Monday, December 10, 2007

Transplant indiscretion

December 10, 2007
CJ Peete (Magnolia) Housing Projects
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The rumble in the green space between units at the Magnolia housing projects is gone now, replaced by the muffled sounds of the expressway nearby.

The physical structures are barracks-styled, they look much like a Northeastern boarding school or what servicemen might have stayed in during World Wars. There aren't many who'd say these public housing projects aren't built well. A joke down here is, "The only time people are running to the projects is when a storm is coming."

Jokes are funny. But they only work with little truths. People have always run from the projects. They run when crimes are committed. Or they run away pursuing a better life. Before the Storm, the public housing projects were centers of violent crime, poverty and poor education. Magnolia, in its pre-storm days, had developed a national reputation for its violent crime.

It has been locked since the Storm.

Magnolia and three other of the City's largest projects are due to be demolished beginning next week. Advocates of the New Orleans' public housing projects aren't going quietly. Last week, they marched on the City Council meeting. Today, recent whispers of human road blocks became yelps of intent. You see, many of the housing projects suffered little damage in the storm, and some, according to anti-demolition advocates, are move-in ready. Many public housing residents are still displaced and those who've come back returned to locks on their residences.

It's a bit of a paradox in New Orleans--tearing down usable buildings.

This is not an arena for me to tell you about whether I think the demolitions are right. The price tag is large and the outcome calls for mixed-income communities. There are passionate people on both sides.

The clash (read: human roadblocks) between government and grassroots arrives on December 15th. Until today, these advocates had played a flawless game of call-to-action and political dissent. Many of these human roadblocks will look more like me than the typical New Orleans' public housing resident. Thousands of young, mostly white and well-educated Americans have transplanted themselves here post-Katrina.

They are hip, socially-conscious and technologically fit, blogging, photoshopping and disseminating media to all corners of America and abroad. So today, when the signs appeared reading: "For every Public Housing Unit Destroyed, A Condo Will Be Destroyed," --I didn't see angry and powerless people behind them.

I saw transplants with far less invested creating a firestorm in a racially divided City already on fragile ground.

I was at City Hall when these signs appeared, and I've seen many of the socially-just post-K white well-to-doers at the protest on several other occasions during my time here.

After all, I guess I'm one of 'em. I might have even sat at their lunch table, if this was high school.

It was disappointing that transplants had become the story. Disappointing that, if this was a game, role players lept at an opportunity to become more important than they are. The fight between government and grassroots in an old city doesn't need newcomers with little invested inserting themselves into the dispute. The FBI is investigating. I believe it's propaganda produced in a corner coffee shop that went too far. I think most have the same attitude.

We are a generation of altruism. A demographic of go-getters and big dreamers. More so, I'd say than any who've come before us, given our development in relatively peaceful and prosperous times. Somewhere along the line, behind the big ideas and world-beating attitudes, a little narcissism crept in.

It took a lot of gumption to adhese these signs to City Hall and around the Central Business District. I think it took even bigger egos.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, this is not our place to become the story, or the world-changers. A guy told me the other day that he's a little tired of the idealistic transplants who think they've "come to save our shipwreck from itself."

I'm all for idealism. I'm all for world-beaters. But, we must all remember, the people from New Orleans are a courageous and competent bunch and we, the young transplants, will learn more from them than they'll ever learn from us. There is a delicate balance between learning, listening and serving a community and doing what you think is best.


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