The Time Is Now: New Orleans and the Poor

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New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin tells a Senate investigation that the city will be ready for the next hurricane season. Preparing for future storms is one of many things New Orleans needs to take care of. Commentator Michael Depp lives in New Orleans, and he says that now is the time for his city to deal with the future of its poorest citizens.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a Senate investigation that his city was updating its evacuation plans. He said the city will be ready to handle the next hurricane season. Getting ready for future hurricanes is one of many, many things New Orleans needs to take care of. Commentator Michael Depp lives in New Orleans. He says that now is the time for his city to deal with the future of its poorest citizens.

MICHAEL DEPP, reporting:

The poor will always be with us, Jesus said. But what if we could fix it so that they weren't? In New Orleans today, those of us who have returned are faced with that very peculiar proposition. For now an economic wall has been built around the city's broken remnants and we are trying to be the keepers of its drawbridge. The wall itself is housing. Since Hurricane Katrina, affordable housing is all but nonexistent. The poor have been effectively priced out of the market. The only interim solution to our housing crisis, FEMA trailers, have met with considerable hostility. Neighbors are wary of temporary trailer parks that could have a tendency to become permanent. So far that anxiety has been framed in racial terms, as though to keep out trailers is a kind of code for keeping out black people.

But the trailer controversy is really just symptomatic of a much larger concern in the city and that is the prospect that our poor will return home and poverty is not an interchangeable term with race. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, poverty overwhelmed the city. Poverty starved the city's public education system. It spawned ever-escalating rates of murder and violent crime. It festered in public housing. Make no mistake though. New Orleans also needed its poor. The working poor that is.

We had to have poor people to clean hotel rooms, bus tables, wash dishes and fill the thousands of low paying jobs that supported our vital tourism industry. But we also needed poverty's culture. Mardi Gras Indians, second line parades, jazz funerals and jazz music for that matter. These were all poverty's beautiful children. New Orleans put them out front and center to be admired by the world. Poverty was not a monolith in pre-Katrina New Orleans. It contained different, complicated and sometimes contradictory faces. The drug dealing thug and the beautiful, grandiose Mardi Gras Indian.

So who do we let back in? The poor are multitudeness (sic) but so are the upper and middle classes now nervous at the prospect of their return. Some decry the poor out of simple bigotry. They envision a new, smaller city teaming with professionals and white picket fences where there is no room for poverty's dirty faces. Others have more measured concerns. New Orleans didn't have nearly the social services or infrastructure to effectively deal with poverty before Katrina. How can we welcome back the poor without letting their problems overwhelm the city again?

Of course what all of us here are going to learn soon enough is that you can't cheery pick among the poor. You can't bring back the hotel chambermaid and leave her troubled son behind in some other city as someone else's problem. The price of cheap labor is steep in social consequences. Before the storm we were unable to deal with the consequences. Can we, will we now?

We are in an odd moment in New Orleans today. Like the Pied Piper, Hurricane Katrina took away the scourge of our poverty in one grand and sweeping action. But now our streets are empty and it's dull in our town. Our poverty is gone but we are bereft of our poor.

BLOCK: Michael Depp lives in New Orleans.

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