every 50 years rather than small disasters every couple of years.’[5] This policy ensures that Katrina-like catastrophes are experienced as trauma, a category so easily appropriated by ahistorical and short-termist authorities eager to conceal their ongoing role in courting disaster. ‘Trauma’ wielded as ideology is a rupture that anticipates recovery, a spectacular interruption into the everyday as opposed to part of that everyday.  Where after 9/11 the ideology of trauma secured a simplistic binary of victim versus perpetrator, after Katrina the myth of disaster exceptionalism eclipsed the myriad ‘ordinary crises’ that the storm temporarily illuminated.

According to Lauren Berlant, ‘“trauma” has become the primary genre of the last eighty years for describing the historical present as the scene of exception that has just shattered some ongoing, uneventful ordinary life that was supposed to just keep on going and with respect to which people felt solid and confident.’ But ‘the extraordinary always turns out to be an amplification of something in the works, a labile boundary at best, not a slammed-door departure.’[6] It is the very slammed-door departure represented by the levees themselves that so magnifies the effects of flooding and creates the slammed-door effect of trauma.  This slammed-door not only confined the discussion of the social disaster revealed by Katrina to a few news cycles at best, but also blinds us to the environmental catastrophe facing the Louisiana wetlands. The fastest depleting landmass on earth, water reclaims marshy land at the rate of about one football field every hour. A large proportion of this damage can be attributed to the vast system of oil and gas infrastructure that has turned wetland into open water. As New Orleans sinks, its natural flood protection in the form of barrier islands disappear. This is the slow, non-spectacular and human-engineered violence walled out by levees and a discursive context wedded to a false sense of security punctuated by violent and sometimes catastrophic interruptions. 

Water as culture 

New Orleans’ roads are dotted with potholes, the sidewalks buckled by tree roots and often impassable. Tripping up on roads in the affluent Garden District can add to its gothic appeal; in poorer neighbourhoods this simply contributes to the atmosphere of neglect. While roads are more rapidly fixed and paved over in wealthier and more touristy neighbourhoods, the city’s concrete and asphalt surfaces all over the city betray the persistent existence of water that won’t be tamed. As one planner puts it, ‘we’re living on the isle of denial, and we’re living in denial, because we don’t accept this condition of wateriness.’[7]

In an essay titled ‘The Cement Lily Pad’, Rebecca Snedeker asks us to

Imagine New Orleans as an emerald green lily pad, a healthy circulatory system with the vitality and structure that comes with hydration. A floating city, with skin that breathes, within a delta coast. Let us saturate ourselves with wonder, let us embrace and fathom the water in the city. Or prepare to visit this place with a snorkel.[8]

This essay is part of a collection of maps and essays curated by Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit, that attempt to capture a host of circulatory systems and trace their intersections within New Orleans’ complex urban landscape. Many of the maps place one vector in relation to another, often creating unexpected juxtapositions. What is striking is that water runs through and often defines most of these ecologies. Founding and draining the city, coastal erosion and its effect on Native peoples, the racial and economic spatialization of the city which is in turn profoundly shaped by topography; the issue of human burial, an enormous challenge in a location and climate that often collude to turn graveyards into swimming pools; the transatlantic slave trade and its cultures of resistance; when oil displaces water, as it did during the BP oil spill or following those other, unnoticed accidents that occur in the Gulf every day; the strategies of containment inherent to both levees and mass incarceration; the cultural significance of proximity to mud; seafood and sex. These watery maps with fluid boundaries excavate a city that has already in part opened the metaphorical floodgates to water, which inevitably shapes much of the city’s DNA, in spite of the fact that for much of the city’s history, the Mississippi River – New Orleans’ raison d’être – has largely been obscured from view.

From multiple perspectives these maps explore the specificities of a culture that has evolved from a city residing ‘at the bottom of a big river’. In his commentary on a map about the journeys made by human remains, Nathaniel Rich suggests that the city, known in the nineteenth century as the ‘Wet Grave’, is peculiarly determined by this ‘other city’ of the dead; one that breaks through the film of what is usually a culture’s unconscious to manifest itself in distinct ways in New Orleans. It is clear to any tourist visiting the city that this is a place engaged in the sale of death; from its famed above-ground cemeteries to its zombie tours, the city’s ghoulish imagination is fuelled by something that runs deeper than merely commercial interests, and can be traced back to inordinately moist soil that refuses to bury the dead. As Rich writes, ‘New Orleans may be subsiding, but its corpses continue to rise.’[9]

The way these aqueous conditions preserve human remains is mirrored back into an urban culture often named as the nation’s ‘premier city of collective memory’,[10] an antidote to national amnesia that reigns elsewhere in relation to the not so distant slave and imperial pasts – that are captured in contemporary New Orleans in all their shades of grey and in a violence that still warps the landscape. In spite of the clichés about New Orleans that often reduce it to a national pleasure zone, it should also be considered a national sacrifice zone. As Lydia Pelot-Hobbs explains, elites in New Orleans ‘have crafted systems of containment to address their fears – most notably, fear of the destruction wrought by flooding of the Mississippi River and fear of the threats to their power posed by the rebellions of black people against the dehumanizing violence of racism and white supremacy.’ New Orleans is ‘the most incarcerated city, in the most incarcerated state, in the most incarcerated nation in the world.’ Slave labour constructed some of the city’s earliest levees, and following the catastrophic flood in 1927, during which the city leaders intentionally flooded a working class parish to save the city for business, ‘black sharecroppers and imprisoned people were forced at gunpoint to work during downpours to sandbag the levees, and at times to actually lie down on the levees, using their bodies to increase the height of the structures.’[11]

Where mass incarceration does not really target crime but rather warehouses people deemed disposable by a neoliberal economy, the use of levees provide walls behind which unregulated and deeply irresponsible development can draw residents into increasingly unsafe spaces to live. Prison and levee walls provide a veneer of security while storing up social and environmental time bombs. But knowledge of this is not entirely absent from the archive: as the founder of New Orleans’ Ashe Cultural Arts Center Carol Bebelle told me in an interview, this a city in which people walk around with the memory of boats floating over their heads.[12]

New Orleans’ deeply precarious location, the levels of environmental risk and social despair that its histories have incubated, lead many commentators to question the sanity of choosing the Crescent City as a place to live. Billy Sothern’s map of the city’s ‘revelations’ contemplates New Orleans’ many cultural compensations: he suggests that concern for these larger issues fade ‘when you sit on your porch and watch the world’s most amazing theater of people talking, yelling, dancing, eating, set against our amazing vernacular buildings and among our magnolias, crepe myrtles, swamp lilies, and Louisiana irises.’ Sothern evokes a culture that meets despair ‘with a constant call to the immediacy of the present.’[13] This call manifests itself in the city’s myriad parading traditions which routinely bring large parts of the city to a standstill. Mardi Gras is only the most prominent example in a cultural context that provides a powerful riposte to the national Protestant work ethic.

The New Orleans tradition that most clearly disrupts conventional notions of temporality, and calls us to the present moment in all its pleasure and pain, is the jazz funeral. As Tom Piazza writes:

Most funeral traditions in our society are there to remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In New Orleans the funerals remind us that Life is bigger than any individual life, and it will roll on, and for the short time that your individual life joins the big stream of Life, cut some decent steps, for God’s sake … This isn’t escapism, or denial of grief; it is acceptance of the facts of life, the map of a profound relationship to the grief that is a part of life.[14]

This acceptance of death in life is part of a larger appreciation of what Piazza calls ‘thereness’ or, in other words, a present that is accentuated by an acute awareness of finitude. The jazz funeral is a remarkable example of the proximity between pleasure and plain at work in the African American blues tradition, expressing an ecstatic grief that might be compared to forms of jouissance, that joy that exists ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ and which Jacques Lacan associated with the death drive. The jazz funeral is part of a raft of parading and performance traditions in New Orleans that recognize and celebrate finitude in ways that not only contradict a national culture fixated on the future, but which also attest to the city’s irrepressible foundations in a fluid that both represents life and holds out the possibility of drowning. These are urban cultures that are often described as having ‘bubbled up’ from the streets, those buckled sidewalks that gesture to a city visibly labouring under – and dancing to the tune of – myriad social and environmental stresses.


In their introduction to the New Orleans Atlas, Solnit and Snedeker point out, as do so many introductions to volumes on the Crescent City, that while New Orleans may be ‘drenched in the past’ it is geologically one of the youngest places in the United States, ‘a region of soft alluvial soil that turns to mud, melts away, and erodes into the surrounding waters’. Their introduction places the city under the sign of annihilation: it is ‘imperiled, and may disappear altogether’; though its place in the cultural memory of the US, they suggest, is assured. Yet their cartographic interventions tell a different story. The city may be one of ‘amorphous boundaries’, but their maps represent the human endeavour to carve out pictures, to draw straight lines that do not really exist.[15]

For this reason the ecologies they map resist not only the kind of poststructuralist rendering as exemplified by someone like Timothy Morton, whose work criticizes deep ecology while echoing its mystificatory conception of ‘nature’ via a new name.[16] It also resists the courting of the death drive so central to New Orleans culture, the tendency to focus on the material present at the expense of imagining the future. A love of life that often harbours a disturbing fatalism. As one contributor asks, ‘how do you turn being muddy into a positive?’[17] (120) – without, we might add, losing the critical negativity that so defines this place in collective memory. This is the challenge Unfathomable City sets itself.

