It was a second line and a jazz funeral to mourn the Katrina-dead and celebrate the rebirth of this city. For two hours this afternoon, colleagues and I braved the hot sun and humidity to see … our well-dressed salesman of a mayor, Ray Nagin, his wife and Lt. Gen. Russell HonorÃ© wave at us while a brass band and dancers slid past us on Poydras St.??! “Forget this, next they’ll start throwing beads,” I said while contemplating returning to work. That’s when the fire trucks inched towards us, and the Fire Marshall and his men and women somberly walked behind them, no waving, no music, no fanfare. Hot tears filled my eyes as I put away my camera and thanked them from the bottom of my heart and lungs. The EMS and NOFD were the most hardworking people during the flood, have worked tirelessly since then in a rebounding city threatened by drought and arson, and only recently got a paltry 10% raise.
The Louisiana Military and National Guard vehicles poured forth and the crowd erupted in applause. We are a thankful city, y’all, even with full awareness that such a presence here on the 29th of last year, and not five days later, would have saved many of the thousand dead.
My Katrina evacuation photos weren’t released until yesterday, the first time I was able to relive the gut-wrenching anxiety. Sifting through my pictures, I wondered how many came back that evacuated with us. Was it the last time a number of them saw New Orleans? What a way to close a life chapter. On the other hand, it isn’t simple even for those who remained and returned, especially for the middle-class and business owners whose livelihoods were either damaged by wind and flood or, a year later, may fail due to increasing insurance costs and a dwindling consumer base. With less than half of pre-Katrina New Orleans residents back home, over 70,000 of them living in 240-square foot FEMA trailers, and the rising cost of living, penny-pinching is the norm.
In the high and dry French Quarter, the tourist section is littered with t-shirt and novelty shops owned by families of South Asian descent. When friends show up in town for the first time and want to buy the obligatory Bourbon St. and Mardi Gras t-shirts, I walk them to Decatur St. and to a large store owned by a lovely Sindhi couple and their Oxbridge-educated daughter. On a recent visit, the lack of business was so appalling that I insisted on paying full price, ignoring the loud objections of Aunty and Uncle to the contrary. “Arre, bacchi, how can we take this much from you? It’s not right.” [A note to non-desis: haggling is in our blood and must be conducted, usually at the behest of the store-owner] It is now my personal responsibility to pay full price to Paul (Prakash), Jim (Jahangir), Simon, Kendra, Don and every single small business owner whose store I frequent in New Orleans. “Buy New Orleanian” is the new motto around these parts. But, how long will our activism alone keep these endeavours afloat?
Indian and Pakistani traders in New Orleans’s popular French Quarter describe official recovery efforts as too little, too late. “Rebuilding is slow, business is less than half of what it used to be before Katrina,” says Murli Daswari, a souvenir shop trader from Puna, India. “At this pace, I don’t think I’ll survive much longer in business.” Strolling in the city’s popular flea Market, I come across Mohammad Ishtiaq, another dejected shop owner. He came to New Orleans from Karachi ten years ago. “This is supposed to be a bustling tourist town. Just look around you. The streets are empty and there are no customers,” he points out.
While some hard-core New Orleanians argue that the storm was good for taking out t-shirt and souvenir shops that “cheapen the Old World elegance of the Quarter,” one cannot ignore the fact that, next to bars, they are the biggest customer magnets in an economy that runs mainly on tourism. Additionally, Asian-owned businesses have historically had the lowest turnover in the Quarter. In other words, they have made New Orleans their home, send their kids to school here and stay put – they are the locals. It’s not surprising that many were amazed when an Indian restaurant closed shop and moved Uptown to cater to a more residential clientele.
As I cheered the public servants on parade today, I remembered how much they need our love and advocacy. New Orleans is reliant on history and the support of those who know it well. Without backing from their government and citizenry, our police and fire officials have no reason to keep going. Similarly, government and customer sustenance of local businesses is essential to the continuity of economy and community.
New Orleans is not a dead city, by any means, it’s just hurting. Nor is it architecture, Mardi Gras, streetcars or Cajun & Creole cuisines. The city is the people who live in those buildings, ride the transports, celebrate colorful holidays and cook and eat the food. It will be sad then to lose those people who make New Orleans who she is. We collectively recognize, as the BBC article states, that “the road to reconstruction will be long, hard and uphill. And even when the work is completed, New Orleans may never be the same again.” The citizens of New Orleans are the ones who define same.