Writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie on treacherous policy and the trials of preservation
The Baby Boyz Brass Band at Satchmo Summerfest Second-line in New Orleans. Image by dsb nola via Wikimedia Commons
In the decade since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ wounds have been laid bare and healed over, leaving scars and an altered city. Some of this change came through the tragic fallout of a devastating natural disaster, which displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes and otherwise overturned the lives of many more. But a host of negligent-to-worse factors, ranging from poorly conceived governmental policies to gentrification and naked greed, have also left indelible marks on the city in recent years. And as residents get past the transitive, reactionary state of “recovery,” assessing a new New Orleans, there’s a measure to be taken of what was lost, what is frustratingly the same, and what, through tireless effort, has been painstakingly preserved.
New Orleans has always been an iconoclast among American cities, a wild, yet rock-steady antidote to the country’s ever-growing sameness. But its celebrated cultural hallmarks, which have faced commodification and the threat of erasure since Katrina, are not some static geographical feature of the city; they are one and the same as the communities that grew them, attached to the complication of individuals and families and neighborhoods. Those communities have changed in meaningful ways with the post-flood years, as among other factors, about 100,000 of New Orleans’ black residents who left after the storm have not, or cannot come back to their homes.
I talked to Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleanian, longtime journalist, documentarian, and story editor of the post-Katrina HBO drama Treme, about how those changing communities are holding up, the political and economic pressures being exerted upon them, and how the city’s story is being told. Elie, who once said, “New Orleans is my nation,” has been a constant cultural commentator, both before and after the storm, narrating local realities through his writing and other creative work. We spoke by phone Friday morning.
So you grew up in New Orleans, where history has always lived with the present in a very particular way. And for many people, the storm interrupted that continuity. In that sense, how do you think the city has changed for people growing up in New Orleans now?
A whole bunch of things have turned geography on its head. One is this idea of growing up with multiple generations in one area, who now are no longer living in that area, who had to move. But another aspect is that because there are fewer people, there are fewer schools, and because of the charter movement, people are not going to their neighborhood schools. So even your sense of neighborhood pride is disrupted. And there are whole neighborhoods that have barely come back.
But the other thing that happens is that people have moved in, buying houses in poor neighborhoods. Which means as opposed to [a situation] where your neighbors, who you know for generations, still live next door, you have a whole lot of folks who just moved here from Brooklyn or L.A. or wherever, who in addition to not having personal history in that neighborhood, have no personal history in the city itself. Moreover, the city decided to destroy public housing. And with that came the destruction of more communities.
And the people who have been displaced—I’ve heard it referred to as the New Orleans diaspora—where are they now?
I’ve heard that there’s anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 black New Orleanians who have not returned to the city. Some of them haven’t returned, obviously, because they found something good somewhere else, and you’ve got to be happy for them. Some of them have not returned because several government policies have made it difficult, if not impossible. The destruction of public housing in New Orleans might be chief among them. In addition to that, the federal government flew tens of thousands of New Orleanians out of the city to every state in the union. But there has been no serious effort since then to even track where these people are. Which shows that the government is not particularly interested in what happened to these people. And certainly not interested in bringing them home. So amid all the celebration about the changes in the public education system and the changes in the public housing system, often what is missed is the great price New Orleanians have paid for these imperfect changes.
The city now has less black people than it used to, and the historic neighborhoods are less black than they used to be. How have these demographic changes played out culturally in the decade since the storm?
There are many of us who worried that the culture of the city would die as a result of the flood and the depopulation. Those fears have proven unfounded. Much of what you could have done before, you can do now, there are plenty of people doing second lines and so forth. But those kind of cultural changes take longer periods of time to play out. And so while the culture is still very strong now, and there is every sign it will continue, we have to be careful in our analysis, working hard to make the worst doesn’t happen.
You once said that locals feared that that New Orleans would come back as a sort of caricature, a “Disni-fied version of itself.” Has that happened?
It is an active fight in the cultural community to try to keep the street culture of the city alive. But, for example, I’ve seen advertisements to have Mardi Gras Indians and second-line people at your wedding. That takes a culture out of context. So whereas in the context of the streets of New Orleans, a second-line parade is part of a meaningful community, if you take a second-line parade and put it at a wedding reception, or at a convention, does it still have any connection to its roots?