After Katrina so many planners sought to re-map New Orleans, some powerful interests advocating the very footprint reduction evoked by Rebecca Snedeker in Unfathomable City, by which vast tracts of low-lying land would be conceded to water. Unsurprisingly these were sites inhabited by some of the city’s poorest and largely African American residents, many of whom have since become familiar with an environmentalism that sacrifices people, as well as another kind that emphasizes justice. It seems to me that the work that needs to be done to counteract memory loss in relation to environmental agency needs to work simultaneously to track human agency; a fallacious distinction perhaps but also a strategic necessity. Maps are imperious constructions – they attempt to fathom that which is unfathomable – but we are lost without them.

[1] I am thinking of Rob Nixon’s elaboration of this term in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[2] Quoted in Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008), 91.

[3] Craig E. Colten, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 2.

[4] Richard Campanella, ‘Disaster as Educator: Responses and Lessons in New Orleans, 1722-2012’, presented as a keynote talk at After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South, Tulane University, New Orleans, November 2013.

[5] Campanella, ‘Disaster as Educator’.

[6] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 9-10.

[7] David Waggonner quoted in Rebecca Snedeker, ‘The Cement Lily Pad’ in Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker (eds), Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 154-158 (157).

[8] Snedeker, ‘The Cement Lily Pad’, 158.

[9] Nathaniel Rich, ‘Bodies,’ Unfathomable City, 34-36 (35).

[10] Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) 7-8.

[11] Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, ‘Lockdown Louisiana’, Unfathomable City, 55-61 (55; 58; 59).

[12] Carol Bebelle, interview with the author, Ashe Cultural Arts Center, New Orleans, 4 December 2013.

[13] Billy Sothern, ‘On a Strange Island’, Unfathomable City, 37-47 (37).

[14] Tom Piazza, Why New Orleans Matters (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 31-32.

[15] Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, ‘Sinking in and Reaching Out’, Unfathomable City, 1-12.

[16] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[17] George Porter Jr., ‘The Floating Cushion’, Unfathomable City, 116-120 (120).


Ghost Children in London, Walking in New Orleans

Exploring New Orleans' magical City Park

Exploring New Orleans’ magical City Park

A series of reports this week are showing that many UK school children and their teachers are exhausted, over-worked by an economy and political context that fails to support workers, families, or the flourishing of those little people who are already born into a world over-shadowed by the carelessness, greed and the general over-reaching of a generation who showed little regard for the future of the next. No doubt like many parents, I watched these reports feeling vaguely complicit, totting up the weekly hours that my not-yet-three year old currently spends in childcare: 32. Not quite a full-time job but nearly there. As an academic I have the luxury of flexible working hours that means I can see a little more of my child if I am prepared to work most evenings and sometimes long hours into the night. This arrangement can make me feel a little ghostly at times, but I am privileged to have a choice not open to most.

Some irritating TV reporting wanted to turn this bold and important statement by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers into ‘another way to make parents feel guilty’. But as representatives of the teachers’ union repeatedly stated, this report is an indictment not of over-worked parents but rather the social and political context that shapes the conditions of precarity that govern most working families’ lives, wherein wages are decreasing in real terms while the cost of food and rents rise. Redundancies loom on the horizon. And the rich get richer.

These reflections on our time-poor worlds intersect with some current work I’m doing on notions of temporality in New Orleans, and specifically the idea that in the City that Care Forgot, time is there in abundance. This is of course in large part a packaged, commodified sense of time offered up by a tourist industry serviced by over-worked and underpaid ghosts. Ghostly in more ways than one – until Katrina ‘opened up’ the city (in profoundly ambivalent ways) these workers resided in neighbourhoods all-but-invisible to visitors to the city huddled in the historic parts of town that line the Mississippi River. In tourist areas, especially the French Quarter, time is wound back for the visitor who is encouraged to imagine themselves into the leisured existences of the nineteenth century (white) Creoles or simply partake of the pleasures – largely alcohol and sex – that have since the nineteenth century been on offer in thoroughfares like Bourbon Street. By the 1940s, the city’s boosters had realized that there was serious money to be made by promoting New Orleans as in a charming but terminal state of decline, an ambience that might provide an ideal respite from the relentless drive of the ‘American Century’, where notions of progress, capitalist enterprise, and above all, work, defined the social and political context of postwar US families.

It goes without saying that this vision of New Orleans is as much a mirage as the myths that fuelled the idea of the ‘American Century’. People in New Orleans work hard, and are exploited as they are elsewhere. The idea that this ‘Caribbean city’ is somehow inefficient is part of a racialized stereotype that afflicts many service economies where the majority of inhabitants, and indeed workers, are non-white.

And yet one can’t help feeling that there is something real, and indeed transgressive – if ultimately elusive – behind the designation ‘New Orleans time’.  On one of my last days in the city in December, I found myself sitting on a parked streetcar – the driver had just darted off into the nearest shop to get herself a drink. She was thirsty, she told the carriage. As a Londoner, where train companies face financial penalties if they don’t run on time, I was a little amazed. Good-naturedly (it seemed to me), the other passengers awaited her return (while I tried to suppress my irritation and enjoy the moment: I was late for a meeting). After recounting the story to a friend of mine she commented: ‘that’s the old New Orleans – I didn’t imagine that kind of thing happened anymore.’  She was referring to the sense that the post-Katrina gentrification, the wave of transplants who have invaded the city with money and education and ‘social capital’ – pushing out many long-time residents in the process – have irrevocably changed the city’s cultural landscape, making it less distinctive, more like anywhere else in the United States. The irony is of course that many of these people came because they wanted to help the city get back on its feet, and stayed because they too were pulled in by the lure of ‘New Orleans time’.

The city’s annual calendar of festivities is enough to indicate that there is indeed a different way of experiencing time in this city. Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest bring in enormous revenues, not least because they are major tourist attractions. But it would be foolish to suggest that these events hold no appeal for locals of all stripes, even if, like Mardi Gras, they incubate troubled racial histories. And these are only the most prominent events in a year-long calendar that insists on the need to regularly take ‘time out’. The weekly newsletter issued by my daughter’s nursery without fail listed at least a couple of festivals taking place at the weekend – local, outdoor events typically combining music and food, hosted by local church, musical or cultural groupings and, it seemed to me, attended largely by locals. All cities host festivals of various kinds, but New Orleans is particularly committed to events that celebrate public space.

The Second Line is perhaps the most prominent way in which the city collectively underscores the importance of street life. Almost every Sunday, with the exception of the hottest weeks of the year, a social aid and pleasure club accompanied by a brass band dances out into a particular neighbourhood, accumulating followers as it makes its way through the streets. Though Second Lines are particularly vulnerable to hijacking by tourists and transplants, their roots in historically black neighbourhoods highlight their trajectory as grassroots cultural institutions that have bubbled up from the streets, as opposed to top-down spectacles created for tourists. As Helen Regis has shown, these parades represent the reclamation of city streets from a rhetoric that has overwhelmingly associated black neighbourhoods and the city in general with crime.

New Orleans has in many ways followed the trajectory of many US cities in the second part of the twentieth century, suffering white flight and the loss of a tax base, leading to a decaying and majority-black urban core surrounded by mostly white, affluent suburbs. And yet the sheer magic that has arisen from New Orleans’ streets means that its culture is still celebrated – if constantly fetishized and coopted. The focus on preservation and tourism meant that the French Quarter was spared the proposed freeway that would have blocked access to the Mississippi River. The city’s historic legacy means that there is still a strong orientation to what is often seen as its ‘spiritual core’ towards the river, despite the environmentally hazardous draining of the backswamp in the twentieth century that dramatically expanded the city lakewards and contributed to LA-style sprawl.

That said, New Orleans is still a car culture, with all the emphasis on privatized space that this entails. Having grown up in London, I never learned to drive. On arrival in New Orleans, this quirk was largely smiled at: New Orleans is a great city to walk around, everybody told me. But, with shadows forming around the face, it does get really hot here, and when it rains… These anxieties were well-founded. No city is fun to walk around without a fully functioning public transportation system to shift the distances or shelter you from inhospitable weather. And though I have never enjoyed walking through city streets as much as I have in New Orleans – those oak corridors in the Garden District, the lace balconies of the French Quarter, can be breath-taking – the sidewalks were not designed with pushchairs in mind. In fact, as I soon realized, in a car culture, ‘stroller’ – the US term – really is the right word for what I call a ‘buggy’. It’s not about getting from a to b, but rather ‘strolling’ between car hops. And it became clear to me while in New Orleans that these vehicles are the sign of the wealthy: I did an almost daily commute on the city’s maddeningly infrequent buses between my daughter’s nursery and home. Not once did I see another buggy – an object that now by law has to be collapsed on a New Orleans bus, and which is still in everybody’s way. A clunky indulgence, seemed to be the general view. An oddity in itself that made me wonder how all the mother’s with babies and toddlers in arms on the bus could get around.

If the freeway can be seen as one of the signs of US modernity in the latter part of the twentieth century, then New Orleans has in part resisted this version of the ‘modern’, along with the obsession with time-keeping that goes hand in hand with an administered world in which people move swiftly between the home, the school, and the workplace in the individualized space of the car. Its twentieth century suburban developments alongside its celebrations of street culture and valued inner core show New Orleans to be a battleground between a Robert Moses-style planner and a Jane Jacobs-style urbanite, the one privileging the car, the other the pedestrian.

