I finally got to see the American Experience episode about New Orleans thanks to Schroeder’s heads up. From it, I got the impression that while pre-American New Orleans was no utopia when it came to race relations, it was American values that brought the chaos that lead to institutional racism becoming a way of life in this part of the world:
Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Historian: The amalgamation of the Africans and whites created basically one culture where everybody was accepted, belonged. It worked well because people kind of understood class structure. I mean even though you lived next door to somebody didn't necessarily mean that you are socially their equal. But free blacks as well as slaves had a place in society.That’s what is happening now. A struggle for the soul of New Orleans. The Americans have seen their opportunity to do what they couldn’t do 200 years ago. They want to impose their ways on us and get rid of our local culture.
Narrator: Into this century-old city of some 7,000 people had come the Americans -- English-speaking, Protestant and accustomed to a rigid line between black and white. They had come pouring south from the eastern seaboard and the Kentucky hill country -- most of them bent on making money, and doing so in the American way.
Lawrence N. Powell, Historian: We came in and we wanted to impose our ways on an alternative European civilization. We wanted to impose the English language. We wanted to get rid of the local culture. So there was this struggle for the soul of New Orleans.
American values have been creeping down here ever since the Louisiana Purchase. The rigid race line. The 40-hour work week. The suburbs. The deterioration of the inner city and the public school system. Everything that makes us less a community and more a group of individuals. Everything that separates us from our family, our friends, our culture. Our tribe is in danger.
From the program:
Narrator: "In a few years," one observer concluded, "this will be an American town ... and everything French will in time disappear." It was a prediction that never quite came true.It didn’t come true because the pre-American New Orleanians fought it. And the post-American New Orleanians who got it joined the fight. Can we still be the alternative civilization to the American Industrial Empire?
Inspiration, sometimes, comes from unlikely places. And, I found myself inspired this morning by an urban planner whose motives and opinions I had questioned in the past. Andres Duany:
Apart from the misconceptions of the tourist, I had also been predisposed by the media to think of New Orleans as a charming but lackadaisical and fundamentally mismanaged place that had been subjected to unwarranted devastation, with a great deal of anger and resentment as a result. That is indeed what I found at first. But as I engaged in the planning process I came to realize that the anger I witnessed was relative. It was much less, for example, than the bitterness one encounters in the typical California city plagued with traffic. The people of New Orleans have an underlying sweetness and a sense of humor, irony, and graciousness that is never far below the surface. These are not hard people.Emphasis mine.
Pondering this one day, I had an additional insight. I remember specifically when on a street in the Marigny I came upon a colorful little house framed by banana trees. I thought, “This is Cuba.” (I am Cuban.) I realized at that instant that New Orleans is not really an American city, but rather a Caribbean one. I understood that, when seen through the lens of the Caribbean, New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities. This insight was fundamental because from that moment I understood New Orleans and truly began to sympathize. But the government? Like everyone, I found the city government to be a bit random; then I thought that if New Orleans were to be governed as efficiently as, say, Minneapolis, it would be a different place—and not one that I could care for. Let me work with the government the way it is. It is the human flaws that make New Orleans the most human of American cities. (New Orleans came to feel so much like Cuba that I was driven to buy a house in the Marigny as a surrogate for my inaccessible Santiago de Cuba.)
There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.Emphasis mine.
This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.
America wants to own us. They want New Orleans to be an American town. We must fight.