The big decay

NewOrleansPaintingMaybe it's because I've written more for magazines than for newspapers since the late 1980s, but I often find newsweeklies more helpful than other media for making sense of broad-sweep stories, such as Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans. Both Newsweek and Time deliver the goods this week -- dramatic photos from the miseries along New Orleans' streets; long-form reporting rich with human-interest details; and aerial photos that show the flooding within the context of New Orleans' neighborhoods and landmarks.

The strongest feature in Time is a one-page essay by Sonja Steptoe demonstrating that there was plenty of suffering -- and plenty of blame to go around -- long before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast:

While I understand the temptation to wax nostalgic about the architecture of the Ninth Ward homes, the beauty of the Garden District, the charm of the French Quarter and so on, such musings perpetuate a romantic notion of the place that doesn't track with reality. Sure, there are isolated spots dotting the tourist maps that are well stocked with pristine prettiness and antebellum hospitality, but like A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois, the real New Orleans hasn't possessed much beauty or charm for nearly 30 years. The deep wealth and class divisions, the decayed infrastructure, the lax civil-engineering management, the depleted city coffers, the lawless depravity, the history of political corruption by a long line of city and state officials, and the incompetent governance that television viewers are discovering are, to use the local vernacular, the roux of a long-simmering pot of gumbo that finally boiled over when Hurricane Katrina turned up the heat last week. Now the city is drowning in it.

. . . Those cheery tourists need only have peered out of their French Quarter hotel-room windows to see the ugly and abject poverty on full display at the squalid Iberville housing projects (average annual income of its 833 households: $7,279), sitting just next door to the Vieux Carré off Canal Street. If the visitors had taken a few steps beyond Tulane University and the nearby Garden District mansions, they would have found themselves smack-dab in the middle of a ghetto choked with rudimentary shotgun houses, dilapidated housing projects and living conditions that seem only slightly better than those in Port-au-Prince, Bangladesh or Baghdad.

About the photo: "We know the suffering . . . VIII," posted on Flickr by carf (Creative Commons Deed).

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