A recent essay on Hurricane Katrina by geographer Richard Campanella offers a canny glimpse of a catastrophe’s utility as an instrument of politics. Noting that “most incoming freshmen at the New Orleans university where I teach know Katrina ‘the trope’ much better than Katrina the actual incident,” he implies that when people insist upon the event as a climate change bellwether, as the symbol of a broken social contract, or as the embodiment of government failure, they are inadvertently stripping away its literal meanings.
Amid the many books and articles published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the storm and subsequent levee failure, Roberta Brandes Gratz’s book We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt their City is not innocent of this tendency. It is nevertheless a welcome contribution to an animated conversation about the city and its uncertain future.
Gratz’s Katrina “tropes” are government incompetence and the redemptive power of grassroots action. The villains of her story are, by and large, FEMA, sclerotic city agencies, and politically connected contractors who produced little of value despite being awarded billions of recovery dollars from the federal government. Her strong-willed, energetic heroines and heroes, by contrast, take site- and neighborhood-based rebuilding into their own hands and achieve spectacular end-runs around bureaucratic obstructions.
Courtesy Nation Books
The good guys—much like Gratz herself—understand the intrinsic value of historic preservation, appreciate vernacular architecture, and abhor cultural homogenization. They also incorporate sustainability and resiliency principles into restored landscapes and buildings, aligning with the theme of “living with water” as opposed to resisting it. In this recovery narrative, elite city planners, clueless or depraved government functionaries, and return-obsessed developers are in many cases outmatched by grassroots civic groups and small, local entrepreneurs.
This is an appealing juxtaposition, one that Gratz is eloquent in arguing. Brought alive in these pages, the indifference and condescension of powerful actors in both government and the private sector toward people trying to put right their homes and lives is staggering. For example, homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward, an isolated low-wealth (but not, contrary to official myth, low-lying) neighborhood on the east bank of the Mississippi River, faced blatantly discriminatory restrictions on access to their property for months after the storm, and then confronted perverse regulations that based payouts for rebuilding not on costs but on depressed pre-Katrina home values. In light of such barriers, the countless small triumphs described here—a renovated house, a bayou overlook restoring a long lost view to Lower Ninth Ward residents, an implemented recovery plan in the Broadmoor district—are truly impressive.
Gratz implies that these accomplishments merit a more central role in the post-Katrina story than continuing residential vacancy and the plight of renter households (for whom policy did less than nothing), and one is inclined to concur. Still, the book unhelpfully perpetuates the idea that larger-bore efforts to influence (let alone staff) the government are a hopeless cause. The rental housing crisis (abetted by the cowardly destruction of the bulk of the city’s public housing), the persistence of low-wage work, and the region’s coastal restoration challenges require systemic action and leadership. But there is little discussion in the book about how to promote effective, equity-minded governance on a level broader than that of the neighborhood.
All of this will be familiar to readers of Gratz’s previous books and to readers of Jane Jacobs, on whose work Gratz models her own. But if the book is formulaic at points, Gratz also has a keen eye for the way in which the systems that skewed in favor of the white and the comfortable in the storm’s immediate aftermath are now skewing that way in more subtle but equally troubling ways. She vividly explains why the ongoing privatization of schools and transit, decisions to dedicate scarce resources to infrastructure for wealthy tourists, epidemic police brutality, and the failure to maximize the ecological potential of new amenities like the Lafitte Greenway are of enormous consequence in 2015. What is most valuable about We’re Still Here Ya Bastards at this moment of mass retrospection is its intelligent glance forward at upcoming struggles, and its argument that the actions of elected officials and administrators in Washington, Baton Rouge, and Orleans Parish matter as much now as they have at any time in the past ten years.