I understood why he was there; I was there for the same reason. "Musicians Village" was about the most hopeful place you could be on the anniversary of a day when hopelessness swept in.
Twenty-five of an eventual 81 new houses were nearly complete in the first large-scale rebuilding effort in New Orleans, an eight-acre development in the Upper Ninth Ward owned by Habitat for Humanity. Conceived by New Orleans-raised musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., Musicians Village was planned as a way to ensure that the city's lifeblood of jazz, blues, zydeco, Cajun and other music would not wash away post-Katrina, and that local musicians would have solid roots here.
Not all homeowners have to be musicians, but everyone has to put in 350 hours of "sweat equity" as a down payment on their house. Over shovels and rakes in the August sun, I heard firsthand stories that I had seen on TV, and learned what was meant by the "spirit of New Orleans." People were building their lives up out of the muddy ground.
Table by table we rose and walked the buffet line, trying not to notice the White House press corps and their bank of 20 cameras taking our picture as the bread pudding wobbled onto Styrofoam plates. The president was inside one of the houses doing an interview with a new homeowner.
I asked a woman with whom I had been raking rocks what she thought about the President's visit. "The way I was raised, if you ain't got something nice to say about somebody, don't say nothing at all, " she answered.
Another woman, who was two weeks away from moving in to her house, simply shook her head "no" and looked away when I asked her the same question.
When the President emerged and headed towards our tent, the trombones blew and everybody stood, clapping and whistling. With the colorful new houses shining in the background, the good food and music, it felt like a summer barbecue in any town. Even the portable toilets had mysteriously disappeared in preparation for the president's photo op. But this wasn't any town. I was torn by the desire to stage a little act of protest by staying in my seat, and the desire to see the President in person.
In the end, I did both. The President strode around with his bowl of gumbo, waving, and moved from table to table shaking everyone's hand, including mine. I was surprised how likeable he was. I was struggling with warring emotions when he sought out the woman who was raised to not say unkind things about people. She had retreated behind the fanfare. He put his hand on her shoulder and she smiled an enormous smile, like a young girl.
Then I realized how much it does matter -- showing up in people's yards. And how much it would have mattered a year ago if the government had showed up for the people who were not here now, but died near here, as a result of the government's absence.
One woman told me about her brother in the New Orleans police department. He had gone from house to house in a boat in the Lower Ninth Ward, retrieving people from their attics. When the boat got so heavy it nearly sank, two people went overboard. They were never seen again. The woman speculated that, like her, they did not know how to swim. Her 86-year old aunt drowned in her Lower Ninth Ward attic, her body unidentified until two months ago. A second aunt died in a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish.
Another woman, who was helping an arthritic friend to install flowerbeds, told me of a cousin who spent two days on her roof in Violet before being airlifted out by the Coast Guard. "We lost church members," she said. "If it wasn't for the Coast Guard, we would've lost more." Her teenage son measured two-by-fours and deliberated over which bedroom would be his in the new house.
The president brought warmth to the barbecue, but he didn't bring hope. He could smile and joke and hug, but hope was already here, in the spirits of the people, hard-won in the face of so much loss.
The people of New Orleans have always exalted the human spirit. Parading in purple-feathered krewes at Mardi Gras, tossing beads into the trees, dancing in jazz funerals where the procession turns into a musical celebration of the person's life -- like the one held at the Superdome on the anniversary of Katrina -- raising the spirit is as much a part of New Orleans culture as are jazz and gumbo.
When the motorcade pulled away and the day was over, I drove back to a deserted house I had passed on the way in.
"God is Good." The words were spray painted on the front door. The house, like all the others on its block, was marked with a red "X" and the letters "TFW," for Toxic Flood Waters. Then again on the siding: "God House."
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Albion Monitor September
5, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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