New Orleans’ suburban orientations were particularly apparent at Halloween. Given its privileging of the festival and the prominence of the gothic and indeed the dead in the city, it is no surprise that by mid-October, New Orleans’ buildings are draped in spiders and the windows peopled by frightening mannequins. As I explored some of the more elaborate Halloween displays in Uptown, it became clearer to me that this had become in some respects a suburban festival which quite rightly and ironically identifies the deeply unhomely qualities of the home. Single-lot houses bedecked in Halloween paraphernalia – warning against and warding off entry into the home – seemed to quietly suggest that fears of the street are in part projections of something emanating from the inside.

Our neighbour's inviting Butler, Halloween 2013

Our neighbour’s inviting Butler, Halloween 2013

Suburbanization is partly responsible for making city spaces, in feel and in reality, unsafe. As Jane Jacobs reminds us, ‘eyes on the street’ can play their part in policing crime. The deserted streets of the feared inner city mirror the deserted streets of the car-dominated suburbs. New Orleans, notorious as a murder capital in the 1980s and 90s and still plagued by high crime rates, is no exception.  Apart from the French Quarter, which teems with people for 24 hours a day, New Orleans’ streets are very quiet after dark, and a number of taxi drivers have picked me up from bus stops – after ridiculously long waits –  in horror at my stupidity for being on them alone. After Katrina, public transportation in the city was scaled back, the city’s only free hospital shut down, public housing demolished, the city’s school system largely privatized. The ‘right to the city’ has been seriously curtailed.

And yet a different attitude to the notion of the public, the street, and to time, lives on. Carol Bebelle, founder and director of Central City’s Ashé Cultural Arts Center, eloquently summed this up for me in an interview. She was trying to explain why, in her view, New Orleans ‘is not like anyplace else.’ ‘It begins with the process of bonding,’ she said. If you ride the – admittedly infrequent – public transportation system for a month here, she explained, and then disappeared, people would wonder where you had gone. ‘You can make a community on the bus, in church … once you have established the pattern of being together.’ Bebelle was referring to something I had experienced: those long awaited buses – and well-populated bus stops (at least in the day time) – were full of people who wanted to pass the time of day. By the end of our three months in the city, my daughter and I had indeed built up a ‘community’ of people that we regularly talked to during our daily commute.

Talking of the qualities which attract newcomers to the city, Bebelle explained: ‘there is something about living an authentic life, where you have a human connection, which essentially outweighs a bunch of other things that folks might think are really more valuable.’ What Bebelle was describing was a set of cultural rituals – that encompass but go far beyond rituals like the Second Line – that transcend market values. Bebelle suggested that this difference can be explained by African and Caribbean traditions that live on in this city through ‘the dance of dialogue, the dance of connection, which is present all the time’ and speculated that such characteristics can be found ‘in indigenous people wherever you find them.’

This is the rooted aspect of many New Orleans neighbourhoods that has been threatened, but not altogether destroyed, by the upheavals following Katrina, the neoliberal assault on public life. One of the many ironies that attends the post-Katrina city is that ultimately, if the centralized, Jane Jacobs-style pedestrian city has partially won out, it is now wide open to gentrification fuelled by the slogans about the very ‘mixed-use’ accommodation Jacobs championed, which sounds good in theory but which in practice typically drives out low-income families.  The re-occupation of city centres across the US, and particularly in New Orleans, is underway.

US-style anti-urbanism is largely foreign to the European setting, and yet it is likewise a relatively recent scenario that has made places like central London unaffordable for all but the privileged few. That said, we still have an idea of the public commons and a social safety net which means that those looking after young children in the city can do a host of activities for free. One O’clock clubs, the embattled Sure Start Centres, still run invaluable programmes, in contrast to New Orleans, where it seems that few activities specifically designed for children come free from a commercial context. The local toyshop put on lots of great events, but even if the parent can resist the pressure to buy at the end of it they will likely be faced with a tantrum. And New Orleans’ Children’s Museum is a wonderful place to play, if you can afford the entrance fee, cope with the branding (the model supermarket is a Winn Dixie’s) and stomach the emergence in December of Christmas trees proudly adorned with objects produced by Louisiana’s petrochemical industries (responsible for the stretch of the Mississippi – between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – known as ‘Cancer Alley’).

And yet it is clear that in spite of the commercial assault, in spite of the fact that many Charter Schools are doing their best to create a generation of ghost children, a different order of priorities still circulates in the Crescent City. In the context of nearly 50% unemployment among African American men, who often reside in parts of the city that, like much of urban America, have in the last part of the twentieth century been devastated by the overseas outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, it’s important not to romanticize ‘time out’ from work. But it is remarkable that under such difficult circumstances, pockets of New Orleans sustain community rituals that don’t just transcend but also challenge market values. These rituals represent priorities that the over-worked zombies who fly around the very efficient mass transit system here in London might look to, if they weren’t so exhausted.



David Cameron’s ‘Katrina’


Chertsey floods 2014. © Copyright Alan Hunt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Chertsey floods 2014. © Copyright Alan Hunt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The press have now accused Obama of having at least three ‘Katrina’ moments: the Haitian earthquake, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and even, most weirdly, the inept online introduction of ‘Obamacare’. Where the first is classified as a ‘natural’ disaster, the second ‘environmental’ and the third ‘political’, these labels entirely fail to capture the complex agency at work in these events. The press have for a while been flirting with the idea that the widespread flooding of large parts of the UK as a result of successive winter gales perhaps represents Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘George Bush’ moment. By this they refer to the fact that George W. Bush’s approval ratings plummeted following the government’s disastrously inept response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many think that it also sealed the fate of the Republican Party in the next election.

If only this were such a moment. Cameron’s coalition government is responsible for major cuts in Britain’s flood defences, now overseen by an Environment Secretary who is openly sceptical about climate change – a process that the vast majority of scientists now believe is indisputable. As sea levels rise, vast swathes of the UK are under threat, with an estimated one-sixth of properties in England and Wales at immediate risk. As much of Somerset sits under water, the memory of Cameron on skis in the North Pole during the run up to the election in 2010 – an embarrassing spectacle designed to demonstrate his ‘green’ credentials – makes one feel a bit queasy. In an un-self-conscious moment the leader of this austerity government told the press that in responding to the floods, ‘money is no object’. Such a statement carries painful ironies for the growing numbers who are now relying on food banks as a result of the government’s cuts to the benefits budget. It’s hard not to conclude that the UK government has a US-style scenario in mind, in which the rich, paying next to no taxes, have money to burn, where others go hungry. Such was the society unveiled by Katrina in 2005.

The UK government is politically wise to respond generously to the plight of the flood victims: unlike those vilified here for ‘welfare dependency’ or those stranded in New Orleans after Katrina, these people have – rightly – been constructed as deserving citizens. BBC reportage in particular has presented a homey vision of the flooding (the levels of which are nothing like those seen in New Orleans in 2005), featuring neighbours coming together and pensioners heroically settling down to sleep on chairs in their wellies, their feet submerged beneath water. Mild criticism of the government has been voiced in relation to its ‘mixed messages’ and ‘disorganization’ but the overwhelming impression given on screen is that these people are fending for themselves, and they are cheery about it.

This is all a bit too good-humoured. It fuels the ‘little-Britain’ mentality that has led to the Daily Mail campaign to pressure the government to re-divert its already stingy foreign aid budget to domestic flood victims. And David Cameron and his government need to be punished at the polls. Not least for the fact that they have quietly sacrificed vast areas of the UK that are not deemed economically significant – a policy that echoes the Army Corps of Engineers’ neglect of the New Orleans levees, and the US government’s lack of commitment to restoring the Louisiana wetlands, the fastest disappearing landmass on earth. And yet the idea that this might be Cameron’s ‘Bush moment’ is too easy. It risks reducing the implications of changing weather patterns, likely to have ever more devastating effects, to the agency of one man.  It lets us off the hook, gives us someone to blame, relieving us of the far more scary implications of climate change.

In the UK, people like to talk about the weather. This may seem strange to those accustomed to the more extreme fluctuations of continental climates, but even the temperate system here offers vast variations within just a few hours that observers like to constantly comment on. Even so, it was a weird experience returning from the hurricane season in New Orleans to a country seemingly obsessed by the weather. Against all predictions, the US Gulf Coast was treated to an unusually inactive season this year. In contrast, Britain has been battered by successive storms for about three months. Levels of rainfall are unprecedented. It is a peculiar feeling witnessing these storms with the awareness that they may bring with them something of the reality of climate change. This sense is compounded by the fact that these weather events are not isolated, exceptional, but ongoing, and likely to get worse. In contrast to the Katrina moment, which, in the words of Richard Campanella, made most New Orleanians (understandably) ‘crave normalcy’ and anticipate its return, the floods in the UK, we are increasingly told, may represent the new normal.

One of the major problems with public perceptions of climate change is that it challenges and transcends short-term temporal frames upon which politicians and society alike rely. Constant battering by the weather has the ability to alter consciousness in relation to this ‘slow motion’ disaster. The other big problem with getting the message out about human-induced climate change is the question of agency.

