August 29, 2011

SIX YEARS AND STILL SCREWED UP: Riding with Ms. Betty Ross

by C. VanWingen

photo by raisinface

Occasionally, my day job requires that I travel to Houston, a city that offends nearly all of my urban sensibilities.  A few days ago, however, my visit to that wasteland of freeways and shopping malls took an interesting turn.

After reaching Texas in a particularly foul mood (I missed my first flight because apparently arriving 2 minutes early for departure is about 18 minutes too late), I jumped into a waiting cab.  News of the anticipated fare ($54! Thanks  urban sprawl) did little to improve my humor.  I perked up measurably though, when I learned that my driver, Ms. Betty Ross, was from New Orleans.  At least I wouldn’t have to suffer the 40 minute (!) voyage in silence with some blissfully ignorant Texan.

Ms. Betty, it turns out, is from the Lower 9th Ward.  Like so many, the animated mother of two fled her home 6 years ago and lost nearly everything.  Her story seemed to differ little from those that I had heard dozens of times over the last few years.  I listened politely, as I always do, and she offered her deeply personal story freely, as they always do.

What made this situation special was that I had never heard the tale of the storm from someone that had not returned to New Orleans.  Every other time, the teller seemed genuinely happy to have come through the ordeal and returned home.  Ms. Betty did not seem happy.  There was a small but noticeable layer of rage in her tone that seemed to be directed not at the storm, nor at the government, but at the people that lived there now (like me).

Ms. Betty insisted that there was still a part of her that wanted to return.  When I asked “when?” she responded plainly “not until it gets rebuilt”.  She just shook her head while I listed all the projects and accomplishments that we’ve been hailing as “progress”.  She explained that the only time she hadn’t felt safe in Houston was when she shared her neighborhood with fellow evacuees (they attempted to break into her new home twice).  Security was a new, pleasant feeling that she had never enjoyed in NOLA and she wasn’t ready to give up.  The superior roads, schools, housing, and job market didn’t hurt either.

Ms. Betty’s beef with New Orleans emanated from an expectation that “rebuilt” should mean “better.”  She has no interest in returning to the city she left six years ago.  She wants to live in a more resilient, productive, and secure New Orleans, a city superior to the one she and her family & friends escaped.

Today, it has been six year since the levees breached (!) and we have failed Ms. Betty and everyone like her.   We have compromised on our infrastructural reconstruction.  We have allowed corruption and waste to creep back into City Hall (though Ms. Betty did seem pleased that “Egghead Ray” is gone).  The crime rate has returned to unacceptable levels.  The neighborhoods that survived continue to decay and those that were washed away remain desolate and isolated.  The keys to the city’s recovery and future have been handed to aristocrats and criminals.

Granted, some of these shortcomings were to be expected under such difficult circumstances.  But many of our issues are the result of our own inexcusable and backward sense of pride in the city’s rampant delinquency and incompetence.  It’s all part of the “charm.”  We live in the “City that Care Forgot.”  From crumbling infrastructure, to endless seas of blight, from political sleaze to freaking MURDER, we have let our leadership off the hook with this misguided “que sera, sera” attitude.

Simply put, we forgot to care about our city.  Disjointed sidewalks, street flooding, poverty, narcotics, embezzlement, police brutality, traffic congestion, broken levees, deleted e-mails, no-bid contracts, and MURDER are not charming.  These are signs of a delusional populace and crappy leadership.  Ms. Betty deserves better.

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