It’s our last day in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana – as the locals call it), and my schedule is free. After being on the go-go-go traveling all over the region and processing some of the hardest emotions I’ve ever felt, I’m ready to go home.
Go home, yes, but not forget.
Whenever you talk with anyone down here about the BP spill, the story invariably starts with “before Katrina” or “after Katrina.” Her impact is still felt deeply by the people here, every day. The trauma has given them a signature resiliency that emanates from them as they describe their condition, their lives, their hopes and fears for the future.
Separating myself from the group, I take the day to photograph New Orleans: I want to get my art on. So, I’m off, driving a rental minivan in some of the poorest ghettos I’ve ever been to – not just of this country but of anywhere in the world. Here’s me, white sweaty guy, shiny minivan and pricey camera. I’m awkward.
People train their eyes on me as I pass by on the street. It’s not possible to have the windows up, ensconcing myself in air conditioned comfort, because my camera has to stay at the temperature and dewpoint outside or it will fog. This is a beneficial thing. Driving this slowly down streets with tinted windows might make some people nervous; there is violence here and that creeping car move is something that causes panic.
I wave a lot when people stare. And they, thankfully, wave back. I’m hoping that the ubiquitous southern hospitality that I’ve felt down here extends to these hard knock places as I cruise streets off Claiborne, taking in the geography, the sea level, and the infamous Superdome.
What I find is unrelenting urban decay in parish after parish. There are houses that should be torn down, windows that should be replaced, live power lines dangling, trash and addicts in castaway couches. Many are so far gone they don’t even register my presence. There are signs up everywhere for cheap and easy D.N.A. tests (who is your daddy?).
My nerves are hot. Emotions are overwhelming because what I’m looking at is so foreign for a first world country, my country. Sure, I’ve seen a few places approaching this – Detroit, East St. Louis, Watts, Appalachia – but the degradation takes the proverbial cake. And it’s all the worse because it’s caused by poverty mixed with the devastation of severe weather. It’s a combination that lends itself to an aesthetic reality that isn’t relegated to abandoned cars on the street, but cars that were turned over in floods and moved up onto schoolyard playgrounds, where, when the water receded they remained to rot, now alien and utterly destroyed. Anything valuable on them has been stripped already, and they’re rusting and forgotten, machines raped by a formidable tempest.
I meet a guy named Speed who is smoking the last roach of a self-rolled cigarette. As he inhales, I observe the heavy nicotine stains on his index finger. His lips have sores, probably burns. He asks me what I’m doing. I tell him I’m photographing the place to tell a story – I want to tell him that some of us haven’t forgotten, but I don’t. Speed is jittery as he talks, classic in-between-fix behavior, probably heroin. His movements at once seem threatening and thankful. As he spouts, I can tell he’s a friend, and, circumstance notwithstanding, he still loves his neighborhood, his place in the universe. Yes, I’m talking to a junkie with a sincere pride of place. And it’s amazing.
Speed gives me a short tour of the neighborhood and he describes what the place was like when the water was here. He points out the water lines on the houses. The foundations that are cracked. The places where his friends and neighbors died. And he talks about the the people who haven’t received FEMA checks and that he doesn’t think this neighborhood will ever get back to, what, normal? All of the sudden, it crashes in on me: This is what the world looks like when your government is impotent.
Speed and I part ways; he’s urging me to check out the Lower Ninth Ward, where as he says, “People have it tough.”