Hope is Not A Plan: A Letter From New Orleans, One Year Later

 news_spot_hopenotplan.jpgBy Jason Neville

I rode my bike around the neighborhood, one on high ground and spared most–but not all–of the wrath. These same streets had dried-up toxic floodwaters crisped in the sun like fish scales when I rode my bike around the city nine months ago, and wafts of toxins and garbage and dead things filled the air.

The air seemed less foul this time around, but every once in a while the a frail breeze would stir the stagnant summer air, and churn up an awful reminder that "foul nests of mold" (1) were still present in little hiding spots like rabbits, but at least not oozed out across the streets like before. The scent was fleeting but the memories were not.

Today we mark the national disgrace that we've somehow managed to call an anniversary, in which tens of thousands of American citizens were willfully neglected by their own government, starving and dehydrating in unspeakable circumstances, leaving at least 1,464 dead (and the numbers still climbing to this very day, 2), hundreds still missing, hundreds of thousands still in exile around the country, and a few hundred thousand returned residents scrambling to make due with whatever's left.

If this letter was a memorial only to the shame of our government's inaction and the magnitude of the losses, it would be a bitter, lengthy, and complete one indeed.

But this story of the city is not over; this memorial is not a retrospective. Indeed, considering the decades ahead of rebuilding and healing for our people, this one-year anniversary is more of an introduction, a kind of sad but hopeful preface to a larger project lifetimes in the making.

I've been back to the city four times in this year since Katrina. Once to bury my dad who died while in evacuation, once to participate in a resident-driven planning workshop we organized, once for Christmas, and once to research the autonomous neighborhood planning processes that have kept New Orleanians grasping for hope when government at every level failed them.

Faced with months–and starting today, years–of neglect even after the floodwaters receded, residents from every neighborhood in the city have risen to the unsolicited challenge of rebuilding their own communities–from gutting houses, to mutual aid health clinics, to creating grassroots community development corporations, and even autonomously developing their own neighborhood plans–without any support or financing from government whatsoever.

Imagine: the hardworking people of New Orleans, residents of the most prosperous country in the history of civilization, forced literally to rebuild by hand their own city, block by block, and to plan together without so much as a dime from the government, all the while cast under the short and ominous shadows of the still-unrepaired levees. (3, 4)

Out-organized and perhaps inspired by the grassroots leadership of the neighborhoods–and faced with ultimatums by the US government to either create citywide plans or be denied federal funding–the city's political elites, with the help of generous funding by national NGOs, are finally responding with support and funding for a real citywide plan. However flawed, it represents the first attempt at a real unified plan for the city, scheduled to be finished by December 2006, about a year and 4 months after Katrina struck.

In an unprecedented surge of autonomous civic activism–from working poor black neighborhoods in the lower 9th ward, to affluent white neighborhoods of Lakeview, to the multiclass and multiracial Gentilly and Broadmoor neighborhoods–the residents have opted instead to plan for themselves. I've never seen anything like it in New Orleans, nor have any of my elders, nor have many of the observers who have descended there to watch this reluctant yet powerful story unfold.

In the days after Katrina, disbelief turned to tears, tears to rage, to prayer, to awakening, to hope. Hope that this disaster could in a tragic way help restore balance to this city that, along with so many American cities like it, suffered from so many avoidable inequalities. The joyfulness and optimism that has driven the city to restoration after nearly three centuries of fires, plagues, wars, floods, and hurricanes again rouses the civic activism that is giving people a reason to hope for a city renewed.

In New Orleans, there is a tidal surge of resident-planners and everyday visionaries that look around at the rubble and toxic paste on the sidewalks and empty lots where shotgun homes once rested on cinderblocks, and the see the potential of their city reborn. They have done everything conceivable to move their collective desires towards a fuller realization.

Yet, hope is not a plan. Hope will not rebuild the levees. Hope will not restore the wetlands. Hope will not give hardworking people their rightful-but-still-denied insurance money. Hope will not open the habitable public housing that our government paid to have locked up. Hope will not restore electricity to the dozens of neighborhoods still in the dark at night. Hope will not bring back home our brothers and sisters sent to war, so they can help rebuild our cities, instead of destroying those of other lands. Hope is not enough to save New Orleans, notwithstanding its unprecedented abundance.

We rebuild the homes and churches and sno-ball stands and playgrounds in our communities not because they were perfect, but because saturated in those streets and woodframes and ironworks and cracked sidewalks and crispy stucco walls were all the memoirs of generations of lifetimes lived among them. Somehow the city itself was a part of our very lives, of our collective consciousness. Like Henry Miller's Paris:

"All those yearning looks I bestowed on the buildings and statues, I had looked at them so hungrily, so desperately, that by now my thoughts must have become a part of the very buildings and statues, they must be saturated with my anguish... I remarked the spot on which June's foot had rested and that it would remain there forever, even after the cathedrals had been demolished and the whole Latin civilization wiped out forever and ever..." (5)

Those profoundly affected by the destruction-by-neglect of their home city once again reflect on the fact that this voyage to recover New Orleans is also at once a journey to recover our selves and a journey to recover our futures.

Americans from across the country and people from around the world who witnessed the catastrophe also share in those same perplexed feelings of sadness and tragic hope, and are driven to solidarity with the people of New Orleans. Perhaps not so much motivated by charity or pity, but rather the visceral awareness that somehow working with the people of New Orleans to build a better city is also a vital journey for them as well. That the voyage to recover New Orleans is at once a journey to recover all the cities that were destroyed, or might be in the years to come. That just as the journey for New Orleanians is to recover their lives and restore their futures by rebuilding their city, so too is it a personal voyage for all of those that would help rebuild it in whatever way we can.

As Lila Watson, an aboriginal activist in Australia, said, "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because you recognize that your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

And who better to help than the people who are reading this very letter? Are we not the leaders of the city, the facilitators of its futures?

Forget the expensive degrees and catered academic events and meaningless acronym suffixes. If for no other reason, we are ready because we are the young adults who are inheriting the future, each day progressively more, until it is for a moment ours, and then at once slipping through our fingers onto the next generation.

The future then–of New Orleans, of our selves, of all the cities of this country and the world–is gathering by day in our hands.

If we look at the recovery of New Orleans not as the recovery of a single city, but of many cities, and not just of New Orleanians but all people everywhere, we can see that the recovery of New Orleans is far more universal: to make Los Angeles a better place to live is to help restore New Orleans. To help a stranger in the street who owes you nothing is to help a New Orleanian sleeping on the floors of their gutted houses working everyday to rebuild their lives.

Let us not witness the rebuilding of New Orleans as somehow a merely local enterprise. It's recovery can't be accomplished by the residents' hope alone, or by recovering New Orleans alone. Let us recognize the more ecumenical truth: that its recovery is intimately bound to the rest of this country, of the cities of the world, and all of us living within them.


(1) 'One Year On.' The Economist, August 24th 2006

(2) 'Pain, Fury Still Rage a Year After Katrina.' Jon Cohen (ABCNews.com) August 27th 2006

(3) "Levee Repair Costs Triple." Peter Whoriskey and Spencer S. Hsu (Washington Post) March 31st 2006

(4) The cost of rebuild the levees stands at around $10 billion, a hefty sum. The same amount we the taxpayers are footing per month for our government's misadventures in Iraq. Imagine a country that prioritized its people and their safety more than waging 'endless' wars!

(5) 'Tropic of Cancer' (Multiple Publication Dates)