Saturday, March 07, 2009

Gawkers at the Levees

What are they thinking? How do they feel? These questions went through my head as I looked at the men staring back at us, mostly with blank expressions, a couple scowling. Possibly. Then again it could have been guilt on my part. I was in a caravan of luxury tour buses filled with mainly white folks weaving its way through the devastated areas of New Orleans. I was in town along with some 400 others for the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, a club of affluent and influential churches in the United States. I was one of the few people of color in the meeting and I got to go because my partner is a rector of an endowed church.

My discomfort is nothing new. Five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and coastal towns of Mississippi, the Christian Science Monitor reported about new bus tours.
Indeed, controversy has surrounded the start-up of for-profit tours in the midst of the Gulf Coast recovery. Some residents are offended to have their personal loss on display. And there have been scattered reports of rude tourists trespassing on property or callously taking close-up pictures as people sort through the rubble of their former lives.

The Daily Telegraph also had an article about the burgeoning trade.

EVERY morning Isabelle Cossart sets off in her white minibus to pick up tourists from their hotels to take them on a tour of the Big Easy and its swampy surroundings.

She has followed the same routine for 27 years. But in recent weeks her guests have headed into more controversial territory as they bump around an area that is not mentioned on any of the city's tourist maps: the Lower 9th Ward, the mainly black and poor neighbourhood that was all but levelled by Hurricane Katrina.

Mrs Cossart's Open City Disaster Tour has caused controversy that goes to the heart of the debate over the future of New Orleans. For some Americans it stirs memories of the outcry in New York when soon after the September 11 attacks vendors set up their stalls near the debris of the World Trade Centre's Twin Towers to sell video footage and photographs of their collapse.

It also rekindles the debate over other disaster zones and battlefields, such as Soweto and Dubrovnik, which went swiftly from being headline news to essential destinations on the discerning traveller's itinerary. With emotions running high over the city's plans to demolish thousands of houses in the Lower 9th, some hurricane survivors raking through the ruins of their homes have bridled as the minibuses drive by.

However, Mrs Cossart defends her tour as a way of projecting the awfulness of what happened and keeping the needs of New Orleans in the public eye. For $49 ( pounds 27), clients are given a three- hour tour starting in the relatively unscathed French Quarter and ending at one of the breaches in the levee system that allowed the waters to flood in.

"I am accused of voyeurism and taking advantage of victims' misery,'' she said. "But this is the largest natural disaster in American history. People want to see what is left. It is not voyeurism; it's human nature.''

There are those who argue that employment and much needed revenue are generated by this kind of tourism. Moreover, it sustains awareness of the gargantuan problems that still plague New Orleans.

Our tour guide, an idealistic and peppy native who came back from serving in Africa to help rebuild her hometown, assured us that we were very much welcome and that people in the Lower Ninth Ward and other devastated areas are grateful for the thousands of well-meaning volunteers that still come. We were introduced to a beneficiary of our generosity, a congregation that sprung out of an abandoned Walgreens. A representative sang the praises of volunteers who shower attention on the children.

Perhaps. Perhaps the African American men staring back at us are used to the tour buses and inspired groups who've come to hand out sandwiches, gut houses and build brightly colored eco-friendly homes. Perhaps they are grateful for the strangers that persist in coming and going. Or perhaps some ask where were you before Katrina? As the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana reminded us after the tour, this did not start with Katrina - this goes back to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South. It has its foundation in American slavery.

Perhaps some are asking why are we still living in abject poverty and despair? In this country of great wealth and power? Why is our governor denying federal assistance for those who need it most? Or perhaps they have stopped asking.

I can only speculate as our buses did not stop along the route that we might talk and meet these men that stared at us. Neither did I bother to return as I had stuff to do. There were the French Quarter and Garden District to discover as well as jambalaya, gumbo and muffaletta sandwiches to be had. I had much to see like the woman in front of me who asked the concierge which are the best tours? The plantation tours, jazz tours, swamp tours, the cemetery and gris-gris tours or the Hurricane Katrina tours? The concierge suggested a plantation tour in the morning and a Katrina tour in the afternoon. And she told me how to get on a trolley which would take me to Commander's Palace for turtle soup, veal pie and the best bread pudding in Nawlins. It was worth the trip.

Image from Geek Gestalt.

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