On the plane to New Orleans yesterday, I spotted former New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin, whose book, “Katrina: After the Flood,” I’d just begun working my way through. I took a break from that to read a Sunday New York Times Magazine piece Rivlin adapted from his book, which focused on Alden J. McDonald Jr., president and chief executive of Liberty Bank and Trust Company, one of the Deep South’s first black-owned banks.
Rivlin’s story ends like this:
While much of New Orleans thrived, McDonald said he saw little hope of a better future for many of his customers. ‘‘The poor will stay poor and the middle class can never get ahead,’’ he said, revealing a rare flash of anger. He paused and added a phrase I don’t imagine he has used many times in his life: ‘‘And I don’t have the solution.’’
Later that day, I attended a reception in honor of Rivlin’s book at Le Musée de f.p.c., a wonderful house museum in a a Greek Revival residence on Esplanade Avenue. The museum’s website decribes the place this way:
“…. opens a door to a brilliant yet hidden history of people whose stories had largely been confined to archival boxes, out-of-print books, yellowing musical scores and the headstones in the city’s historic cemeteries. Locked by law into a marginal existence between slavery and freedom, free people of color were anomalies in a caste society rooted in Black and White, master and enslaved. Still, their undeniable achievements and vibrant culture serve to rewrite the conventional narrative of the history of New Orleans.”
At Rivlin’s book party, Alden McDonald had to choke back tears when he spoke of ten years ago, “when there were forces in this city bent on keeping certain people—African American people—from coming back.” He cautioned those who would be too self-congratulatory this week or who have grown “Katrina-weary” because of the need to recognize “those have not recovered or are not back at all.”
This morning, I attended “New Orleans: Ten Years Later,” a day’s worth of panels presented by The Atlantic (archived here).
At an opening discussion, “What Does It Mean to Know New Orleans?”:
Madeleine LeCesne, a 19-year-old Princeton-bound New Orleans resident, who had earlier recited an original poem, said this:
“Knowing New Orleans, when you’re born into it is kind of like loving a dog, as much as you love it. Part of you deep down, as much as you fight it, knows you’d be happy w any other animal. Then you take your first trip. I’ll never forget trip to Nashville. Never have to look for cracks and potholes. Waking on the sidewalk. You come back and that love changes. You start to love the city like you would a grandparent. You can’t comprehend why the city is so messed up – so old, so damaged. You don’t imagine losing it, just like you can’t think about losing your grandparents. Then something like Katrina happens. And you start to love the city like a parent. And then you worry—that fear, and that anxiety. Like when your parents don’t come home; they stay out a little later than they had said. It’s like that. And you can’t get past it.”
Tracie Washington, president and CEO of The Louisiana Justice Center, pointed out:
“We’ve lost 100,000 black folks in this city. That means we’ve lost a significant part of what New Orleans is.”
Lolis Eric Elie, a former New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist and co-producer of the documentary “Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” said:
“I think our measures of progress are based on how quickly rich people are getting richer.”
Yet the most remarkable thing I heard came during a public interview conducted by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
After Landrieu pointed out the importance of visits from Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, respectively), Goldberg asked about the idea to invite Bush. “That was my idea,” Landrieu explained, and then went on to say this about Bush’s visit:
“…I just think it’s really important for us to be grateful, to be thoughtful, to treat the president with dignity and respect, because he was our commander-in-chief at the time—and to say thank you to him.”
Don’t believe me?
You can find that moment here.