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Larry Blumenfeld on New Orleans After Katrina

Posted on Jul 24, 2009

By Larry Blumenfeld

(Page 2)

Baum’s stories work like good fiction. There are transformative moments that change a character’s course: For John Guidos, it’s sparked by the tease of a classified ad in Penthouse Variations that read simply, “Like to dress? Write the Sorority.” For Tim Bruneau, it’s a short trip over a windshield while chasing down a thug.

The differences between experiences of rich and poor, black and white, uptown and downtown come clear through these lives, but so do the parallels. Despite the acceptance letter from Southern University pinned to her wall, Belinda Carr finds herself “another Lower Nine teen with a baby on her hip.” Like Carr, Billy Grace had his sights set on something else. But soon after college, marriage and a child, “If Billy still harbored dreams of making it in the big world outside New Orleans, those were now well and truly over,” Baum writes. “The Rex mansion’s gravitational pull had drawn him inside. … ”


book cover


Nine Lives


By Dan Baum


Spiegel & Grau, 352 pages


Buy the book

Joyce Montana learns to sew and bead elaborate Mardi Gras Indian suits from her husband, following a tradition passed down almost exclusively by men. And Billy Grace notices that, in New York, “it was always the women who seemed to invite them places and organize get-togethers. Their husbands just seemed to go along. He realized then how different was New Orleans from the ‘real’ world. With all the events on a Mardi Gras krewe’s calendar, it was the men of uptown New Orleans who piloted their families’ social calendars—the balls, the coming-outs, the luncheons—not the women.”

At one point, Baum describes Grace, captain of Rex, meeting Tootie Montana, Chief of Chiefs among Mardi Gras Indians. Yet the moment proves fleeting, meaningless: Despite their parallels, these two traditions represent New Orleans universes that rarely connect in a substantive way.

The primacy of culture as a binding and elevating force in New Orleans is one prominent theme. After Joyce Montana’s son Darryl lands in prison, he talks to his mother about Tootie’s Mardi Gras Indian tradition. “Before they sent me up here, Tootie told me, ‘Boy, you need to get some feathers on,’ and I wish I’d listened. I might not be here if I had.” As a high-schooler with bulk and talent enough to play both football and sousaphone, Wilbert Rawlins Jr. “could see that while everybody at Colton went to games, they wandered around the stands during the ball playing, talking and playing grab-ass. But they stopped moving and listened up close when the band stated playing.”

Decades later, as a band director, Rawlins is forced to confront a reality surrounding his chosen path when he confronts a teenager heading down the wrong path.

“Mr. Rawlins, how much you make?” the kid asks.

“I take home about a thousand dollar every two weeks.” Wil said. That would rock them back, he thought.

Brandon snorted. “Shit,” he said. “I made that last weekend.”

Baum doesn’t give us a dissertation on the wretched state of the city’s public schools. He places us in the car with Rawlins and Theodore Jackson, the new principal of George Washington Carver middle school, when Jackson writes a bogus check for $83,000 to cover a truckload of textbooks. (“I just couldn’t face another day with those raggedy-ass books,” Jackson says.)

And Baum needn’t paint corruption among city officials with a broad brush: We understand how the city is wired when a police officer—a close friend of Minyard’s—gets in trouble. Minyard thinks: “To come to the defense of a cop found naked in bed with a woman while on duty—with cocaine in his pocket, no less—would be politically risky. On the other hand, if a guy like Joe couldn’t make a little mistake in New Orleans, where could he?” Frank “saves Joe’s ass” out of personal duty, but also simply because he can. But when another officer friend is implicated in the beating death of a suspect, Minyard is put in the uncomfortable position of defending a tarnished friend through a deeper and more visible crisis.

Few writers would dare the sort of operatic climaxes that regularly punctuate New Orleans life. Besides, Baum wouldn’t be likely to have dreamed up a scene like the one in the City Council chamber when Tootie Montana, while protesting police mistreatment of Mardi Gras Indians, falls dead of a heart attack. (His fellow chiefs break into a traditional song, “Indian Red,” with a refrain that goes, “He won’t bow down, not on that ground.”)

