Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Response to "Doomed Cities"...

Dear Mr. Ledeen,

Having been an avid reader of your work on NRO the past several years, I regret that the occasion for our introduction should be one where I take exception to something you've written ("Doomed Cities"). While well written, I must disagree with your characterization of the spirit of my home and the genesis of the problems that have culminated in this particular disaster.

I must note that I'm one of the fortunate who've made it to safer ground. My wife and my parents are in Memphis with me until tomorrow, at which time we will return to Thibodaux (approx. 60 miles SW of New Orleans). This will be our base of operations for rebuilding our lives. I was born in East New Orleans, lived in Kenner (my parents still do), and own a home in Lakeview (1/2 mile from the 17th Street Canal breach). All three are or were under deep water, washing away much of my past with it, but my family is healthy and safe, and for that I am forever grateful.

But I'm here to discuss what you've written.

First, you mention, "dancing in defiance of death was the city's trademark." Perhaps this is something bizarre to an outsider, but there's a poignant reason that our culture operates this way. From my earliest childhood, I and others like me have been taught to celebrate the life, not mourn the death, of a loved one. The ceremony is somber like any other funeral in any other place, but once that's done we celebrate. It's a party, yes, but one where the participants laugh and reminisce about the departed. This isn't something spontaneously erupting, but requested beforehand by the deceased. My father always said, "Don't waste money on some God awful cemetery; burn my ashes and have one hell of a blow out."

Second, if one spends time only in certain, tourist-centered parts of the city, then the impression of an "absence of industry" is unavoidable. However, that just isn't the case. For every image of a looter you've seen, I know of people risking their lives to save our city. Just one family I know has one brother and two nephews in the NOPD and one son in the NOFD. My former business partner, a first-responder during 9/11, is flying Blackhawks for the LANG. I'd have my truck packed with extra gas today, if there were some way for me to get back to my home. And I'm not the only one. (By the way, if you know of a way I can get to the city to start helping, I would be very grateful.) The thugs and animals that are preying on the others in the city are not representative of New Orleans, not to imply that you've stated such, and we will make sure justice is swift and final for those few.

Third, "the fascinating spectacle of human foibles and failures that seems at one with the city" is true; however, those failures are just as often visitors and interlopers, not natives. Not one of the authors you mention was a New Orleanian, and most of the debaucheries witnessed during Mardi Gras are confined to a 10 square block area populated for those two weeks by our beloved tourists.

Fourth, our food is good and our pace of life is slower than many, and ours is/was one of the few 24-hour towns. You can *gasp* walk out a bar with an adult beverage. We enjoy a good time. Our politicians are so notoriously corrupt, as the joke goes, one comes to Louisiana (not just New Orleans) to earn a graduate degree in political corruption. This, however, is not due to the nature of its citizens, but a combustible mix of ignorance and neglect. Again, if you didn't imply this, I'm just a little sensitive at this moment and I apologize.

Fifth, you mention that New Orleans "focuses on things past, not present or future." I'm not sure if you meant this as a slight, but it seemed that way. Perhaps, our city would be better off turning into Houston, Atlanta, or Charlotte, all towns who've lost their souls. Sure their economies are booming, but they've the cultural equivalent of Chinese food, forgotten in 30 minutes. This is a town where restaurant franchises either wait until they're sufficiently established to open here or find their start here. We fight over knocking down 200 hundred-year-old buildings because some opium addict, who happened to be a jazz genius, once ate breakfast there (kind of quaint now, given recent events). You may think this detracts from us, but my fellow citizens and I would have it no other way. And, I expect our tourists wouldn't either. Nevertheless, we don't have that luxury anymore, and I would thank you to not bring it up to a resident again.

If you'd be so kind, I have one request for you and, if you will, your readers, before I move on to helping my family rebuild our lives: If you've ever planned to visit or revisit New Orleans, wait a few weeks and come, preferably with a shovel and a strong back, or visit as soon as we rebuild, which we will do. Despite our tendency to complain about those "damn" tourists walking in front of our cars in a residential neighborhood like the French Quarter as if they were in Disneyland and telling all their friends about how our women expose themselves for plastic beads, we secretly love showing you a good time, which you may or may not remember, but we've been very careful to make sure you're safe.

God bless you, Mr. Ledeen, and your readers. He blesses those who, such as ourselves, take care of themselves, but we will be forever indebted to our fellow citizens who find it in their conscience to help us in this our time of greatest need. God speed, and bless my hometown.



At 3:06 PM, Blogger Scott M. Phillips said...

This was Mr. Ledeen's reply:

Thanks for writing, I appreciate it enormously. I hope you will flourish; judging from your letter I am sure you will.

I'm not going to respond point by point, for which I hope you'll forgive me, but I have a huge volume of mail and I try to answer all the good ones (and most of them are good; NRO has great readers). However, when I talk about "dancing in defiance of death," I am not talking about funerals, I'm talking about the whole style of life in the doomed cities. I've walked all over New Orleans, as Naples (this is part of my forthcoming book on Naples, actually), and the resemblances are really uncanny, especially the music (and, interestingly, the bookstores. Both have exceptionally good book stores, especially used book stores. I am not sure why, but there it is).

The lack of industry is part of the stereotype, as you well know. I quite agree that New Orleans (and Naples) is full of industry, but it is not an industrial city, its tempo of life is pre-industrial (which I cherish), and even for those who work in textiles or petroleum, I dare say a good deal of their self-image is, well, southern.

Our two sons have both attended Rice University in Houston, and several times a year for the past many years we have driven between Washington and Houston, always spending a couple of days in Mississippi and Louisiana. We are great fans and friends, I hope you see that.

We have given money, believe me you don't want me with a shovel...back surgery ensured that I will not be an effective digger, sorry to say. But if all goes well we may swing by and drop off a copy of "Virgil's Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles" when it's published a year or so from now...Godspeed.


Note this reply was received within 8 hours of sending the original. I thank Mr. Ledeen for an unexpectedly quick response.

At 7:53 AM, Anonymous Yolanda said...

This whole letter makes me yearn for home. What you wrote is the home I remember. I'm glad Mr. Ledeen was as moved to respond.


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