I went to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans last week.
If you can imagine acute poverty patch-worked in with overgrown southern jungle, then maybe the Lower Nine won’t unsettle you the way it did me.
I’ve always thought of poverty as being loud. Traffic and corner stores. Voices yelling and music playing from an apartment on another floor. But in the Lower Ninth Ward, sometimes the only sounds I hear are the tires of my rental car passing over the ruptured pavement and my own breath as I peer out the window.
Gawking at someone else’s disaster doesn’t exactly feel great. But there I was, seeking out spray-painted “X” markings from when emergency response teams went door-to-door in 2005. Like a tourist crawling down Bourbon Street. Except of course this isn't Bourbon Street.
I came to New Orleans with only an academic understanding of Hurricane Katrina. I had read how the storm affected black people differently than white people and I wanted to understand that better, in a tangible and spatial way, myself.
Before going to the Lower Ninth Ward, I took a day in the French Quarter. Fueled on beignets and chicory coffee from Café Du Monde, I entered the beautiful white stone Louisiana State Museum, formerly a courthouse and built in the late 18th century. The Presbytère, it's called.
There is an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina. TV screens replay news casts from those fateful days in late August 2005. Residents and disaster responders have recorded moving testimonials that play in long video loops. I saw an axe a mother had used to cut her way out of her attic and onto her roof. I learned more about levee engineering than I ever had a curiosity to know.
Exploring other streets in the French Quarter, you wouldn't know disaster had ever struck New Orleans. The street music is incredible, the restaurants have lines out the door, and high-end shops cater to wealthy tourists before the sun goes down. Feeling the pulse of New Orleans is such a high!
But. The next day, I drove east of the city. I took the bridge over the Mississippi River - Gulf Outlet (MRGO) Canal and descended into the Lower Ninth Ward. And just started driving. Not sure what to expect or what I would find.
And you can do this in the Lower Nine. The streets are laid out in a grid and there’s almost no traffic, so you can just drive. Up and down. Looking and looking, stopping your car anywhere it pleases you.
I soon saw one of the “X” markers I’d been looking for. This X is dated 14-9 for September 14th, 2005.
I am fascinated by these markings, by the story they hint at. Someone was here; twelve years ago a person walked up to this house, not knowing what would be on the other side. Took a can of spray paint out of his bag. Pressed the nozzle. Made two opposing black lines.
What did the weight of his gear feel like? Whose voices did he hear? What were the smells?
I read about an artist who described the markings as almost biblical. That seems right. They evoke plagues, pestilence and masks and horror without containment from a different, a more primitive time.
But they are also signs of the persistence of human hope. Door by door, teams searched every house in New Orleans. They must have felt fear as they went, of course they did, and sadness. But fear doesn’t drive a search like that. It’s hope. "Appetite with an opinion of attaining, is called Hope," writes Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan. What compels you onward, door after door, hoping to find the survivors for whom you are their only hope. Not stopping until you’ve marked every one. Courage, also.
Even as I am moved, I am also aware of being a stereotype of myself. Here I am on a sunny day in October 2017, taking pictures of abandoned houses out the window of my rental car with an iPhone. A fetishization of poverty and disaster, my sister says when I talk to her about it later.
Because it’s one thing to take pictures in the French Quarter. Where I have this comfortable kind of social contract as a tourist: I spend money in shops and in restaurants and, in exchange, the French Quarter provides this enjoyable cultural experience for me. My role is clearly understood and I am welcomed for it.
But here in the Lower Nine, the feelings I have are of a more slimy kind. Am I much different than a disaster profiteer? I contribute nothing; and yet take my experience off their backs all the same.
There is one place that welcomes my disaster tourism: the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum. This museum starts well before 2005, presenting some of the ward's historical roots to slavery and white flight—and how these roots formed the socioeconomic and racial contours that made Hurricane Katrina a humanitarian crisis here in a way that it wasn't anywhere else in the city.
In graduate school, I read Camilla Stivers’s essay, “So Poor and So Black: Hurricane Katrina, Public Administration, and the Issue of Race”. She writes that poor white people in New Orleans were 43 percent more likely than poor black people to have access to a car at the time of the storm. The Living Museum adds that 68 percent of residents who stayed behind had neither money in a bank nor a credit card and that 57 percent had a household income under $20,000. So when we think about why people didn't evacuate, we have to consider these contours.
The Living Museum takes on race directly, being up front about black people who were shot and killed by police, the language in the media (grocery "looting" by blacks and "finding" by whites), and the discrimination in how the so poor and so black received impossibly low monetary payouts for their homes (a court case that was eventually settled for $62 million). This context, presented in such a genuine and engaging way, provokes many emotions—but above all, it filled me with such compassion for those who were harmed in Katrina. And for where the Lower Ninth Ward is today.
