Wednesday (8.27) was a beautiful New Orleans day, perfect for a presidential visit. President Barack Obama spoke at the recently opened Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center (1616 Caffin Avenue) in the Lower 9th Ward. The POTUS touched on government failure, income inequality, and lots about the Recovery.
Obama flew into New Orleans earlier in the day. he began the junket making people-to-people visits in Tremé and what used to be the Lafitte housing complex. His tour, with Landrieu at his side, also included stops at the famed Dooky Chase’s Restaurant and Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Then, he headed to the community center.
The location of the speech was significant. The center is situated on a corner that looks as new as any in the Lower Ninth Ward, with the Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School on the other side of Caffin Avenue. This is an area where Mayor Mitch Landrieu said was “17 feet underwater” after the levees were breached. On the neutral ground in front of the center, stood a giant piece of art from Rashida Ferdinand titled "Mandala," a beautiful sphere using ceramics and steel.
Obama spoke about some acknowleddged some issues painfully familiar to locals, “We came to realize that what started out as a natural disaster became a manmade disaster — a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.” But the President also mentioned that “New Orleans, like so many cities and communities across the country, had for too long been plagued by structural inequalities that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing.” As he recalled one New Orleanian who had been exiled to Houston after the storm telling him “We had nothing before the hurricane — now we have less than nothing.”
President Obama stated that “We acknowledge this loss, and this pain, not to dwell on the past, not to wallow in grief; we do it to fortify our commitment and to bolster our hope, to understand what it is that we’ve learned, and how far we’ve come.” He mentioned the school system being one of the areas where New Orleans has greatly improved, citing the statistics of high school graduation rates being up to 73% (from 54%) and college enrollment climbing to nearly 60% (from 37%).
The praise for the controversial school system remake fell in line with one of Landrieu’s main talking points. Landrieu took the podium before the President and said “Not only do [the youth] deserve to learn, but they have a right to learn, and if you give them the tools, they will lead the nation.”
Obama also talked about mixed income housing, the new VA Medical Center, and private business growth, highlighting Michelle Gobert’s business (she introduced the President yesterday) as an example of a prosperous New Orleans’ business.
But President Obama also said “Our work won’t be done when a typical black household earns half the income of white households in this city.” He mentioned how 40% of children in New Orleans still live in poverty. And that there are “too many people who have yet to find good, affordable housing, and too many people — especially African American men — who can’t find a job.” During his speech, one woman yelled “Mental health,” a cause that has plagued New Orleans after the flood, with not enough people getting the support they need.
President Barack Obama ended on a positive note, talking about the spirit of the people of New Orleans. He said “The people of New Orleans, there’s something in you guys that is just irrepressible. You guys have a way of making a way out of no way. You know the sun comes out after every storm."
Obama also took some time to establish his bonafides with locals. He opened the speech with a "Where y'at?" A brief pontifiation on po-boys followed. The prez also expressed his desire to see Rebirth "a day after he leaves office" and quoted some Professor Longhair.
Most of what the President said was congruent with the local politicians who spoke before him. Marc Morial also gave a speech, contending that the recovery was at “halftime” and that “Until the Lower 9th Ward is back, we cannot say this city is truly recovered.”
Congressman Cedric Richmond quoted the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" when talking about how the city has come along, but still needs more work, saying “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” (Landrieu would quote the same poem afterwards.)
Outside the center, a group of people from the neighborhood filled up the neutral ground between the barricades. There was a band playing a song with small percussion instruments around the Mandala piece. A man stood by them, with a sign, calling State Farm “liars” and asking for President Obama’s help. I walked down Caffin Avenue to talk to a colleague, and when I returned the street had thinned out, with the band gone, the man holding onto one corner of the sign, alone on the empty neutral ground.
Watch the speech below.