The group of citizens gathered today alongside the levee which runs the length of the Industrial Canal, in the Lower Ninth Ward -- the hardest hit, the place where so many lost their lives. The names written on a banner reminded us of the lives lost, as local leaders in the community gathered, alongside preachers who had flown in -- educators, well-known folks in music and local radio -- to remember to never ever forget what happened on August 29th, 2005.
As the Second Line began rolling down the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, homeowners came out of their houses to watch and communicate their support, children walked with parents, organizations were represented and speeches and songs honored those from the souls departed to the Rooftop Riders, those who had found their way out of flooded houses onto rooftops to await those who had never come or came too late. The new homes, raised high, built post-Katrina by funds donated by Brad Pitt's foundation, stand next to near dilapidated houses, once homes, with the ever-present reminders of the disaster, those Katrina first-responders' X's painted onto front facades. This part of the city does not have the basic services and stores and schools that flourish elsewhere in the wealthier neighborhoods. The Ninth Ward was poor, and it is African-American, and that is why many people believe, especially those who live and once lived there, that they were forgotten.
Righteous indignance was expressed today, for the most part by younger members of the community, for the fact that the city did not take this day off so that they could honor those who had died, that people had to work and go to school and so could not join the procession, the commemorations around the city, but especially this one in the Lower Ninth. Parallels were made to the pain of Ferguson, and rightly so. The sounds of Mardi Gras Indians, and the twirling of the parasol as the Second Line began its dance and rolled down the streets and across the St. Claude bridge towards the memorial where Senator Mary Landrieu spoke today nearby at the Katrina Memorial on Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth War (known by locals as CTC, Cross the Canal), reminding us not only of that time nine years ago, but that the upcoming elections mean people in the Ninth Ward need to vote and have their voices heard. Today's commemorative march stands as yet another reminder that many, many people in the city -- the relatives and friends of those who died, and those who could not afford to come back because of financial, mental and emotional reasons -- need to be represented.
One community leader asked if Democracy existed in this country after what had happened during and after Katrina. Another said that it had happened in the wealthiest country in the world, and that this was beyond unacceptable.
But most of all, there was a shared sense of a greater community of a place which is New Orleans, which has soul unlike any other city in these United States and which reminds us exactly what it means to value history, culture and a deep human instinct for why life is worth living.
Somehow one lives more deeply here in New Orleans. It is the city with the highest percentage of native-born residents of any U.S. city. People who are born and grow up here do not want to live without its sounds, tastes, rituals and front porches. As my great-grandmother from Louisiana wrote on the inside cover of a book of poetry I received 100 years after it was given to her, "New Orleans is the only exotic place in America."
This is true, but I would add, in many ways, it is the best of America because it is a place where people still care deeply enough to know that you must return home in order to rebuild again and again.
There is a lot of work to still do in New Orleans, and climate change was brought up as a harsh reality of part of what that work needs to be focused on, but there is also optimism and energy. There is still a lot of rebuilding to do, and one hopes even more displaced people will be able to return. But most of all, New Orleans shows us the truth about this country. If we lose New Orleans, we lose the best of ourselves as Americans.