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Promotin’ the General Welfare

The Monuments are Gone — Now What?

Well, the day after the monuments came down has come to pass, and I have to tell ya: it feels pretty… anticlimactic. Not that I thought there would be more drama, not that we needed more fodder for the national media for what was, basically, a smart business move by the Mayor. But now comes the hard part. Forgetting the news coverage and the protests, and the impotent charade of failed civil unrest brought to us by concerned neighbors from nearby parishes and states, where is the plan laid out that addresses how we move forward? It would have been a timely presentation to make, accentuating the positive in this graduation season. 


It is to the future citizens of New Orleans that the case must be made to remain or depart. The recent and future graduates of New Orleans’ colleges and high schools have an important decision to make once they receive their diplomas: do I pursue my dreams elsewhere or plan to go elsewhere once I complete my college studies, or do I anticipate a sound and stable future upon which I can rely here at home?


Each year, the attending pageantry of graduation season brings scenes of smiling students and families.  After so much hard work and sacrifice, the euphoric release is overwhelming, overtaking even the most reserved of personalities. Once that moment passes, it’s time to set one’s sights on what lies ahead, and this is where “choice” — not only in education, but in opportunity — becomes crucial.


What opportunities await recent graduates to participate in the local economy beyond the plethora of limited, and limiting, low-wage positions?  A starter job only lasts so long. And what about a more fulfilling starter job? One that encourages graduates to hone their talents here at home with the chance to put their dreams into effect at home as well. 


Beyond gainful employment, what about cultural and social issues, more specifically, race relations? What efforts are underway to bring people together to address the divisive gulf that continues to make New Orleans the tale of two, and sometimes, three or four, cities in one? 


If anything, the grousing and grumbling from both sides of the monuments’ argument illustrates the long road we continue to travel toward healing and understanding. Just as there are persons who’ve celebrated the removal of these monuments from the cityscape, their opponents see more than merely a disgraceful dismantling of long-cherished symbols but an offense against their sense of place, history, and people — precisely the charge made by those supporting the monuments removal.


Where between these two perspectives is it possible to find common ground? How’s about focusing on the future of our fair city — the key word here being fair.


In this revitalization of New Orleans, there are clearly winners and losers, challenges and roadblocks. There are those who champion change and those who curse the changes that have come. Where once we saw only certain groups living in certain parts of the city, now, new folks and faces openly participate in local culture in a way that is, frankly, surprising to some (to put it mildly). We hear from voices who are offended by gentrification, and see the displacement of long-standing residents from the neighborhoods by Airbnbs and outside investments. Where some see good, others see evil. 


As a son of a family that was spread all around New Orleans, with historical roots in Treme, folks living In Gentilly and the Ninth Ward, both the Lower 9 and New Orleans East, my perspective has long been, “Whatever works,” which is my way of saying, “Whatever the people in that community decide.”  It may not always be what you want, but if it works for those folks over there, then let it be — live and let live.


What many folks feel nowadays is a sense that their community has been overlooked on the way to making New Orleans a greater place – they were never really consulted. Sure, lots of meetings and planning sessions were convened and hosted, but often, many of the displaced residents remained so while these goings-on were going down. Now, plans have been implemented and deals done that have impacted a way of life that seems out of sync with the “new” New Orleans, or aspects have been appropriated to accommodate the “new” in New Orleans in a way that strikes some as cultural theft – I get it. I’ve lived elsewhere and heard and seen the same things, and it’s not all a “racial” divide: it may be “cultural” or “ethnic”, or a clash of the urban and urbane with small town values.


This “movement” from the familiar to the oddly-foreign has happened here before, but gone are the elements that gave certain citizens a sense of stability with respect to how institutions worked, organizations provided, and, most importantly, the community functioned. And it’s this last part that is key: their sense of community has been disrupted and disturbed, and they often feel like there is failure to appreciate this tectonic shift. 


The fallout from Hurricane Katrina caused local agencies, leaders, and schools to set people alongside another, people who had no sense of allegiance or history of good relations. Now, in some areas, folks simply lash out as the only way to express frustration and a desire to be recognized, and we know this violent form of expression is counter-productive, but when whole communities feel they are no longer viable, they will find a way to remind you they are still here/there/wherever.


There are areas, however, where success is on display and positive growth can be measured. Recently, Edna Karr High School celebrated its graduation at the Convocation Center on Xavier University’s campus. There was much to celebrate as the school has risen to be one of the top schools not just in the city, but in the region and state as well. In many ways, the striking dichotomy of Karr’s success and Landry-Walker High School’s failings mirror the struggle in New Orleans. The latter school, making local headlines for a blatant cheating scandal, is also located in Algiers on the Westank. Algiers has always been its own little “city” within a city, and not just because of Algiers Point. In many ways, it’s separation from the city proper affords it an autonomy to develop a plan that emphasizes success by its standards and expectations. The leaders of Karr High School have clearly maximized the opportunity to achieve deliverables in accordance with the vision of a “new” New Orleans: the potential of charter schools and the “Choice” movement in education to effect positive change; an economic base that includes commercial and residential diversity becoming of a city on the rise; and a community that remains true to its own provincial traditions. Where better to look than the Westbank to understand what greatness can be achieved and what problems need addressing? 


For all of the efforts to replicate success by the standard of other American cities, focusing on what’s gone right locally and regionally may be the remedy that rights our course. New Orleans is a city in need of healing in so many ways — the monuments’ controversy illuminated but one aspect of what beleaguers us.


The diagnosis should include not only a recognition of the reliable symptoms but should acknowledge an awareness of those issues that are new to our city’s history since Katrina: a forum with the plain, practical goal of allowing people to speak, listen, then dialog will provide a better understanding of who we are right now. Not the old New Orleans, but where things stand now. Sure, that will require lots of whiteboards and markers and note-takers, but we’ve been down this path before thanks to Eracism and similar public, community forums which sought to help and heal our city in challenging times past. 


Maybe then we’ll learn whether we don’t want things to change or change too much; maybe we are a divided city and would like it to stay that way; maybe it’s who we are: like the rest of the United States, paying lip service to a set of Constitutional ideals, but making it work while steadfastly staying true to our petty and personal preferences.


And that’s okay, it we own up to it. But, we need not squander the successes of those at Karr and the kids they’ve shepherded forth and leave them without better opportunities and a better community to which they can return or in which they may remain.


We need not deny the improvements that have come our way and ridicule the “new” that’s here now. Change in New Orleans is long overdue. Let’s champion it without causing folks to fell left out. And now that the embarrassing, upsetting symbols of a racist past have been removed, let’s dedicate ourselves to resolving symbolic differences that continue to delay real progress and stay true success for all of New Orleans.   


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.

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