I would not so much argue that there’s some sort of absolute here, that a second-line is great on the street and terrible in the auditorium, I would argue that unless we are aware of the culture being made into a caricature of itself, we risk ending up as that caricature. For example Bourbon Street is a caricature of New Orleans [as a whole]. So the idea exists that people from New Orleans are so spoiled and so crazy that they’re just drinking all the time and falling down drunk on Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street is a real part of New Orleans. But to suggest that the activities you see on Bourbon Street are emblematic of New Orleanians is a gross misreading of who we are and why we’re different from other parts of the world.
Image courtesy of Lolis Eric Elie
It’s been said that there was a politicization of the second line groups after the storm. Is it necessary to be political as part of New Orleans culture now?
It is not. But I would say, even at this point, most of the cultural expression, while not overtly political, is, in a sense, political, in that street culture is a statement about ownership of public space. The fact is that the second-line organizations take to the streets of New Orleans, even though law enforcement would rather we not do this.
The Mardi Gras Indian chief Tootie Montana literally died in the city council chambers, saying that the harassing of Mardi Gras Indians had to stop. That should give you some sense of the level of frustration that’s taken place, even before the flood. To find ourselves still fighting this battle—I mean, I could tell you things that happened a year ago, three years, ago, five years ago, with regards to harassment of Indians and other folks—but my point is that beyond that fight, once people are on the street, there’s not much politics on the street. Which I think is how it should be.
Why is that?
It’s not that I’m opposed to political expression. It’s that at their roots, these organizations are about celebration. And if they find themselves in a context where they are forced to become more political, it suggests that something is wrong and their purposes are being perverted and forced into a political expression. I mean, the idea of black people taking over the streets of New Orleans is in and of itself, political. And therefore, there shouldn’t have to be the added burden of overt political expression.
What do you think are some of the seminal creative works that have come out of New Orleans in the post-Katrina era? What do you think we’ll be looking back on to tell us this story in the future?
It’s difficult for me to talk about the creative work, because I spend much of my time away from [New Orleans] now, which means I’m not going to gallery openings and things like that. So I’m not totally comfortable answering that question, because out of 10 important works that have come out, I probably only know one or two of them.
But there was the Wendell Pierce rendition of Waiting for Godot in the lower ninth ward, and the Prospect art biennials have been incredibly significant. Willie Birch has done a lot of work commemorating New Orleans street culture in his paintings and drawings. And a woman named Dawn Dedeaux, she’s done some beautiful public art, post-Katrina. So those projects come to mind.
When you were working on Treme and observing these real things around you, how did you synthesize them into a fictional context?
Well, David Simon was a journalist and so his is very much a documentary approach. … It felt good to be able to work on a fictional show that told stories that started just months after the flood. But the show itself didn’t air until about five years after the storm, so we had the benefit of hindsight. We also had an opportunity to comment on things that may have seemed settled, but we could bring them back up as a means of talking about how they actually happened and became [settled]. So in a sense, we were making a fictional TV show, but one that was based, fundamentally, on history.
People use the term “post-recovery New Orleans” now, how do you feel about that expression? Is the city post-recovery?
If you talk about where we are now, clearly we’re recovered, or at least stabilized, I can definitely say that. So that’s not a term I would argue with. My concern is less with the language employed and more with the priorities we pursue. And I think there’s a growing recognition, from the mayor and others—particularly as it applies to black people and poor people—that the city has a lot of work to do. I don’t think that the city is willing to dedicate itself to improving the conditions of poor people and working black people if it endangers the ability of rich white people to get richer.
I saw the TED talk you did with Branford Marsalis about 5 years ago, regarding the Musician’s Village housing project. How has that community come along in the years since you did that presentation?
That project is going well. Of the 79 houses that were constructed, I believe 70 are occupied. The Ellis Marsalis Center remains an important place for concerts and other events, so that’s going well. You’ve got to be careful when talking about this, because to suggest that everything in New Orleans is going wrong is certainly not the case. There are things that have happened that have been good, and that are worthy of our celebration. But other things have not been so good, and people need to be aware of them and work to improve them.