The floods that followed the levee breaches in Hurricane Katrina’s wake come two-thirds of the way into Baum’s book: By then, Baum has told us enough to justify the idea that this is a defining episode but not the defining episode in these lives, or even in Baum’s narrative.

When Anthony Wells describes the onset of Katrina—“What happened was, the wind started up long about nightfall”—his account sounds something like the opening lyrics of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” about another great flood and failure (“What has happened down here is the winds have changed”).

In Baum’s accounts of Katrina, even familiar images prove newly gripping. Joyce Montana, in a Texas motel room, sees the Circle Food Store’s iconic facade surrounded by chest-high water. Belinda Rawlins recognizes those televised figures waving for help on a rooftop as friends and relatives. Ronald Lewis hears a radio commentator say, “The whole Ninth Ward is gone”; later, after being sought out by NPR’s Steve Inskeep, he visits his flooded-out neighborhood and announces to listeners: “I’m not leaving my home.”

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By Margrette Peterson, July 25, 2009 at 10:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Try as you may, New Orleans is no different from any other large urban city. I lived in New Orleans for 24 years. Please note that New Orleans has five universities and thu the city is not rich, they are not dumb. Many books will be written and more movies made but please remember that New Orleans
is made up with people, people with feelings. They have been through one storm, and I think that the city should be treated with kindness and not contemp.

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By prgill, July 25, 2009 at 12:27 am Link to this comment

A rare, GREAT book review, not because it is theoretical or historically factual, but because you actually hear New Orleans’ voices… in the book review, before you actually read the book.

Before I add my two cents, let me say, “Bravo! Frank Minyard.” Here is a man who is truly representative of our shared values and of what if means to be a New Orleanian. Frank happens to be white. But that, as any true New Orleanian will say is unimportant given Frank’s medical and human skills and his long service in the community.

Somebody should write a history of famous New Orleanians. There are the obvious candidates, the artists and entertainers, and then there are the less obvious community activists, judges and politicians, Frank Minyard among them.

But as I read this review, my own reflection on 25 years in New Orleans color my thinking.

I believe that the New Orleans experience is essentially about rootedness. I hear this in Ronald Lewis story, in Irma Thomas’ anecdote and in Frank Minyard’s outrage.

The cultural foundation and deep values of New Orleans culture were laid-out, not by French and Spanish colonial adventurers or ruffian keelboatmen but by the uprooted and dispossessed, by German and Spanish immigrants in search of a better life, by French Canadians via prison ships off the south coast of England, and most importantly, by refugees from the slave revolt in Hispaniola. It is the latter group that brought refined culture, learning, opera to New Orleans. These people, more than the earlier freebooters wanted stability and needed to reconstruct their lives and livelihoods.

The “white man’s” culture, the “dominant” culture in a city that was bought and sold on the checkerboard of North Atlantic power struggles, goes against this need for stability and rootedness. Economic “liberality” in the American approach to spatial management and only minimalist support for urban and regional planning when it interferes with the American dream of suburban living of government regulation has proven to be unsustainable, antisocial and anathema to New Orleanian’s deep sense of rootedness.

The real tragedy of New Orleans is not that the Federal Governement did not respond, but that the city had allowed itself to be lulled into a false sense of security. The real tragedy is that when the metropolitan area needed oversight and Orleans Parish was desperate for financial assistance to compensate for a diminished tax base and increasing social burden, the neighboring parishes and the state were not listening. Indeed they weren’t even interested. When Dutch Morial was struggling to fund public services with an payroll tax, all anybody wanted to hear about was the latest twist in U.S. Attorney John Volker’s hunt to take down “Robin Hood” Edwards.

Yes, it might all have been different. But what does stand out, and what led in my opinion, DIRECTLY to the Katrina fiasco is the dysfunctional system of metropolitan governance that countenanced this disregard for the welfare of a neighboring Parish and that is implicit in our system of territorial governance. We call it our “home rule charter”.