As has been the case for a while, commentators committed to exposing the realities of climate change have wrestled with this dilemma – make the problem seem too large, people will feel overwhelmed; but make the problem seem too small and people will do nothing. Another way of putting this dilemma is: under-emphasize human agency, people will view the changes as natural and themselves as innocent onlookers; over-emphasize it, people will either play a reductive blame game or they will may decide that recycling plastic bags is the answer. None of these approaches capture the measure of the enormous challenge presented to us by climate change. Standard graphs charting carbon emissions from the industrial revolution should be enough to convince us that humans are responsible for global warming. And yet increased storm activity in the UK, along with the many extreme weather events that have struck places around the world, often with cataclysmic results, suggests that human beings are not in control of the climatic shifts that they have probably played a major role in unleashing. Scientists and journalists have conveyed this idea through the notion of ‘runaway’ climate change – the moment at which human beings are no longer able to pull the climate back from the brink. Many are saying now that we are already beyond it.

It’s become a standard rhetorical move in commentary on Hurricane Katrina to emphasise its ‘unnatural’ status as a disaster. Some like to describe the effects of the levee breaches in New Orleans as a ‘federal flood’. Bush in particular is singled out for severe treatment. Key moments like Kanye West’s unexpected comment on live tv – ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ – were important for the fact that they captured popular anger towards a state that has all but abandoned its most vulnerable citizens. Such moves offer satisfying polemic but are ultimately reductive. George Bush did not single-handedly create the conditions for grotesque racial and economic disparities in New Orleans, neither did he invent the militarized security state that responded to the victims as though they were enemies of war. And he certainly can’t be held responsible on any individual basis for warming weather and the increased likelihood of severe hurricanes, in spite of the fact that he oversaw an administration that possibly did more than any other to wreck agendas to combat climate change. The record suggests that a Democratic administration would not have done much differently.

For years relatively conservative bodies have been issuing climate predictions that read like science fiction. The idea that related instances of disaster can be compartmentalized and reduced to the figure of Bush or Obama or Cameron suggests that human agency is all. And yet this is the essence of our deeply problematic relationship to the environment, that which we imagine as a somehow external and separate ‘natural world’. It is a colonial mindset that has meant that developing countries have already paid a devastating price for western industrialization. The greatest cost for those in the global South may be yet to come, but changing weather patterns in the West suggest that we reap at least some of what we sow.

Under human stewardship, this earth is losing thousands of species every year, dramatically reducing biodiversity. If we don’t simultaneously adopt attitudes that hold our governments to account for reckless environmental policies and embrace some humility in relation to a world that cannot cope with our current demands on its resources, some scientists are suggesting that human beings will be all but extinct by the end of this century. Talking about ‘David Cameron’s Katrina’ is largely a rhetorical matter, but it says something about the simplistic lenses we like to deploy to frame disaster. David Cameron is a good metaphor for a society that has sacrificed compassion and care to the logic of the market. But we can’t blame all this on a two-faced politician and his Arctic adventure.




Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, 21st Century American literature and US decline

The young of DeLisle are hunted: this is the frightening message of Jesmyn Ward’s new memoir, Men We Reaped. Ward’s book is essential reading for anybody who wants to get to grips with the new America that is emerging in the twenty-first century, one whose predatory, survival of the fittest environment seems to have lost its redemptive gloss in the age of the so-called war on terror and the mass incarceration of its citizens. Ward’s memoir tells the story of the victims of the hollowed out security state, abandoned to the logic of the market, systemic racism and a nation whose inexorable decline is signalled by the fact that it has lost its vision of the future.

In the first few pages we are told that DeLisle, a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, was named ‘Wolf Town’ by early settlers. ‘When people ask about my hometown, I tell them it was called after a wolf before it was partially tamed and settled. I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery’. Ward’s subsequent book is a journey into the heart of this savagery, a world of shrinking opportunities and soul-destroying poverty. It tells the story of five young black men nurtured and stalked by the wolf – DeLisle is an ambivalent place, loving as well as crushing – who died between 2000 and 2004. These are Ward’s friends, her cousin, and, at the book’s heart, her brother. The memoir is her attempt to make sense of the enormity of her loss, to pay tribute to the hunted and begin the search for the ‘thing’ – or, as the book suggests, the ‘nothing’ – that is out there, waiting.

The structure of the book peels back various layers of contemporary history to reveal something of why these young men, as Ward put it to me in an interview, had ‘slipped through the cracks’, why they ‘had really pessimistic, fatalistic ideas about what their lives would consist of, and about their futures.’ And, ultimately, why their fatalism was horrifyingly prophetic: why they were allowed to die.

American literary endeavours that have wanted to highlight a nation that has lost its way is no new thing: this literary landscape is full of prophetic voices – ‘jeremiads’ as they have come to be known in American studies – that have wanted to illustrate the gap between the American dream and the American reality. African American voices have played a very particular role in this project, so often positioned as whistleblowers in relation to the national myth. Witnesses not to a unique experiment in freedom, as the United States was imagined by its founders, but rather to the consequences of slavery, imperialism, state-sponsored terrorism, enduring racialized poverty.

And yet this narrative in the twentieth century has not been bereft of a redemptive horizon. The idea of ‘America’, the dream of a meritocratic society where the conditions of your birth need not determine your destiny, sustains the prophetic economy of the jeremiad, even in the work of a writer like Toni Morrison who has been so instrumental in reminding contemporary America of the horrors of slavery and its afterlife. Jesmyn Ward’s book signals a new departure in this context, whereby hopes for redemption give way to a theme for a less idealistic, more pragmatic age: survival. ‘We are savage’, the closing lines of the book read.

This is the age of government roll-back and privatization, a neoliberal age that invests in short-term gains for the very few at the expense of a future for all. As Angela Davis told a crowd at Tulane University in New Orleans in November, this is the age of the prison-industrial complex that warehouses human beings: ‘today, there are more black men in prison, and under the direct control of a criminal justice agency, than there were enslaved in this country in 1850.’ The hunted eyes of the young men Ward follows are the products of this miserable system: they have no vision of the future. ‘This isn’t some exceptional thing that is only happening to us’, Ward explains, ‘this is happening to communities around the United States.’

These disturbing visions of what some have named the ‘living dead’ are arguably a new apparition in twenty-first century US narrative: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), to take just two examples, are similarly populated by these broken human beings that suggest that the nation’s ghosts have finally caught up with it. These materialized ghosts point to the end of the so-called ‘American Century’ – that moment of post-war optimism which briefly envisaged rising living standards for all – and the terminus of the dream of endless progress. They tell of the decline of a nation that, in contrast to Old Europe, has long defined itself by the future.

Ward’s book represents a new trend in US writing which suggests that the triumphal American moment is now over. African American voices and bodies still carry the burden of this realism, but Ward’s text strongly resists the long-held idea, one still floating in the age of Obama, that they might also be the nation’s redemption. This potentially complex idea was frequently expressed by Martin Luther King, and too easily adopted by white liberals as a salve to their consciences.

Men We Reaped offers no such consolation. It tells the story of a very particular place and community, of crushing racism and poverty. But those lucky enough to remain untouched by such pressures should not kid ourselves: we should all feel hunted by the thing that stalks the young of DeLisle.


Gone With the Wind in London

Plantations between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, 1858

Plantations between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, 1858

‘London’s a horrible place,’ Bonnie exclaims to her mother, Scarlett – on return to the family home in Atlanta – and to an amused London audience. There was something almost ritualistic about this viewing of Gone With the Wind at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank. As my sister murmured to me about thirty minutes in to this 4-hour epic, it was clear that like us, many in the audience knew all of the words. But what does this romanticization of the Old South, this apologia for slavery, have to say to a twenty-first century London audience? What had made us all give up such a large chunk of our time-poor worlds to watch a film that most of us had clearly watched many times before?

According to a British Film Institute report in 2004, Gone With the Wind, first released in 1939, is the most popular film of all time at British cinemas (according to this 2008 poll, Margaret Mitchell’s novel, which is much more overtly mired in the South’s racist politics, is in the US second only to the bible in popularity). These are discomforting statistics given the film’s indefensible sub-text. As we clumsily tried to convey to one of my sister’s friends, who we bumped into just before the start of the film – who happens to be mixed race, was watching the film for the first time, and who had come out for an ostensibly cosy evening of viewing with her mother – there are some tricky aspects to this film.

‘Yes it’s really racist’, she responded uncertainly, ‘but you have to overlook this, right?’ My sister shifted awkwardly. No. But. But what is this but? How could we defend the embarrassing fact that this film has been one of our favourites since childhood? An attachment formed long before I envisioned myself as an academic with interests in African American literature, culture and politics, invested in the idea that an awareness of the horrors of the slave past is crucial to addressing contemporary manifestations of systemic racism in the US and elsewhere.

This was one of my first evenings out since returning from New Orleans, and a strange welcome home given that one of the few things I was eager to leave behind in that city was the ever-present sense that the racial past is endlessly repeating itself, mutating into new iterations of inequality, power and control. Yes, twenty-first century Britain is far from colour-blind, but … other forms of wilful blindness are clearly in operation. Perhaps certain aspects of London are not so far away from Louisiana after all.

Part of my research this autumn involved visiting some of Louisiana’s many plantations. In New Orleans’ French Quarter you are inundated with tourist literature that invites you to step back into the hazy world of the antebellum plantation. Plantation tours draw huge numbers of tourists in this region. They can vary in tone. Laura Plantation – which stresses its ‘Creole’ identity – is proud of its ‘realistic’ approach to history, which includes in its celebration of the ancestral home a brief visit to the slave cabins. This was a business, is the message, and French slavery wasn’t quite as vicious as the Anglo variety that followed. Oak Alley Plantation is possibly more typical in that its female guides are decked out in period costume, and visitors are encouraged to sip a Mint Julep on the veranda in order to re-create that ambience of southern leisure.