At the State Museum, the last exhibit is of two mannequins, one garbed in traditional Mardi Gras costume. The costume is wryly sewn from the blue tarps so common during the disaster. It’s a message of resilience, of New Orlean’s capacity to rebuild and to forge meaning and to thrive again.
It would be easy to assume that the Lower Nine museum is more real, more authentic, than the State Museum. But I think the truth must be somewhere between or around the two. Both, and.
To illustrate, consider a calculation the Living Museum offers: that, given the costs of flights and hotels and meals, the volunteers who came to rebuild the Lower Nine could have just sent money and rebuilt the Ward four times over. I mentioned this to my host, a woman who grew up in New Orleans and was living in St. Bernard's Parish in 2005. “No no, I don’t think that’s right," she said. I could tell I’d touched on a tender nerve.
Then she started to open up to me about her story. About how she'd spent the afternoon before the storm moving patio furniture and potted plants inside—for wind, she said. They had never considered there could be flooding. How she and her husband evacuated with only an overnight bag: a couple outfits and a swimsuit, nothing more. How, when she realized the entire Parish was flooded halfway to the second story of the homes, she spent the next week raking her brother's yard, building piles of sticks and leaves and lighting them on fire. Raking and burning, all week long, refusing to come inside to see the news. It wasn't until she came in to find new clothes laid out on her guest bed by her daughter that she allowed herself to cry.
When she did return to her home, everything was destroyed. The flooding had left thick layers of grime and mud in its wake; nothing was salvageable. And you know who helped her and her husband move everything she'd ever known along with all the mud out to the front street? Volunteers, who'd driven in from North Carolina and were staying in FEMA trailers. They didn't have money, but they had the heart and the muscle to be there for her. So the story of Katrina, it's both, and.
Leaving the museum, the Lower Nine takes on a kind of beauty. The sun is about to give way to evening, it’s the time of day where its sharp yellow glow softens what might be garish at midday. A few people sit on their stoops, or walk empty streets without bothering to look both ways. But mostly it’s just quiet, the sky gaping and open with no house higher than one story, occasionally two. But there's no beauty in the poverty itself. Many houses have barbwire fencing and gates hung crookedly, peeling paint. Some lots are so crammed with old cars that the cars take up more square footage than the house.
But it's hard to make generalizations. In this patchwork, there are also plenty of houses that are brand new. Brad Pitt famously started a nonprofit to build new homes in the Lower Ninth Ward that use green design and flood protection principles. Many of the older homes have solar panel arrays, seemingly another anomaly in this place.
Still, it’s hard to find much that’s uplifting in the Lower Ninth Ward. Unlike the rest of the city, which is almost entirely repopulated compared to pre-2005, the Lower Nine has less than 50 percent of the residents it once did. Of the seven schools that used to be here, only one has reopened today. There was a lot of anger from former residents when the city tore down several fetid public housing high rises and replaced them with mixed-income apartments with manicured lawns. But it’s hard to say how many people really want to live here anymore.
A shocking number of lots no longer have a house at all. Whatever structure had been there is gone. In the vacuum, thick shrubs and grasping vines instead are reclaiming the space. The mix of newly fashioned structures, places that are inhabited but otherwise rather in bad shape, and lots that are just jungle adds to the feeling of a post-apocalyptic world. It’s this mix of the unexpected that unsettles me the most. A neighborhood that’s caught in the past, the now, and the distant future all within one block.
I remember struggling with whether I should get out of my car. Is it more respectful to stay in and try to pass by unnoticed? Or does that come across as horribly elitist, like I'm too good to even put my feet on their ground?
As uncomfortable and torn as I felt, I didn't hastily turn away. I couldn't. And the more I reflect on that day, the more I believe I shouldn't. There is a cost to the way that I live. All over this nation, there are communities, metaphorically speaking, underwater. Pushed out by skyrocketing rent prices or crippled by healthcare needs or stuck in cycles of crime.
Back in 1927, there was a terrible flood on the Mississippi. City officials "wanted a big, public 'action' to calm Wall Street fears" (according to the Living Museum)—so they deliberately bombed a levee and flooded three communities, including the Lower Ninth Ward.
Isn't it so much easier to flood a community we've never met face-to-face? To assume people can drive themselves out of poverty when we've never seen the resources they have to work with?
As afraid as I am of being a disaster tourist, I am more afraid of who I would be if I never took the time to look at all.