By James R. Elliott and James H. Johnson Jr.
The ride up New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue is like no other in the world. Beautiful houses proudly present themselves from behind live oaks that line the antebellum passage to the city’s river bend.
But the guidebooks are clear: If you exit the streetcar, especially near the toney Garden District, walk towards the river, never away, because “there lie vipers.”
Vipers in these guides are code for poor, black folks living in concentrated poverty in one of the nation’s most violent cities.
The warning is not without reason.
These can be bad areas. Kids have been stabbed on church steps. SUVs have been sprayed with automatic fire at car washes. And people have been murdered on school grounds.
This is not an easy place to live and never was.
Prior to the 1920s, these were part of the city’s backwater swamps, areas of town largely uninhabited except for the desperate and the criminal.
In those days, the vipers weren’t metaphors; they bit.
Human ingenuity and determination eventually produced the pumping stations that drained these swamps, but they did not produce the social integration or political will necessary to carry New Orleans beyond its deeply unequal past.
So as the inner-city swamps dried, the seeds of a new inequality grew, concentrated racial and economic segregation tended to squeeze poor blacks into low-lying sections of the city and poor whites into low-lying sections of “the Parish,” a soggy spit of land to the city’s southeast.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, both areas were devastated. What the storm didn’t take, botched planning did.
Stunning footage showed the misery, and Americans everywhere are reaching out.
In the wake of this devastation, as people search for what Max Weber called the “problem of meaning,” we are reminded of a time before the backwater swamps were drained.
Up to that time, poverty had been regarded as an historical backdrop, as inevitable, like bad weather.
But Hurricane Katrina has shown that both can be front-page news.
In the coming months, how we respond to these events will define us not only as a society but as a civilization, that is, as a people capable of communal expression of awakened conscience.
This expression must not be short and therapeutic.
As we rebuild, the kindness of ordinary Americans must be reflected in government policy and planning that does not mistake quick fixes for lasting social justice.
If the streetcar ride up St. Charles Avenue changes as a result, we’ll know we’re on the right track.
Let’s hope it doesn’t end there.
James R. Elliott is an associate professor of sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, and James H. Johnson Jr. is a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.