Talkin' trash to the garbage around me.

21 January, 2008

Iko Iko

To be sure, I had a fun time in New Orleans. Friday evening led to jazz on Bourbon Street (although the beer price there made DC prices look reasonable), and on Saturday I got to catch one of the Mardi Gras parades that will be snaking through the Quarter over the next few weeks - I got to watch it from a balcony, which was neat.

But all the fun in the Quarter was jarringly incongruous with everything else I saw and learned about the city during that time. To be blunt, I think that the post-Katrina recovery of New Orleans is the most important (and least talked about) political issue facing the United States. Within the recovery effort are distilled - in their entirety - the problems facing the nation. The privatization of public infrastructure (including - and most germane to my own work - the privatization of public education). Our relationship with the environment (coastal restoration, climate change). Racism. Poverty. Our capacity to deal with disaster and the inevitable dislocations that follow. The erosion of democratic institutions and accountability. All of these conundrums are being stared down, simultaneously and in fast-forward, in the NOLA recovery efforts. I wish I could say that this reckoning was leading towards a positive resolution, but right now, it's an uphill battle.

I wonder what the culture of New Orleans will look like in 20 years - will the vibrancy of the jazz scene, nurtured in the poor neighborhoods, remain so vital? What happens when a city's cultural flower is cut off from its roots, when the people who are vital to cultural reproduction have been displaced, the vast majority of them with no means to return - or indeed, nothing to which to return? Bourbon Street has always seemed a caricature of the culture of the rest of the city, with its neon lights, hawkers trying to cajole you into the nearest strip club, throngs of college kids stumbling down the streets with their slushee cocktails. Bourbon Street will always be there, a kind of adult Disneyland. But what about the little clubs in the quieter sections of the Quarter, or in the rest of the city, for that matter? Will the city be able to sustain the talent necessary to keep these out of the way havens viable?

The post-Katrina recovery has been notably absent from our election year discourse. To my knowledge, John Edwards has been the only candidate to make an issue of New Orleans' revival, but the impact of that effort has been negligible. But it needs to be talked about. The issues faced by New Orleans are our issues, waiting for a storm, literal or otherwise, to force them to the surface. How the Crescent City deals with these issues will serve as a template, for good of for ill (and right now, for the ill), on how we grapple with these issues on a national scale. It deserves to be at the forefront of our own thoughts and of our political discussions.

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