Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Third World" New Orleans?

There is an issue that has been conspicuously absent from this, my blog of New Orleans. The issue, of course, is Katrina.

The issue of Katrina is huge. So big that I've been daunted at the prospect of posting on it but I knew it was something I would have to do. So I'm going to do it in bite size pieces. I was inspired to finally begin this endeavour by a comment that Darren got at work and one I have often heard myself: "Welcome to the Third World".

I was puzzled upon hearing this the first time and attributed it to the response (or rather lack of one) to the Katrina aftermath. It was a phrase that the national media latched onto to describe the scenes of homeless citizens crying out for assistance. I have to admit I remember asking at the time if this was pounced upon so eagerly because most of these poor suffering people were black? The correlation of the circles of enslavement, debt and exploitation of African countries certainly fits with how the black community of New Orleans has been treated.

But this term also annoyed me. Yes the suffering was terrible and yes it should never have happened. But this suffering was different from that of people who have walked for days with little food or water for months on end through the African desert to get to a refugee camp. This suffering was First World! It was so awful because in America these people should have had government assistance, should have had proper levees protecting their homes, should have had water flown in to help hydrate them in the stifling heat. If this tragedy is looked at in the classification of Third World then there is done a great disservice to the magnitude of the wrongs that were done and the injustices suffered.

Yet I think there is more to what these people have meant when Darren and I have been met with the greeting "Welcome to the Third World" and I think its a greeting we would have heard had we come to this city prior to Katrina. This phrase is said almost with a degree of pride. I find it very odd.

I realise it is in reference to how inept and corrupt things can be run down here. I realise it refers to the way the rest of America has always neglected New Orleans. I don't realise how it can be accepted here. Or how flippantly it is bandied around. It has a degree of fatalism about it. If New Orleans is the Third World then its doomed to always fall behind other American cities.

If it was being used to describe the abject poverty that the New Orleans poor live or rather exist in, then I can understand it. The projects were slums (they are presently sitting empty waiting for either the old occupants to return or to be torn down). The poor live in housing which is totally unacceptable and try to eek out a living on next to nothing. And, of course, like the Third World, the poor here were/are mostly black. And like the Third World, they are OK when confined to their neighborhoods but condemned when they dare to misbehave and invade the richer areas. But this is also true of most big American cities: 'over the rhine' in Cincinnati, east Cleveland, Detroit.

It makes me mad when I hear (white of course) people claim that it is 'unfortunate' but you have to admit most criminals have black skin. This is something that the national media have been good at projecting and, of course, it goes back to slavery, segregation and civil rights. Instead of associating the color of their skin as a reason for their behaviour, we need to see the common thread of poverty. The don't turn to crime because they are black but because it is a means of surviving because you are poor. Perhaps if this reality was addressed the crime in America could be properly addressed.

New Orleans is not the Third World. Katrina was devastating but it wasn't a Third World event. Yes, some people lost their lives (close to the same figure as 911 - this is another post), yes some people were treated live animals, yes there was too little too late. But what people lost were homes with running water and electricity, they lost possessions, they lost pets, heirlooms, photographs. In the Third World when there is a crisis they don't have such things to loose.

There are some other articles on this issue I found online here and here and a blog post here.


TravelingMermaid said...

So interesting to hear your thoughts on the "third world" moniker. I've always felt a bit uncomfortable when hearing that in reference to Nola....especially by outsiders. The fact is most Americans have no clue as to what the third world is really like.
I like your point of view and your blog.

Mark said...

To suggest we are Third World is not just a reference to poverty and corruption. It can also be taken in an entirely different way, the way a number of us are discussing in rspone to the planner Duanny's article in Business Week in which he asked if New Orleans were not the most benighted city in America but one of the best run cities in the Carribean.

What important is that there a cultural divides that ignore national borders, and New Orleans falls into a world that is more a part of the Caribbean or Latin America than the Anglo nation to the north.

That involves a certain laissez-faire toward everything that is ultimately manifested in our inept governance, and in persistant poverty. It is also manifested in culture: music, food, carnival. I don't think we should have to choose between competenence say in teh NOPD and carnival, but if pushed to become entirely American, I am wiling to accept bad roads and some crime and everything else that comes with it rather than assimilate.

Not that I haven't tried. I spent 19 years away as an emigre' to the north. In spite of it all, I"m glad I'm home.

Mark said...

Quick question: I want to write another post about brain drain. Professionals like myself and fellow bloggers Ray in New Orleans and Ashley Morris are among a reverse brain drain. Drop me a line and tell me a bit about yourself as I'm looking for more examples of an in migration. markfolseATrocketmailDOTcom

Cursed Tea said...

travelingmermaid - thanks for visiting!! I have to agree bandying around the term 'thrid world' when most of us have never set foot in a real third world country is problematic!
I like your blog - I feel I've found N'awlins blog heaven!

