Over the last week, the 10th anniversary of New Orleans has a tale of two narratives: the city’s official story of recovery and a newly heralded “resilience,” contrasted with media accounts describing the growing disparities from neighborhood to neighborhood.
In an attempt to bridge both those perspectives, former President Bill Clinton used his keynote address during Saturday’s commemorative ceremonies to call for a “new unity” in New Orleans, saying the city should both celebrate the progress made since the floods and rededicate itself to overcoming the deeply-rooted challenges that remain.
The foundation-funded “Katrina 10” program heavily featured the images that have predominated the city’s messaging since the storm: Mardi Gras Indians and John Boutte, Soledad O’Brien and charter schools, Cafe Reconcile, AmeriCorps and Circle Food Store (one of only six black-owned groceries in the country, said owner Brooke Boudreaux). Eight leaders representing the city’s major faith groups — Catholic and Protestant, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism — offered prayers in a variety of New Orleans accents as well as in Spanish, Hebrew and Vietnamese. Bishop Darryl Brister of Beacon Light International asked for guidance seeking meaning in suffering, and the Rev. Elizabeth Lott of St. Charles Avenue Baptist prayed that injustice not be dismissed as a “quirk” of New Orleans.
About an hour and a half into the program, Mayor Mitch Landrieu took the stage and delivered a characteristically energetic, upbeat and personal address — starting by calling out many of the city’s neighborhood names to cheers from the Smoothie King Center audience. He repeated, as he has at events throughout the week, that the anniversary has three purposes: first, to remember those lost in the storm, and second, to thank those who came to assist New Orleans from around the world.
“The world gasped at the possibility of losing the soul of America, a beacon of hope for the world, and they came to our aid,” Landrieu said. “In that tragedy came triumph.”
The third purpose, Landrieu said, is to look ahead to the challenges still facing New Orleans.
“We are not finished. We have more work to do,” Landrieu said. “We will not rest. We will not stop until every neighborhood is back.”
While Landrieu’s comments were resolutely optimistic, Clinton struck a more somber tone.
“What do we owe the memory of those who didn’t make it?” Clinton said. “What do we owe the sacrifice and effort of those who risked their lives to save those who survived? What do we owe those who passed away in the last 10 years who did everything they possibly could to bring New Orleans back and give it a better future?”
Every positive Katrina 10 article about the “new” New Orleans of innovation and entrepreneurship has been matched by another piece about the widening income disparities between blacks and whites (The New York Times described the city’s “poverty and routine violence … with a new sense of dislocation“). Clinton said he has read them all.
“I think the people who are pessimistic understate and underestimate the sheer magnitude of what has been accomplished against enormous odds,” Clinton said. “And I think the people who underestimate the continuing disparities by race, by income, by access to education, jobs, capital — I think they underestimate how important it is to keep living in the future and not in the past.
“I think we need a new unity in New Orleans here tonight,” Clinton said.
It is a stark reality that many New Orleanians have not had the resources to return, or chose not to because of a perceived lack of jobs for them, Clinton said. Yet it is also true that houses are being rebuilt faster than ever, and more high-school graduates from New Orleans are attending college.
But being happy about the progress so far doesn’t mean anyone should stop trying to work to solve the remaining problems, Clinton said.
“There’s a difference between being happy and being satisfied,” Clinton said.
“It should not stop you from trying to erase the last manifestations of the color line, the economic difference, the education difference, the healthcare differences,” Clinton said. “You can be proud, New Orleans, and I don’t want anybody who feels bad about what hasn’t been done to minimize what has been done.”
“I have seen this city in every state of repair and disrepair that has existed for more than 50 years,” Clinton continued, recalling his first trip the city when he was 3 to visit his mother at Charity Hospital’s nursing school. “I’m just telling you, you have a lot to celebrate tonight. But the celebration must be leavened by rededication.”
“Laugh tonight and dance to the music. You earned it,” Clinton concluded. “And tomorrow, wake up and say, ‘Look at what we did. I bet we can do the rest too.'”
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