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Friday, April 12, 2013

New Orleans is no wasteland

New Orleans is no wasteland  Opinion published in Times Picayune 4/12/13
By Bryant S. York

In his segment on crime and corruption in New Orleans last week, Geraldo Rivera referred to everything outside the French Quarter as a "vast urban wasteland." I'm not taking issue with the string of factual inaccuracies in his piece. No, the good folks of the New Orleans business community and the local media have already pinpointed and corrected them several times over.
The trouble here is the "wasteland" comment. And the problem is Mr. Rivera's misunderstanding of two things: the Crescent City and the English language. As a (relatively new) New Orleanian and a former English teacher, I'm peculiarly well positioned to help him out here. So let's see what we can do.
First, let's discuss wastelands. There are many kinds. For example, we can look to the nuclear variety (see Chernobyl, 1986), the environmental (see the Dust Bowl, 1934-1936), the urban (see Dresden, 1945) and the poetic (see Elliott, T.S.). This is extreme stuff. By definition, a wasteland is barren, ugly and uncultivated. Not so much a place where someone wouldn't want to live, but rather a place where no one can live. They are, in short, uninhabitable.
Next, let's turn to New Orleans. When my wife and I decided to move here in 2011 after 16 years in New York City, we weren't being adventurous or glib. We weren't experimenting with planting our flag on some barren tuft to see what we could make grow. We didn't know it at the time, but the decision to move to New Orleans was made for us by the city on our first visit years ago. That decision was confirmed time and again on each subsequent trip, including a notable one when we were married here with a host of wide-eyed New Yorkers in tow. (They had never seen a second line. Mr. Rivera should try one.)

Why this decision? Why join so many others leaving New York or Chicago or San Francisco or elsewhere to find a home in New Orleans? Because here, you not only know your neighbors, but they take care of you (even the newbies). Because here, as with all of surrounding southern Louisiana, they preserve and enhance what is local - whether in the form of language, customs, cooking or dozens of other iterations. Meanwhile, the country at large is steadily losing its sense of the local. It continues to slip towards homogenization.
But New Orleans reassures us that it doesn't have to, and New Orleans points the way back. Because here is a celebration of community, hosted daily, that is typically seen from afar only during community celebrations. Because here is a patchwork of far flung peoples and histories fused into a cultural generator, whose celebrated products are too often reduced to the shorthand of food and jazz. The city, with outsized influence, projects this active legacy steadily upward and outward, like the Mississippi flowing in reverse. (Quick thought experiment: name another city with anything in spitting distance of a 350,000 population that has had a similar impact on life, and living, in America. Timer starts now.)

And that brings us back to Mr. Rivera's bumbling with language. If it was aimed at reality, it sailed far wide of the mark. The city he calls barren is full of life. What he calls empty is actually full. Of course, everyone is at liberty to be wrong. But Mr. Rivera is an entertainer. (I would have reached for journalist, but there are, after all, only so many triple axels that poor Mr. Murrow and Mr. Cronkite can land in their graves.) And as an entertainer, there is a sequence in what Mr. Rivera does. He has a thought, utters it into a microphone, and off it goes pinging around the country and the globe. In that position, more is required of him. A moment of pause between thinking and scattering his thoughts to the televised winds.

Willful blindness is not an option. At the bare minimum, it requires that he correctly identify the wasteland. Here's a hint: it's right there, in residence, between his ears.
Bryant S. York lives in New Orleans, where he practices law as a civil litigator.

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