New Orleans is suffering brutal heat and humidity this week, so today may not be the best day to ask people how they feel about their city 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. A better idea would be to take a look at the results of a new survey by NPR and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which show that while attitudes have turned positive on average, great racial and neighborhood disparities remain.
The percentage of residents who feel the city has made “some” or “a lot” of progress has increased significantly since 2010 on a number of questions: repairing the city’s flood protection infrastructure; improving the availability of medical services and of public transportation; attracting businesses and jobs.
On the other hand, in the important categories of strengthening the public schools and controlling crime, perceptions have improved barely if at all.
As racial unrest marks another anniversary this week – it’s been one year since the killing of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri – I wonder whether I should be as stunned as I am to read the following in NPR’s summary of the New Orleans survey, in the words of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Liz Hamel:
We asked people whether now is a good time or a bad time for children to be growing up in New Orleans. When we asked them this back in 2008, majorities of both blacks and whites agreed that it was a bad time for kids to be growing up in New Orleans. But now in 2015, 70 percent of whites say it’s a good time for kids, and that compares with just 37 percent of African-Americans.
By a wide margin, crime is perceived as the biggest problem facing the city, cited by 58 percent of respondents, compared to just seven percent for education, the next most common answer. More African-Americans than whites say their neighborhood doesn’t have enough police presence.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise when, according to Mother Jones, “Four of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, are still largely abandoned, with less than half of their pre-storm populations.”
According to statistics from The Data Center, the percentage of New Orleans children who attend schools that meet state standards has increased from an abysmal 30 percent before Katrina to 67 percent in 2014. Yet the Institute for Southern Studies suggests some disturbing facts behind those numbers, relating to the new all-charter system, overly strict discipline, and ways statistics can be deceptive.
Writing of the city’s unusual opportunity to “do a do-over” as cities rarely do, Maureen O’Hagan asks on the Institute for Southern Studies website:
[I]s the city in a better place than it was nearly nine years ago? It depends on how closely you look. And who you ask. Talk to enough struggling New Orleanians and you’ll soon begin to wonder whether the push forward is leaving the city’s poor behind. And whether, when all this change has fully settled in, New Orleans will still be New Orleans.
In the Kaiser poll, 28 percent of respondents said the local culture is the best thing the New Orleans area has to offer. Add to that the 13% who answered “food,” the 13% who answered “tourism,” and the smaller numbers who opted for “nightlife,” “music,” and “the people,” and it’s clear that a big majority point to some aspect of the city’s unique culture.
Yet anecdotal commentary continues to point at cultural losses that haven’t been restored. The Times-Picayune website offers a slideshow of 12 restaurants lost to Katrina. Preservation of the city’s character is by no means guaranteed, with a controversial ordinance proposed relating to luxury condo and hotel development and, believe it or not, one that “could force bars, street musicians, or both to limit what, when, and how they play music,” as reported last year by Vice.com in an article entitled “How New Orleans Is In Danger Of Losing Its Identity.”
Artists are commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in their own ways. To mention just a few:
Down in the Big Easy, L. Kasimu Harris’s photographs will on exhibit at the George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art to offer “a visual narrative of life in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.”
The title of Roberta Brandes Gratz’s new book tells it all: We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City.
Over in Houston, the Rothko Chapel’s 2015 Summer Sounds on the Plaza concert series featuring music that originated in Louisiana concludes Thursday, August 13 with Ed Poullard singing traditional creole music and conjuring images of “fais do dos” Cajun dance parties.
And as we announced here the other day, chanteuse Dee Dee Bridgewater and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra have just released an album of New Orleans-inspired music called Dee Dee’s Feathers, with guest artists including Dr. John (enter here to win a free copy).