Mark - thanks for your comment. I see where you are coming from but I still object to the term third world to describe it. Maybe its because I'm European but I don't see a correlation between poverty, corruption and neglect and the development and sustainability of culture. I've seen really bad poverty in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detriot, Chicago - I could go on - and those places have not a smidgen of the culture that is here. I also don't see Latin America and the Caribbean as 'third' world - more 'second'.

I think New Orleans is one of those cities in America that defy the cookie cutter image. Miami should be its own Caribbean island(plus everyone speaks Spanish all the time or creole - and lots know no English). New York isn't American its the whole world!! San Francisco , Seattle, Salt Lake City.... they are all so different. For New Orleans to join America doesn't mean assimilation - there are plenty of examples that haven't. A drive through Metairie or the West Bank shows there are still malls and chain stores like everywhere else. But the city itself has resisted it - and I do see that had this city had more money all the beautiful historic buildings here would've been demolished to make way for cookie cutter blandness.

I suppose I'm saying I agree with what you are saying but not to the term that is used.

Best Wishes

GentillyGirl said...

Kirsty, I'm a Native from here (I think I'm related by blood with every family/race from here) and have spent several years in the Third World back in the '70s and '80s.

New Orleans is NOT "normal America". This place is what should have been under the concept of a polyglot culture, the promise of our Nation. Sadly, instead of being cheered as a part of Things To Come, mainstream culture for years have attempted to hold this distinct culture down.

This is one of the reasons I don't bristle at the 3rd World slam. In many ways I embrace this comment because it's exactly how I see the Powers-That-Be vision of our world down here post-Federal Flood. Wear that badge proudly.

And about the city having more money in the Past and the city becoming completely Modern? Not a chance in Hades! We aren't like that here: our concept of living is work, pleasure and play in the Present. Saving all that leisure time for when one is approaching Death's Door seems like a real mis-conception of values. We like our old homes because we are comfortable and used to them, and why go through the poop of tearing down a good place, go through the stuffs of rebuilding and finding out you can't stand the new place?

Folks from here aren't really up for that kind of hassle.

My partner and I are going through something like this with our property: raising the house more and rebuilding, but we will still have our 60+ year old home to live in. Even doing a wood & brick facade over the new garage area so it looks like our home was built upon an earlier building. It's comfortable and comforting.

Good Blog... I'm linking it.


Cursed Tea said...

Hi Gentilly girl

Thanks for visiting and linking!!

I don't want to give the impression that the city was going to be modern but I'd been told (by natives) that it was something that enabled the french quarter and garden district etc etc to survive when the rest of this country was "modernising". And I'm very very glad for it!! [coming from Scotland the lack of history and culture in the physical ascpect of buildings in the US depressed the hell out of me - NOLA rocks!!]

Again I've been given more to think about re "third world". You've certainly got more experience of it than I do. My gut is still telling me I don't like it but I'm going to mull it over more.

I completely agree that NOLA is NOT normal America - alleluiah!! But as a legal alien (I like this weird phrase the US government has bestowed upon me) I've noticed pinning down a 'normal' America is difficult. I think New Orleans represents something that could only really grow out of America. In Europe there would have been more control over what went on down here.

Mainstream culture is completely endebted to this city but doesn't know it - I totally agree!! I was fuming when I saw - yet again - pictures of Mardi Gras on the national news and what did they show? - Bourbon Street late at night full of drunk college kids - yeuch!!! I can't believe they are so dumb not to show the floats, the bead catching, the costumes, the krewes, the indians. If we as ignorant folk from the North (my hubby's from Indianapolis) had seen what Mardi Gras is really like we'd got our butts down here a LOT faster!!

Good luck with your remodelling. And I am very glad no one wants new homes here!! And those like yourselves choose to do things which fit in with the historical aspect - sounds great!! I was saying the other day to my husband that if we have to live somewhere else it'll totally suck (obviously!!) because all the houses will be unappealling after this!!

Thanks for visiting
I'm off to check out your blog now!!
Best Wishes

TravelingMermaid said...

So glad to see 2 of NOLA's best bloggers reading you! More to come, I'm sure - I love your European perspective in the blogosphere. And I STILL don't like the third world label - but that's just me. I've been here 29 years and I cannot imagine ever living anywhere else!

TravelingMermaid said...

PS - Please email me at

E.J. said...

I'm glad I just discovered your blog! Excellent points about the 3rd world. You touched on things I haven't talked about with anyone yet, that being how I sometimes wonder if we are "too soft," or "spoiled" since people in the Third World have always lived such troubled and precarious lives. Some days I stop and think, "Wait a minute. Is it THAT bad? Why does this situation feel so awful when I know there are billions who have it worse with much less hope of their lives getting better?"

ashley said...

The 3rd world line only makes me think of this bit from Galactic...nothing else.

I wear it with pride, as if the US is 1st world, well, I'm happy here.