by Pablo Baeza
“Teach me something about the Lower 9th Ward.”
It is a hot and muggy June 1st day in New Orleans, Louisiana, and I am on a bench at a community garden across from a vacant lot and some shipping facilities. The volunteers and I are chugging water as we listen to the garden manager’s good friend, who is New Orleans born-and-raised, talk about the city he’s known all his life. “You gotta get out there and talk to the communities, y’all, because the leaders, the people who anoint themselves leaders of these places, they don’t know anything about New Orleans.”
He is squat, bald and elderly, and gives us the lowdown: the lower 9th ward was formerly just the 9th ward, until the large black population of the area, according to him, gained too much political power. The lower part of the area, named Holy Cross, was traditionally home to the more affluent, powerful segment of the long-established black working class community – the creoles, or mixed-race people, originally settled here. The city of New Orleans, he informs us, is the story of slavery – the slave masters on the mansions on Saint Charles, the slave quarters around back. It’s the story of how social distance could not prevent breeding, could not prevent the rise of the creole, and how, today, some divides never change. The Lower 9th went from over 18,000 residents before the hurricane, and today numbers only slightly over 3,000. As the story goes, the dividing line between Holy Cross and the proper Lower 9th remains Saint Claude Avenue, which in the upper 9th divides the mixed-race, mostly hipster, bohemian and intellectual population in Bywater from the mostly black working-class community of Saint Claude.
The Empire, he says, is all about decisive action. The Empire cares about maximizing profit. The Empire cares about the utilization of natural resources. The Empire will fund and crush your fight against it. The Empire uses debt to enslave the poor and establish the right of the rich to rule. Listening to all of this, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Of The Empire,” of my trip to Tijuana, and the art school professor there who looked me in the eye and said, “Look. The United States exports misery. It is their natural progression as an empire. For them to keep doing so is unsustainable. But the United States exports misery, and the writings of your adopted country were written mostly by people who had and have the privilege to not live the life of a manufacturer.”
“I’ve traveled all over North America, and I think you’re one of the wisest people I know,” I said.
“I don’t know what wise is. I don’t have any education. You want to see me as a certain kind of human being, so you turn me into that figure. What kind of figure am I? I don’t know.”