New Orleans, Land of Dreams, by Kimberley Jane Wilson

Despite what you read in the papers or heard during the often histrionic 24-hour news coverage, Hurricane Katrina didn’t skip over the rest of the Gulf Coast to settle exclusively on the Big Easy.

People in Mississippi and other parts of Louisiana were devastated, but they’re being largely ignored in favor of what reporters see as the bigger, juicier story.

Perhaps it is the race and poverty angle capturing their attention, especially if reporters were naïve enough to be startled to see poor blacks in a part of the Deep South legendary for its poverty.

Maybe the overwhelming attention is due to the fact that New Orleans occupies a peculiar place in America’s imagination that attracts the media.  New Orleans is almost surreal.  “In New Orleans, land of dreams…,” for instance, is what we used to sing in our high school choir.

Undoubtedly, the only people who still harbor romantic dreams about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are long-gone tourists.  The unfortunate souls who were trapped in the Superdome, however, certainly woke up in a hurry.

We all like to dream.  Americans are sentimental, and we love stories with happy endings.  We admire the man standing in front of his flood-damaged house who says, “Rebuild?  Yeah, of course I’ll rebuild, and this time I’ll make it bigger!”  We cheer the steely-eyed farmer who replants after a fire ruins his crops.

Being a quitter is one of the few things Americans still consider shameful, so when Dennis Hastert – the Speaker of the House in Washington – suggested that it might not be a good idea to rebuild New Orleans like it was before Katrina, people raised their voices against him.

Is rebuilding a city that sits below sea level a good idea?  The port of New Orleans is important to national commerce and the city’s tourist areas made money, but the rest of the pre-Katrina city was downright squalid.  People make morbid jokes about Detroit and New York City, but the murder rate in New Orleans was ten times higher than the national average.  The police department’s reputation was poor, and deservedly so.

Americans were shocked by the widespread looting and stories of rape and murder reported (now disputed) in the days after the hurricane, but anyone expressing disgust was chided and told that the perpetrators were poor black people who had no other choice.  But assuming that poor black people are naturally prone to violence is racist no matter how it’s dressed up in high-toned language.

How poor do you have to be to rape somebody?  How poor do you have to be to steal a huge TV instead of taking necessities such as food or medicine?  How poor do you have to be to shoot at the people who are risking their lives to rescue your neighbors?

What happened in New Orleans wasn’t about poverty.  It was about a nihilistic thug culture being was allowed to fester and rot for decades

Is it heartless to ask local community leaders – the preachers, teachers, parents, the mayor and Louisiana’s weepy governor – what they’re going to change once we rebuild their city?

Yes – New Orleans will be rebuilt and the tourists will return.  The image of the city as a wicked, dangerous place will no doubt draw them.

New York City has always cashed in on having a tough image.  At the start of a class trip when I was 13, one of the chaperones gathering us together and raised his hands like an Old Testament prophet.  He dramatically announced that we were in the most dangerous city in the world and woe to those who decided to stray from the group because we’d end up dead or in the hands of a child molester.  The chaperone – a small, prim and humorless man – meant well, but some of my classmates thought he was just being silly.  The rest of us looked at him with wide, expectant eyes.

We were thrilled to be in such a darkly glamorous place such as New York City.  New Orleans has the same effect on many people.

The Big Easy will be back and the good times will roll again, but this time let’s hope it comes back better for all its citizens.

Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and a freelance writer in Northern Virginia.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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