View from the balcony at Oak Alley Plantation

View from the balcony at Oak Alley Plantation

At this point it is impossible to avoid the obvious fact that we are being invited to identify quite directly with the white slave masters and mistresses. Not that they are being identified as such. Since my first visit to Oak Alley in 2011 things have changed slightly. There now appears on the front of the house a list of its various possessions and their estimated worth, and this includes an extensive list of human beings. Where on my first tour here, I had to ask the guide where the slave cabins would have been located, this time we were directed to a new exhibition that seeks to re-create, in a decidedly un-nostalgic register, various aspects of the slave experience. The new exhibit is not part of the standard tour but, as our excellent guide – who was not afraid to go off script – noted, it is long over-due.

And yet the script remains: at the start of the tour we are told that the owners, Jacques and Selena, acquired the plantation ‘along with 57 slaves, and they began to build their dream home’ (in 2011 this buried reference was the only official nod to slavery). The families who lived here are humanized through various anecdotes – some of which reveal, we are told, a ‘tragic history’ – but they come most fully alive in the context of their object world. It is the origins of the lace trimmings on the bed covers, the style of dining chairs, the architectural tricks that kept them cool in summer, the quaint ornaments on the mantelpieces, that we are invited to dwell on. Never mind the fact that these families imagined those labouring outside, where unimagined and unspeakable tragedies were undoubtedly unfolding, as part of their object world, their long list of possessions. These families are human beings because they owned things, they are consumers. 

This unhappy fact does not fit nicely with twenty-first century idealizations of consumerism (which routinely turn a blind eye to the deeply exploitative labour conditions – that often amount to modern forms of slavery – that make much mass consumption possible). These tours, I realized on my most recent trip, are designed primarily to appeal to and feed our obsession with owning, designing and furnishing our homes. The creation of such atomized worlds is a process of sealing ourselves off against society’s less comforting aspects, and indeed society itself. In order to enjoy these tours, we must repress our knowledge of the gothic potential of the house – which might come to feel more like a prison than a home, especially in Louisiana.

And it is this gesture to twenty-first century consumer habits that for me partially unlocks the continued appeal of Gone With the Wind. Crucial to any contemporary reading of this film’s pernicious fairytale is its depiction of ‘happy slaves’ and their gentle masters. This is a world of ‘chivalry and honour’, where members of the terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan are presented as gentlemen defending an embattled ‘way of life’. As with most instances of southern nostalgia, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this ‘way of life’, this romanticized myth of the confederate ‘Lost Cause’, ultimately boils down to the right to own slaves. And yet as Margaret Mitchell insisted, this world is ‘gone with the wind’; instead, and at the centre of our screens, I would argue, is a vision of the future.

There are few scenes in which Scarlett O’Hara is not at least visually present if not central to the action. (I can only recall one, when Ashley and Melanie overlook Twelve Oaks from a balcony, immediately prior to secession and war). Scarlett is typically described as a ‘southern belle’, and yet her fate is quite the opposite to that of Blanche DuBois, the fading belle at the centre of A Streetcar Named Desire, again played by Vivien Leigh in the famous film production in the twilight years of her own career. The character that animates Tennessee Williams’ play is an embodiment of the dying fantasy of the Old South that must give way to a new world represented by the brash and brutal qualities of Stanley (Marlon Brando). In Gone With the Wind it is Scarlett herself who adapts – more successfully than any other character – to the changing dynamics of a new southern order engendered by the industrialized North. As Scarlett insists to scandalized onlookers: ‘I’m going to make friends with the Yankees and beat them at their own game.’

‘You are no gentleman’ Scarlett indignantly tells Rhett early in the film. ‘And you are no lady’ is his immediate reply. This theme is constantly reiterated as the two independently and then together accumulate wealth – wealth initially condemned by Mammy as ‘not quality’. As Rhett tells Scarlett, ‘you and I are alike, selfish and shrewd to the end, but able to look things in their eyes and call them by their right name.’ Scarlett and Rhett are realists and survivors, constituting not only the centre of the film’s romance but the focus of audience identification. It’s not that we should deny the deeply disturbing fact that the film presents a clear justification for slavery – portrayed as a kind of ‘civilizing’ institution in contrast to the northern alternative. But we also need to note the significance of this alternative: despite the film’s captivating depiction of Scarlett, within its discourse she comes to represent a less ‘civilized’ order, one that is perhaps closer to our own.

Scarlett in particular is a seductive character because she is not only strikingly beautiful (as played by Leigh) but outrageous and says things we might not dare to say. Her character comes to be built on the lesson that ‘money is the most important thing in the world and I don’t intend ever to be without it again’. Scarlett is not at all squeamish about the pain and suffering on which her own fortune comes to be built. Where the sentimental Ashley insists that his own father treated his slaves kindly, and that he himself would have happily freed them all when his father died, Scarlett insists on relying on the labour of convicts to work her mill, giving the overseer ‘a free hand’ to discipline them as he likes. For Ashley, this is much worse than the slave labour deployed in his father’s day; for Scarlett it is the same.

Though the film itself supports Ashley’s view – the antebellum South had been a world of honour and kindness, in which happy slaves lovingly worked the plantation – as viewers we are nonetheless positioned to identify with Scarlett’s ‘realism’. And we should blush in doing so. Contemporary audiences are obliged to see beyond the binary that says slavery was part of an agrarian, pre-capitalist order, for better or for worse, and instead recognize the continuities between the slave system and its capitalist heir. Scarlett’s practice of exploiting the labour of prison inmates continues into our contemporary late capitalist world. Indeed, the growing practice of prison tourism is an uncanny echo of plantation tourism, not least because some prisons in the South are built on the sites of former plantations.

Gone With the Wind presents us with false alternatives, a sepia-toned past and a brashly ‘realistic’ present, the one that we can’t believe in and the other that we invest in at our peril. Because we know the slave past depicted is a fantasy, the film enables us to adopt a similar frame for Scarlett, our vision of the capitalist future. The film’s fantasy mode enables us to compartmentalize our various reactions – we can love the Scarlett who wants to show off to her snooty neighbours by owning and lavishly adorning her superior home, while turning a blind – or, worse, an overly indulgent – eye to the hard-headed business woman who deploys what amounts to slave labour. While the film duplicitously depicts Ashley’s horror at this exercise in exploitation, it shows Scarlett’s lack of scruples as part of her overall frivolity. She’s outrageous isn’t she?

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave offers a powerful corrective to this fantasy. Given that showings in the UK almost coincided with the re-release of Gone With the Wind, one wonders if it shouldn’t have been offered to audiences as a double bill. Where David O. Selznicks blockbuster represents one of the most outrageous whitewashings of slave history, 12 Years A Slave arguably goes further than any other major film to date to look the horrors of slavery fully in the eye.

Glimpses of slave cabins at the Laura Plantation

Glimpses of slave cabins at the Laura Plantation

The slave-owning households in McQueen’s film are gothic without even trying to be. What the film so powerfully shows is the complete corruption of the slave-holding class by the institution from which they egregiously profit and which determines their social world. We are perhaps somewhat prepared for the depiction of the sadistic slave master but less for his female accomplice, whose own oppression in this patriarchal system often manifested itself in a malicious need to take revenge on the slaves themselves; particularly slave women who seemed to present as sexual rivals. Even the wife of the gentler slave master, Ford, dishes out a very cruel ‘comfort’ to the distraught Eliza, who has just undergone the unthinkable experience of being separated from her young children: ‘Your children will soon be forgotten.’ These ‘dream homes’ conceal nightmarish worlds that admit the humanity of nobody.

The centre of identification in 12 Years a Slave without question falls squarely on the film’s central protagonist, Solomon Northup, whose identity as a freedman is stolen in New Orleans where he is symbolically re-named ‘Platt’. The power of this story for contemporary audiences lies in the fact that it opens with the representation of a free man. None of us were born into slavery in the sense that American slaves were, but we can all imagine ourselves subject to a case of mistaken identity, whereby we are kidnapped into an unthinkably awful and exploitative scenario, as is the case for Solomon. Unlike the subjects of most slave narratives, Solomon begins his story as an educated, skilled man leading a middle class existence. Indeed, in an opening scene we find Solomon and his family in a shop – clearly enjoying the prospect of making purchases, if Solomon seems a little anxious about price where his wife does not. This free black family are thus explicitly identified as consumers.

At this point in the film another black man, clearly under some kind of condition of servitude if not slavery, enters the shop – seemingly transfixed by the image of black freedom that Solomon and his family appear to embody. His keeper soon follows, interrupting the shopkeeper’s assumption that this black man is a potential customer, and apologising for the ‘intrusion’. ‘No intrusion’, responds Solomon, though without looking this other black man in the eye. It is an interesting moment in the film, not least because it punctures the rather rosy image of life in the North for this free black family; an image contradicted by so many slave narrators who routinely note their disappointment on discovery of the fact that the North is not some utopian land of the free but rather characterized by a racism with which we are now all too familiar. This moment highlights the precarious nature of the Northup family’s free existence, which itself relies on a hermetically sealed, fantasmatic bubble. Solomon might wish to defend this enslaved man but at this stage in the film, he decidedly does not identify with him. Solomon is a consumer where this other man is an object of consumption. The difference between them constitutes Solomon’s sense of his own humanity.

