Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cameras and Indians



"There's no such thing as civilization. The word just means the art of living in cities."
-- Roger Zelazny

Think Western movie meets Las Vegas meets National Geographic meets New Orleans. At least that's what I thought on St. Joseph's Day, walking around LaSalle Street in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. In this version, the Indians are black, and saddled with costumes weighing easily 100 pounds, sewn by the models, and costing $10,000 or more to construct. It is one of the handful of days a year they will don their garb. In a few days the masterpieces will be hanging in closets while the Indians prepare another one to be worn the year after. Carrying on for at least a century, legend has it that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition commemorates the relationship between Native Americans who gave asylum to black slaves fleeing their owners.


Today the Mardi Gras Indians strike a pose with not an ounce of reservation. They have spent a year making their regalia and don it with pride for all the world to see. Recently the subject of New York Times articles, some tribes have hired lawyers who register patents on costume designs.

Frequently the Indians are residents of Central City, and at one time came out of the Magnolia/CJ Peete Public Housing Project, which was one of the most dangerous, high-crime public housing projects. At one time it enjoyed the highest murder rate in a city which enjoyed one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Today, the Magnolia/CJ Peete Project is the site of Harmony Oaks Apartments, a private development of mixed-income units, a third of which are homes to former public housing residents, a third which house low-income earners, and a third of which house those paying market rate rent. Throughout its development Harmony Oaks faced a battalion of criticism, having displaced impoverished public housing residents, arming them with only Section 8 rental vouchers in a city with few landlords who actually accepted the voucher for rent. And, for many low-income residents, the private rental market rarely provided an improved quality of life.

Harmony Oaks was controversial not only for its development process but also for the market rate style of architecture and amenities, using billions of federal dollars for a project supposedly dedicated to serving the poor. Since the development rose from the ashes, many have been astounded by the plummeting of the violent crime rate, and many are skeptical at how long this will last.


Adjacent to Harmony Oaks is A.L. Davis Park. Formerly known as Shakespeare Park, it has served primarily the residents of the public housing project and neighboring community for decades. As a result, AL Davis has seen not only generations of teenagers playing football and basketball, but also its fair share of drug-related murders.

On St. Joseph's Day, it is perfectly warm, sticky of course, and I am standing in the thick of it, sandwiched between two tribes, the chiefs of whom are duking it out in mock altercation, where once real knife fights occurred. Feathers are flying, as are bull horns mounted on staffs. Behind the chiefs, the sun is setting, and the silhouettes of a graveyard next to them is in relief.

I am surrounded mostly by African-Americans, and a handful of Caucasians with cameras. I also have a camera in one hand, and in the other hand is a beer. I walk from one corner to the other, watching this free show/block party filled with colorful feathers, beads, drums and acting. I feel as if I am in another country, not my own.

The next day I return to the neighborhood for the Super Sunday celebration, also hosted by the Mardi Gras Indians. I am stunned. Where St. Joseph's Day was a mellow, fairly Central City-local experience, on this Super Sunday, there are hundreds of Caucasians, comparable to the number of African-Americans present.

Central City is a neighborhood with which I am familiar, working for a non-profit housing developer that has targeted a subsection of the area for blight reduction and redevelopment. And, in six months of passing through the neighborhood, I have never seen this many white people in all of Central City like I am seeing on this Super Sunday. I am bewildered by their presence. Attracting home owners to and investment of any color in Central City is a struggle--so much so, it is why I have a job. Yet, on this day, white spectators are in herds, many of whom are taking photographs of streets and people with whom they likely will never interface for the rest of the year. All of a sudden, I am sheepish about the camera in the palm of my own hand, and pack it away in my bag.

I moved to New Orleans not even a year ago. For me, to live in a new place is a matter of linguistics. Discovering the nooks and crannies of a city is like learning to think in a different language, forcing me at once not only to eradicate preconceived notions but also to take on new ideas. To understand a place is also to understand a culture, and it is an experience I enjoy.

But it takes me time, and it takes effort, to get to that point where I stop feeling like an outsider looking in. I have in the past taken up professions that enabled me to feel useful in society, which has often meant working with individuals from historically disenfranchised demographics. But that experience most of the time was an isolating one. When I was a public defender, I found it difficult to connect to my clients, men in jumpsuits locked behind unbreakable double glass panes. My other jobs were even more disconnecting, with only some remediation after the most ardent of efforts.

A few days later I return to the same park. It is sprinkled with teenagers running around, and a swarm of young men playing basketball. Mothers are with toddlers. None of them are white. There is no drug dealing, and it is serene here, though just around the corner on another block, the slinging goes on. With a beer in my hand, I am sitting on the stoop of a traditional New Orleans shotgun house that the organization I work for has targeted for redevelopment. I know none of the people I am watching and acknowledge to myself that at this very moment, again, I am on the outside looking in.

But the sun is setting as I walk to my car, which reminds me that this too shall pass. It is a process I believe I can get through. I know, that because I want to, one day I will speak New Orleans and I will know Central City.

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