Thursday, December 10, 2009

Singing the New Orleans Blues...

New Orleans is a city of many influences, cultures, histories, legends- it is a city with heart and with soul. Soulful as the song it plays; the melancholy background to a long and assorted history of settlers, immigrants, slaves and ideologies. Initially, the French and Spanish settled along the banks of the Mississippi river, a gold mine for coastal commerce. With the introduction of African slaves, New Orleans had begun on the path to its uniqueness. Adding to this new cultural and racial mix was the progressiveness of the city in the allowance of rights to freed slaves. New Orleans saw a cultural cultivation of a city unlike any other. With the events of reconstruction, segregation and the civil rights movement it would be some time before stable progress would be made yet with the addition of Caribbeans and Cajuns to the cultural hodgepodge, New Orleans and its people came to embody a true cultural heterogeneity

While cultural influences played huge roles in the formation of the New Orleans as we know it today, the geographical location and circumstances ultimately molded the city into its present state. Built by the Mississippi river’s sediment deposits, the city historical patterns of growth were based on differences in elevation and the relative proximity to both commerce and danger. Even though New Orleans is geographically magnificent in terms of trade the actual site of the city is located in a dangerous and precarious environment. Flooding has been a constant threat to its existence.

After the failed attempts of reconstruction, the status of blacks was again reverted to inferior levels and as with other cities in America the most dangerous and economically unfortunate areas were designated to blacks. While the country was fighting for civil rights, white flight was taking place in a constant flow, unlike that of the Mississippi itself. Middle class whites moved out into the suburbs at alarming rates. Blacks who previously held prestigious positions as doctors, lawyers, and politicians were startled to find that their city was now in a perilous fight. A fight up against the prejudices and discrimination of the times as well as the formation of ghettos, the crack-cocaine epidemic, and influx of crime. With poverty rates sky rocketing, segregation was at an all time high encompassing at least two of the indexes (dissimilarity and isolation). A similar tune is heard over many cities across America, one that sings of inequality, disadvantages, and a history of discrimination.

It is with these realities of life in New Orleans that discourse about Hurricane Katrina must stem from. While the hurricane was a natural disaster the circumstance within which it took place, the consequences of the structural racism can not be ignored. Yet they were ignored as were the multiple warning by scholars, engineers and the army about the faulty construction of cities crucial anti flood constructs. Both metaphorically and literally a blind eye was turned to the protection of the city and its black population. A second wave reconstruction is in order. One that reconstructs the city physically and realizes the challenges of this unique city on a sociological level.

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