And yet Solomon’s status as a free black person relies on a slippery legal category, one that is contradicted by southern mores so only really functions in the North – an exception within a system that on a national level recognizes the legality of slavery for the vast majority of black people. It is the unfeasibility of this position, in practical and moral terms, that by the end of the story transforms Northup into an abolitionist. As the film’s action begins to unfold Northup’s initial outrage is at the fact that he – a free man – has been falsely made over into a slave. By the end of the film the outrage no longer circulates around this specific, individual predicament, but rather is focused on the institution of slavery itself. Those painful moments in between see Solomon slowly moving to identify with other slaves, a process that punctures his initially firm belief that his educated, middle class and free identity somehow separates him from this unfortunate group of people. One poignant moment on the swampy Louisiana plantation – a stunningly beautiful location, which makes its role as backdrop for unspeakable scenes of cruelty and violence particularly striking – shows Solomon initially half-heartedly articulating the words to a slave song about redemption, and singing at the top of his voice by the end of the scene.

When Solomon is returned to the safety of the family home in the North we feel a palpable sense of relief. This scene is itself painful. Solomon’s wife’s reticence to physically embrace him contrasts sharply with the scenes of farewell with Patsy. His need to ask his family forgiveness seems to trace a return to a middle class consciousness: he is asking forgiveness for his condition, for the fact that he has lived as a slave. But this quiet and awkward family reunion is also deeply moving, gesturing towards the ‘unspeakable happiness’ Solomon imagined when he asked Bass to send the letter that would ultimately deliver him into freedom. Solomon has escaped, and so have we.

But have we? The film’s action does not include Northup’s subsequent politicization, but this move is summarized prior to the closing credits. In the terms established by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), it is as if Solomon’s experience has engendered the discovery of the veil of race, one that he floated above in earlier years only because of a wilful blindness, a fantasy that secured him and his family in the safety of an atomized, middle class existence. Where identification with Scarlett O’Hara – as an individualist, a selfish, egotistical consumer – is a guilty pleasure, one that seems to be thoroughly complicit with twenty-first century capitalist subjectivities, identification with Solomon by the end makes you feel unworthy. His leap (from empathy to politics) is not ours – or only in the fantasy space of the cinema.

Due to a mix-up with our babysitter I managed to miss 12 Years A Slave while I was in New Orleans, and didn’t get to see it until after my troubling yet enjoyable viewing of Gone With the Wind. Initially I was disappointed not to see McQueen’s film in what felt like the more appropriate setting, but now I’m not so sure. The New Orleans setting might have enabled me to more thoroughly compartmentalize its implications, geographically if not temporally. But a city built on the wealth created by the slave trade, intoxicated by consumerism and speculation, polluted by vast amounts of money controlled by the very rich at the expense of the rest of society, is perhaps quite an appropriate location after all. In this sense, Bonnie is right, ‘London’s a horrible place.’

After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South


Photograph courtesy of Gilbert Mercier. All Right Reserved.

Photograph courtesy of Gilbert Mercier. All Right Reserved.

It’s not really the place of the conference organizer to declare the occasion a success or summarize its shortcomings. Which means I’m probably not the best person to reflect on the gathering of great and diverse minds on November 15 at Tulane University to discuss the ways in which the consequences of Hurricane Katrina are still shaping our understandings of the future of New Orleans – a future that is being called upon as a kind of ‘test case’ for the rest of the United States and the world.

But having now listened back over the rich and varied conversations that went on during that day, I’d like to do a little more than simply make the audios available online and slowly draw the material into my academic writing. In the first session of the conference, Nick Slie suggested that ‘in New Orleans we give you unconditional love first, make you earn it later’, an idea picked up by a number of people throughout the day. This article is a small offering to all of you who responded so positively to the invitation of a stranger and an outsider to give up your time and share your stories and insights.

This conference was for me the culmination of many conversations I’ve had with various people who have generously given their time to talk to me about their work in New Orleans over the last few years. By trade, and when I’m not teaching, I work with texts, not people, but my work on post-Katrina New Orleans has taught me that the life of a city cannot be found in books alone. This piece is offered not in the spirit of academic critique, which can often devolve into an unpleasant process of splitting hairs, but in the spirit of reflection and exchange: a spirit that animated a gathering which encompassed myriad and often conflicting viewpoints that, if not always in dialogue, somehow managed to exist respectfully and often provocatively in the same room. These are the narratives that emerged for me.

Richard Campanella: the failure of the levees

Richard Campanella’s keynote, ‘Disaster as Educator: Responses and Lessons in New Orleans, 1722-2012’, offered a whirlwind tour of 290 years of disaster history in this region. Campanella’s historical narrative told of fires, epidemics and hurricanes that repeatedly threatened to erase the young city from the map in the eighteenth century. It told of a nineteenth century New Orleans that was ‘remarkably resilient to its many disasters’. With the vast majority of the population living on higher ground and in higher density, with a landmass that had not yet sunk below sea level, the many floods and hurricanes that battered the city in this century did not lead to major catastrophe as we saw in 2005.

The collapse of the levees and subsequently all urban systems that occurred following Katrina can partly be blamed on the disastrous ‘levees only’ approach adopted in the early part of the twentieth century and shaped by military-trained engineers who saw the river as an enemy as opposed to something to be managed and even accommodated. Deprived of the ability to deposit the sediment that builds the land, the Mississippi River and its many tributaries, as Campanella explained, then threatened ‘to create a mega-catastrophe every 50 years rather than small disasters every couple of years’.

The lull in hurricane activity that opened up in the 1970s and 80s gave way to ‘an unfurling social disaster’ of white flight and middle class exodus to the suburbs, leaving the inner cities deprived of a tax base and the basic infrastructure necessary for people to prosper. ‘The theme here,’ Campanella explained, ‘is that slow subtle social forces have a greater impact, at least in our case, on the city’s destiny, than epic disasters.’

Kalamu ya Salaam: ‘the levees did not fail’

Social disaster was a theme that punctuated Kalamu ya Salaam’s keynote, which addressed not racialized poverty as it developed in the 70s and 80s but rather the grotesque inequalities that have animated the process that has not felt like recovery to many who suffered Katrina. Addressing ‘fellow New Orleanians’, paraphrasing Frederick Douglass and taking the occasion to task, Salaam distanced himself from what he implied was a ‘celebration of a new metropolis rising from the ashes and debris of an old and inundated city’. As the title of his talk powerfully put it: ‘What to us Negroes is your “New” New Orleans?’

Salaam’s talk similarly focused on disastrous environmental decision-making – in particular, the construction of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet – that exposed vast numbers of people to harm’s way. ‘This is a massive failure at all levels of government from city, to parish, to state, to federal government,’ he reflected. ‘Or is it?’ This is where Salaam’s talk decisively departed from Campanella’s themes.   

‘Perhaps this is not a failure but instead is the very real intentions. The motherfuckers were trying to kill us.’ This last note led Salaam back to slavery’s middle passage to consider the distance between the origins of black America and the contemporary Lower Ninth Ward. Contemplating the destruction of the natural wilderness in the Lower Ninth as well as the painstakingly slow redevelopment since Katrina, Salaam asked: ‘Is it any wonder I do not celebrate the redevelopment of New Orleans? What do I, a child of Lower Nine, have to celebrate?’

I don’t want to live anywhere where they have

 tried to kill us even if it was once a place

 I called home—but still and all, my bones

 don’t cotton to Boston, I can’t breath

 that thinness they call air in Colorado,

 a Minnesota snow angel don’t mean shit

 to me, and still and all, even with all of that,

 all the many complaints that taint my

 appreciation of charity, help and shelter,

 even though I know there is no turning back

 to drier times, still, as still as a fan when

 the man done cut the ‘lectric off, still,

 regardless of how much I hate the taste

 of bland food, still, I may never go back,

 not to live, maybe for a used to be

 visit, like how every now and then you

 go by a graveyard…

 As Joel Dinerstein, who was chairing the session, pointed out, the theme here was sacrifice: ‘What is life without a home?’ But this isn’t just any home, as Salaam’s lines imply – a sentiment that was echoed throughout the conference. Salaam’s talk, which ranged across times and spaces, offering a critique of white supremacy and American democracy, was animated by the approximately 100,000 African Americans who have not been able to return home to New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath; a city that prior to the storm boasted higher numbers of native born residents than almost any other major US city, meaning that it had nurtured some of the most close-knit African American communities in the nation – communities that gave birth to much of the culture for which New Orleans is famous.

The threat posed by Katrina to these communities and thus to New Orleans in general returns us to a theme of Campanella’s talk and the seductive post-Katrina metaphor of the blank slate; as Campanella put it:

This metaphor, the tabula rasa, wiping the slate clean, was erroneously applied after Katrina – completely erroneously – because 300 years of inscribing value into place and space, through the erection of a built environment, through emotional and social and economic ties, Katrina’s floodwaters couldn’t even come close to wiping the slate clean, despite that we use that metaphor over and over.

 Nativism versus the newcomers

This metaphor of the blank slate seems particularly fitting and disturbing in the New Orleans context. Aspects of mainstream US mythology have so embraced the idea of the ‘blank slate’ – with its somewhat contradictory connotations of wiping the slate clean of Old World corruption and tyranny, and the fantasy of empty lands to be colonized (with its logic of subjugation which is anything but the repudiation of oppression); hence the mythic level playing field is subverted by hierarchies in the first instance. New Orleans, on the other hand, is often said to have partially resisted the processes of ‘Americanization’ due to its stubborn attachments to Old World connections – European and African – which defy the model provided by the ‘blank slate’. As Linetta Gilbert pointed out in the last session, the maintenance of some of these connections, particularly to outmoded European forms of governance, has meant that the city has often been ruled by a corrupt oligarchy; but some scholars have also suggested that central to ‘Americanization’ is the black/white binary, which clearly deeply marks the New Orleans landscape, but perhaps not deeply enough to disable those cultures of resistance that are arguably best understood as indigenous.

