It's going to take all the people...
I met Alice outside of a local community center in downtown New Orleans. She and I had just come out of the same meeting. It was a town hall and potluck. The topic: to reopen all public housing in New Orleans, to secure affordable housing across the city, and fight for everyone’s right to return. About fifty of us circled up eating deviled eggs, finger sandwiches, red beans and rice, and cup cakes. We talked about everything from getting the gas and electricity turned back on to re-occupying housing in spite of the law.
Afterward Arpil was sitting on the stoop of the building enjoying a cigarette while I perched over my old bike asked her questions. “Where are you living now?”
“In here, in a homeless shelter.”
“Where did you live before the storm?”
“I lived in St. Bernard Parish, but I grew up on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. Now I’ve gotta go back to Houston in the morning. I got my bus ticket right here,” she says as she flips open her purse to show me it, as though I needed to see it in order to believe it. She’s doesn’t seem to have accepted her second departure yet herself. Something about the ticket makes the situation all the more real and heavy.
Alice tells me that she’s been squatting all over New Orleans for months trying to find a job and an affordable place to live. She has a baby daughter, two years old, and wants nothing more than to come home to her city. She’s just like every other New Orleanian I’ve met. She loves her town, cares not for Texas or whatever phony state have you. I’ve yet to meet that mythical Crescent City native who having been displaced from his or her hometown into Houston, Atlanta, or beyond finds that other cities are better, jobs more plentiful, schools better, opportunities brighter. I’m sure they exist. The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, and every paper in between has made a point of writing up stories on these NOLA ex-patriots who choose the “opportunity” of a new life in a new city over the prospect of returning to the bayou. But I’ve yet to meet one. Every New Orleanian will acknowledge that their town had pre-K problems, but every last one that I’ve run into has told me with dying conviction that they’re coming home.
Alice came back and lived in a gutted church, squatted in two houses, and even lived outdoors in a park for weeks on end. She spent her days trying to secure a good job and a new house. Her baby stayed with grandmother in Texas. Alice failed, but not for lack of effort.
“New Orleans is gone,” she says. “It’s not the same, and not because Katrina flooded it and ripped it apart. The people are gone, and New Orleans is made of its people.”
The place is the people.
I ask her, “what’s it going to take?”
She doesn’t hesitate for a moment: “It’s going to take all the people getting together and acting as one. Otherwise New Orleans is lost for good.”