To make a very long story short, I look forward to reading Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, and what will undoubtedly be a gem of storytelling, a fitting sequel to John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. In concluding, I salute the friendship and interest the citizen’s and press of one great city, New York, have long demonstrated for another great city, New Orleans.

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By CrescentCityRay, July 24, 2009 at 6:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

oldGeezer said: “Lake Ponchartrain is 10 feet above sea level.”

Actually, Lake Pontchartrain is ZERO feet above sea level.

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By Old Geezer Pilot, July 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There’s an old saying that New Orleans politicians are about as crooked as the Mississippi.

True true.

Money has been flowing into NOLA for decades ear-marked for levee repair and maintenance. Were repair and maintenance done?

Oh no.

The money went to build docks for local pols so they could have better access to their boats.

Lake Ponchartrain is 10 feet above sea level. NOLA is a few feet below. And the 9th ward, Chantilly, and NO East are all below sea level. So when the levee at the 17th st canal failed, the lake emptied out into the city.

So preventable.

So typical NOLA.

I blame BushCo (Heckova job, Brownie) for failure to respond to the emergency. But the blame for the emergency itself falls on too many to mention.

It is sad, because NOLA is one of the few American Cities left with an originality all its own.

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By CrescentCityRay, July 24, 2009 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Larry had reservations when Dan said: “Ambition isn’t a virtue in the lowlands between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. New Orleans.”

Dan has a point. For example, which city councilman would you vote for, the corrupt cadidate or the corrupt and ambitious candidate? Have you ever worked at a very successful business employing 50 minimum wage workers where the the three owners are making bazillions of dollars. Guess what, 50 out those 53 people might feel oppressed by those three ambitious owners.

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By LakeviewGirl, July 24, 2009 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Maybe you should trying to focus less on the lower ninth ward and perhaps more on the lakeview area…new orleans’ tax base.  That’s a real eye-opener.  Ask me, I can tell you all about it….lost it all…...especially the tax money for the city to spend on the lower ninth residents to live on.  The ninth ward doesn’t really look that different…even with Brad Pitt’s ridiculous houses.

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By CrescentCityRay, July 24, 2009 at 2:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a New Orleans resident, I really enjoyed the article and want to read the book. I wanna see the movie.

Like hippy4ever said, ‘Americans don’t get it.’ They never have. We accept that. Books like this don’t even make a dent in the misunderstanding, but the effort is always appreciated very much.

Yea, it ain’t the food, jazz or architecture that makes New Orleans great - it’s the residents. Who do you think makes that food, music, architecture, etc.?

Most New Orleanians feel like a fish out of water anywhere but New Orleans.

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By Spiritgirl, July 24, 2009 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

New Orleans is like a wonderful Gumbo, it’s a mix of old/new, religion/spirituality, spicy/sweet, rich/poor, cultured/trashy - it’s all tangled up and cooked just right!  If you live there, your roots are there and that’s all you need to know!  It’s something about the place that’s in your nostrils, and your blood!  And though Katrina may have knocked it down, it’s not out!  While people are “playing politics” with the city and her people, once again they will rise!

Almost 5 years after, and far too many residents aren’t even back into the homes they were forced to leave!  Enough, enough, enough!!!

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By Loretta Pyles, July 24, 2009 at 9:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This article is called “LB on New Orleans after Katrina.”  Not a very fitting title, is it?  It’s mostly about pre-Katrina and a few paragraphs about the time during Katrina, but virtually nothing about life after Katrina.  Kind of a misleading title.

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By hippie4ever, July 24, 2009 at 8:40 am Link to this comment

“Charles Duplessis of the Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church, standing not far from Lewis’ place—wife by his side, baby in his arms—watching an anchorwoman in a setup shot framed by their devastated home. “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” he told me.”

Americans don’t get it. Great cities are profound not because of their buildings, but because of their people and culture. New Orleans has our nation’s first multinational society, and a history rich in colonialism and native peoples of the Caribbean. The food is incredible and expressive of the origins of people, as is their own brand of jazz.

Most importantly, it (like Charlestown, Athens) is an enclave in an ass-backwards part of the country. If one has to live in the South, better there than Alabama or Mississippi.

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