It is this discourse of indigeneity that has fascinated me ever since I arrived in New Orleans in September, and which ran beneath the surface of so many of the conversations at the conference, including Salaam’s keynote and much of Campanella’s scholarship on the city. Hannah Kreiger-Benson was not the only participant keen to acknowledge that her moving to New Orleans in 2007 meant that ‘I speak from that experience, and only that experience’. So many of the day’s introductions involved the telling of ‘Katrina stories’: personal narratives that situated the participants in relation to this now all-important temporal division alongside their spatial coordinates vis-a-vis New Orleans.

Residing in the city prior to Katrina did not necessarily mean native status – according to the 2000 census the city boasted a native born population of 77% and it is notoriously attached to the idea of nativity: long-time residents not born in New Orleans rarely escape being known as a ‘transplant’. But pre-Katrina residency did mean that you were not part of the post-storm influx of newcomers who have come to be associated with the processes of gentrification – an issue first raised by Catherine Michna who was chairing the first session – that have marked the city’s reconstruction.

The post-Katrina success story: success for whom?

As Nick Slie put it in response to Michna’s suggestions, ‘a lot of people are now in New Orleans living ahistorical lives’. Slie illustrated this idea by referring to the ‘progress train’ that he imagined running through the post-storm city, and which in turn gestures to the notion that the change that the storm brought is both positive and, perhaps, I think, all-American: the national narrative of progress is one that has not been fully extended to a city that resides on the margins of the nation’s imaginary. New Orleans’ long cultural memory has historically, it could be argued, subverted the amnesia of a future-bound national culture. But it is precisely this memory that is under threat: ‘You can live with the progress now, and you can just jump right on the progress train and do your art and whatever it is you’re doing, but you don’t have to sit in the deep 100 year history of people’s families, where they came from.’

Slie’s comments come in response to the narrative often spun by the media that the ‘success story’ that the post-Katrina city has become known for is partly due to the influx of young, often highly educated entrepreneurs who have boosted the New Orleans economy. As a number of people suggested, this doesn’t mean much to the 53% of unemployed African American men who live in the city. Neither does it take into account the fact that what so many see as under threat in post-Katrina New Orleans are cultures and values that notably transcend the market.

The paradox of gentrification: New Orleans culture and market values

Brice Miller’s contributions to the last session on post-Katrina futures captured the complicated and thorny nature of a debate that is often over-simplified by the all-encompassing and divisive – though necessary and inevitable – term, ‘gentrification’: ‘I’m a native of New Orleans, born and raised, son of a jazz musician … the indigenous cultures of the city are very relevant to who I am as a person… this culture is being celebrated and attacked by the exact same people.’ Miller elaborated: ‘If it wasn’t for the music and the culture, New Orleans would just be another bland place and nobody would be interested in it. It’s important that we understand the culture is much more than just a profiteering system, that it’s a way of life for people.’ For Miller, the post-Katrina push towards regulation has endangered the musical cultures that draw newcomers who often then become part of the system that threatens these same cultures.

While this makes no sense in economic terms by threatening what is arguably the tourist trade’s most valuable commodity, it is perhaps the logic of economics that needs to be marginalized: as Ron Bechet suggested in the first session, ‘art and culture is a manifestation of the people, and when we try to commodify it is where we run into problems, and I think that’s some of what’s happening here.’ The commodification of art in the city is perhaps the corollary of other public spaces that have, in Katrina’s aftermath, been transformed by the logic of privatization and the market.

‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste’

The idea that the post-Katrina city has become a kind of laboratory for neoliberal engineering is fairly well-known: Naomi Klein noted these patterns in her 2007 book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which documented what Klein saw as the dismantling of the public sphere in post-Katrina New Orleans. The demolition of public housing that occurred in Katrina’s wake was interpreted by many as a cynical move on the part of authorities that had long wanted to remove supposedly ‘blighted’ projects from prime real estate. As Lawrence Powell, Tulane historian who spent the earlier part of his career working in public housing, suggested in the last session, it was clear to him that ‘as soon as the city could figure out a way to get rid of them [public housing residents], they would. Katrina was a classic example of “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”’ Powell elaborated: ‘Nobody wants to reconstitute those challenged communities as they were, but it’s a terrible, tragic thing, to push people out of their homes, whose families maybe have been in this city for eight generations.’ A similar story might be told about the closure of Charity Hospital and the sacking of thousands of public school teachers after Katrina to make way for Charter schools.

Noise ordinances are one example of the attempt to drive from the public sphere musical cultures that have long ‘bubbled up’ from the streets in the city. The increasing reliance on non-profits as a way of funding the arts is possibly another. See the discussion here. And yet art also, as many pointed out, should represent and imagine alternatives. The first panel on ‘Art after Katrina’ provided a number of examples of people engaged in projects that have been rejuvenated as a consequence of the storm.

As Carol Bebelle, founder and director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, explained, after the storm ‘Ashé’s light became like a beacon when New Orleans’ lights went off’. It became a nerve centre for the community arts scene in Central City, and occasioned the realization of a vision that had not taken off before Katrina. Bebelle summarized Ashé’s central goals: ‘culture and art and equity … and learning from a past that’s not done well by everyone.’ She elaborated: ‘Artists have always been trash to treasure people. You give them nothing and they make something out of it… And so to create a landscape where that’s possible is really what I would say, from the Ashé philosophy, is what we’re reaching for.’ But Slie’s comment on his own work with Mondo Bizarro seemed to apply here too: ‘its an approaching, it’s not an arrival.’

Rebecca Mwase continued this theme. She is one of the many actors and theatre-makers who arrived in New Orleans after Katrina. As Mwase suggested, ‘one thing that I’ve continually reminded myself of since I moved here after Katrina is that I know less than I think I know and I’m always aware and curious about the stories that I don’t know yet.’ For her, the ‘post-Katrina art scene is about: How can I listen more?’

Art and activism: overcoming the distinction?

The concept of community engaged art to which many of the participants are committed in many respects overcomes the distinction between art and activism that the conference structure partially and somewhat arbitrarily maintained – as was pointed out by Helen Regis who chaired the panel on ‘Activism and Organizing after the Storm’. Abram Himelstein’s Neighborhood Story Project, which he describes as ‘collaborative ethnography …an experiment in reclaiming stories’, is one of the clearest illustrations of the ways in which the control of narrative in the post-Katrina city is directly related to power and the ways that the city has been and is still being re-shaped. Luisa Dantas’ Land of Opportunity feature documentary film and larger interactive website is another: as Dantas explained in the last session, her project’s aim has been to listen to and represent the ‘competing visions of what the future of New Orleans should be, and the different agendas that come into play’.Other art projects like The Porch by Bechet and Willie Birch and the numerous theatre projects produced by Mondo and Artspot Productions similarly centralize the importance of storytelling to the life of the community.

Community organizing emphasizes the more directly political aspects of storytelling to citizen participation. Jordan Shannon’s work with Puentes and New Orleans’ Latino community, Darryl Malek-Wiley’s work with the Sierra Club and the Lower Ninth Ward, Kreiger-Benson’s work with MACCNO (Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans) and New Orleans musicians and Timolynn Sams’ work with the Neighborhoods Partnership Network is all about advocating on behalf of particular communities whose voices have been marginalized or invisible in the decision-making processes that have had such a huge impact on people’s lives after the storm. As Gilbert reflected in the last panel, looking back on her work with public housing, the Ford Foundation, and now Declaration Initiative, ‘policy has to really have meaning for the people who will benefit from it’; and the only way for this to happen is for communities to have a real voice. This is what Sams describes as the Sesame Street methodology: ‘that every person, regardless of what they look like, how they sound, who they represent, is part of the community’s fabric.’

Unfortunately the Sesame Street methodology has not been followed by many of the most influential actors in the city’s reconstruction. As Greer Mendy put it in the first panel, ‘the race and class issue, it slams you, across the face, front and back’. Mendy’s work with the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture located in the Lower Ninth Ward is very aware of the limited funds for community art projects that don’t want to sacrifice their agenda to partner with commercial concerns. ‘Art is a luxury,’ she explained, ‘unless it’s free.’ For her, the agenda has to be about ‘livability’, about survival – an activity that should not be reduced to the dynamics of the marketplace but which has ultimately never been able to disentangle itself from economic imperatives.

The future in a ‘post-survival’ New Orleans

Louisiana's disappearing wetlands

Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands

Linetta Gilbert concluded her contributions to the Post-Katrina Futures panel by stating: ‘I don’t want to believe that you have to be poor and broken to create the blues or create jazz. I want to know that you can play that horn even living in a house that doesn’t leak; that your message is not shaped by your circumstances only … I don’t want the message to go out – that in order to keep the culture of New Orleans that people have to be broken down, disenfranchised and in a bad way to tell their story.’

While so much of the conference was devoted to describing the wrong turns taken by the recovery and reconstruction process, and the various ways in which these turns have been resisted, the last panel in particular addressed the challenge posed by Nghana Lewis, who chaired the session, that New Orleans throughout its history has been absorbing various forms of change; with the implication that the change brought by Katrina should perhaps not be uniformly treated as an ‘unnatural’ distortion of the city’s ‘proper’ evolution. This suggestion also seemed to animate Campanella’s observation that after Katrina people tended to resist change and crave normalcy. Gilbert’s desire to realistically assess pre-Katrina New Orleans, and to discard what she constructed as the romanticization of poverty, proposed one way of coming to terms with aspects of the ‘new’ New Orleans.

The ways in which the reconfigured city has exacerbated often racialized inequalities led Himelstein to state: ‘I don’t experience the rebuild as a total success… I’m not living in the city that I wanted, and I didn’t necessarily fight all the fights I wanted to fight in the last eight years.’ Echoing Salaam’s keynote and some of Himelstein’s disappointment, Malek-Wiley described a Lower Ninth Ward being slowly redeveloped by citizens whose determination, commitment and work is under the government radar and beyond their concern: ‘it’s a jungle down there.’ Willie Birch sounded this note of unease about the future of the city’s culture repeatedly from the audience.

And yet all conceded that there was value in some of the newness, with Malek-Wiley embracing the levels of post-storm volunteerism as ‘amazing’. Recalling the Saul Alinsky model, Himelstein said of the post-Katrina newcomers:  ‘its really about whether this relationship is going to be permanent, it’s about whether or not I should invest in being close to you … I don’t have the energy to greet all the people who come with good intentions and tell them my stories … I just want to be here with those people who are going to stay here.’

This sense of the need for continuity and perseverance in the fight for social justice strongly animated Sams’ and Shannon’s contributions. Sams suggested that if communities in New Orleans continued to see their efforts at change-making as atomized ‘campaigns’ as opposed to a larger ‘movement’, ‘we will win some battles but the war will be lost’. Shannon’s theme was similar, when she referred to the Congress of Day Laborers’ recent and unexpected victory against discriminatory immigration policies and suggested: ‘I think we can sell our communities short and go after what we think we can win, instead of what justice looks like, and this was something that actually went after justice and got it.’

The idea that we need to look at the bigger picture and play a long game, one that isn’t just about reactive campaigning in what feels like an emergency situation, seemed to inform Amber Wiley’s suggestion that what we are now dealing with is a ‘post-post-Katrina New Orleans; we’re not in the post-Katrina era anymore.’ Wiley’s own work as an urban historian and teacher of students of architecture – who, she explained, view themselves as the planners of the future – encapsulates the tension between the past and future but also suggests that the need to reflect on and preserve the past must not stand in the future’s way.

Miller’s related suggestion that this new ‘post-post-Katrina’ space might be described as ‘post-survival’ pointed to a new frame for a New Orleans in which Katrina is at least decentred as a reference point. Certainly when I began to organize this conference I heard a lot about ‘Katrina fatigue’, though everywhere there is evidence that the city has yet to move on.

It strikes me that there is much value in thinking of ‘post-survival New Orleans’ in a comparative vein that both acknowledges New Orleans’ distinctiveness and recognizes that the experience of Katrina-like catastrophes is not unique. Dantas’ work, which has begun to compare the Katrina story with that engendered by Hurricane Sandy, provides a necessary reminder that disaster situations only highlight forms of social abandonment that already existed as ‘slow violence’. The comparison is also a reminder that disasters are not social levellers but rather exacerbate inequalities. In this sense the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of Katrina merely provides one vantage point among many to view the city’s evolution; its ‘unfurling social disaster’ and its rich material culture, the one which cries out for amelioration and the other that calls for preservation.

Postscript: New Orleans and the transnational

It also strikes me that another way of envisaging ‘post-survival New Orleans’ is to open it up to comparisons with the rest of the world. The title of a conference is only ever a provocation, and it struck me as very interesting that it was the future of New Orleans, and not transnational perspectives, that took centre stage. A number of people have suggested to me over the last few months that New Orleans is like a magnet that draws you in: the local often proves so compelling that you have to defeat irresistible centripetal forces to gain perspective on the rest of the world. Initially this surprised me: this city had always seemed to me to be so open to its outsides, so clearly marked by the African and European influences that represent its most prominent anterior worlds. But this unexpected suggestion now seems right to me. The deep roots that mark the lives of so many that live here, and which were so violently displaced after Katrina, are about stability and place, values that don’t sit well with the mobility implied by the transnational.

And yet, as Carol Bebelle suggested to me a couple of weeks after the conference, the daily rituals that celebrate the value of this place are deeply marked by African and Caribbean ancestors that live on in the city. Some have argued that New Orleans’ status as America’s most ‘African’ city partially accounts for the appalling treatment of evacuees after the storm.

New Orleans as a Caribbean city?

My own work is currently trying to make sense of some of this by thinking about the connections between post-Katrina New Orleans and post-earthquake Haiti. These connections go beyond the rhetorical violence done to both sets of victims, but arguably this shared suffering is in part constituted by this ‘beyond’: after the Haitian revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century the New Orleans population doubled in size as a consequence of the influx of ‘refugees’ – slave owners, slaves, and free persons of colour – from the former slave colony of Saint Domingue. These newcomers arguably had a profound effect not only on New Orleans culture and its unique racial make-up in the context of the United States, but also on the perception of New Orleans’ distinctiveness and, by some, often negative, accounts, ‘foreignness’.

New Orleans’ status as a ‘Caribbean city’ did not go unmarked at the conference. Jordan Shannon mentioned that while teaching Latin American Studies at Tulane, ‘I would continually stress to students that we can look to Latin America not only as a source of dictatorial government or poverty, but because people have been combatting forms of oppression and postcolonial structures – that are actually very similar to New Orleans – we can look to these places as innovative sources of solutions’ including cooperatives and other social movements. Certainly the celebration of the public sphere that seems so evident in New Orleans has much in common with these kinds of collectives. Hannah Kreiger-Benson agreed that the Latin American model provided ‘a really fascinating commentary on the city and the way it’s situated in America and also in the Caribbean’.

The conference’s title was in part an invitation to reconceptualize New Orleans’ geographical location, as not only part of a larger Gulf South but also a larger Caribbean eco-system and African and European political ecology. New Orleans absolutely is part of the United States, but paradoxically its own – vexed – exceptional status within the nation might be seen as a gateway for thinking beyond the limitations of US exceptionalism; perhaps beyond the logic of national or regional exception in general.

Some final thoughts from Mexico

Mexico City's wonky angles

Mexico City’s wonky angles

I began writing this piece in New Orleans and continued writing as I travelled to Mexico City. I was fascinated to discover another sinking cultural gem that was also the result of an attempt by human beings to triumph over water and this time build on top of the site of a lake. Campanella’s description of the dangers of the ‘levees only’ approach and Malek-Wiley’s reports on conversations about sustainability in the Lower Ninth Ward seemed to apply here in this smog of pollution and water and cultural productivity. Mexico City is hemmed in between mountain ranges which trap the pollution and create a bowl effect reminiscent of that which surrounds New Orleans. Also the result of the colonial imagination, the site of this city seems even more unlikely, when you witness the stunning Spanish architecture subside, at various rates – creating an uneven, jostling effect – across the city and particularly in its historic centre. The dilemmas described by Campanella in Bienville’s Dilemma (2008) haunt this city too, posing contemporary challenges about land and water use and adaptation to inevitable environmental effects that will have a profound impact on the city and its future ‘livability’.  

Cultural connections were even more pronounced when I arrived in Merida, the capital of the tropical Yucatan, one of New Orleans’ sister cities and located just off the opposite shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Merida, like Port au Prince, is architecturally reminiscent of New Orleans and, in turn, Havana. It boasts a high percentage of indigenous peoples – some say about 60% – who are proud of their distinctive culture and cuisine, eager to preserve their practices against a seemingly encroaching dominant Mexican culture. The culture here contrasts with that of New Orleans in marked ways, but the city’s embattled status, and the sense of abandonment that stalks some of the beautiful Spanish and French colonial buildings at the city’s core – despite the fact that Merida, unlike New Orleans, is often promoted as a social and economic success story – is a reminder of the fact that so much of what seems to be unique to New Orleans are cultural traditions shared not just with the rest of the US but with its Latin and Caribbean neighbours.


This is not to say that New Orleans’ development has not taken these traditions on a unique course, but what the conference seemed to suggest is that the city is a case study of disasters of all kinds – that transcend the Katrina moment – which have miraculously co-existed with astonishing levels of cultural creativity that have much to teach the world. That these two legacies are possibly inextricably intertwined was suggested by Lawrence Powell when he said, ‘New Orleans to me is like a low grade fever, once it gets into the bloodstream it’s really hard to shake it, for all its problems’; and yet there also seemed to be a collective sense that ‘the rhythm of the community and the brilliance of the people’ that so struck Linetta Gilbert after spending some time in the city is currently endangered by ongoing economic, social and environmental disaster that must be averted if New Orleans culture is to thrive.

Thank you

Finally, I would like to thank everybody for coming to join the conversation, and particularly the speakers and panellists: Richard Campanella, Kalamu ya Salaam, Carol Bebelle, Ron Bechet, Luisa Dantas, Joel Dinerstein, Linetta Gilbert, Abram Himelstein, Hannah Kreiger-Benson, Nghana Lewis, Darryl Malek-Wiley, Greer Mendy, Catherine Michna, Brice Miller, Rebecca Mwase, Lawrence Powell, Helen Regis, Timolynn Sams, Jordan Shannon, Nick Slie, Amber Wiley. It was a privilege to work with you all.