If you drive north out of the lower ninth ward of New Orleans (a place that still exists, is still struggling, is still growing and changing outside the collective media consciousness) you will find an amusement park.
It’s a Six Flags. The sign is still there, and though many of the letters have fallen, you can still make out its last message to the world: Closed For Storm. The storm, of course, being Hurricane Katrina. The park closed in anticipation of the hurricane and never opened again. And there it sits, full of muddied stuffed animals, rusted rides, piles of receipts, plastic cups, and a humanoid figure with its face pulled off, advertising the Skycoaster.
The first word I want to say is abandoned. But abandoned indicates desperation and fear, as if those who did the abandoning made a quick decision in this apocalyptic scenario and fled for their lives. But this is much more calculated than that. Six Flags surely assessed their damaged investment and decided to cut their losses and, well, not run exactly, but walk away calmly by paying a penalty and foisting the unwanted property and plush spongebob carnage off on the city of New Orleans.
I want to call the amusement park a symbol of decadence, wastefulness, and materialism. But there are so many other symbols of that too: luxury cars or the sprawling homes of the wealthiest Americans. Amusement parks may not be cheap, but they are also not playgrounds of the wealthy. And so here, as in the ninth ward, as in the outer boroughs of New York City following Hurricane Sandy, we are reminded that “natural” disasters don’t hit everyone with equal force.
And it’s not so easy to tell the aftermath of a “natural” disaster from an “unnatural” one. I am struck by how much the overgrown lots of the lower ninth ward (a concrete foundation here and there the only reminder that a home once stood in that spot), remind me of Brightmoor, a neighborhood in Detroit that appears similarly devastated, as well as similarly resilient. And both neighborhoods have attracted the attention of those from elsewhere: some looking for cheap land, some looking to connect with existing community, some looking to start fresh, and some looking for any combination of these things.
We played a show for a group of newcomers who lived in lean-tos and old campers and hammocks on one of the lots where a house once stood. I was skeptical before we arrived, immediately suspicious of their motivations, their class and race consciousness, or lack thereof. My hackles were ready to raise at any talk of self-sufficiency amongst privileged, white kids from the suburbs of somewhere else.
And once again, as has been the theme on this tour, my assumptions were checked, which isn’t to say that the group we encountered was not young, nor white, nor had grown up far from Lake Pontchartrain, but just that they were so much more than that too: conflicted in their own trajectories and responsibilities and dogmas and dreams.
In this tour we have an amazing opportunity to see people up close, to see the details of their current habitats and hear how they came to be there. Really hear it. The long version. Or at least one of the long versions amongst the many versions of our own lives we all carry with us.
I won’t always have this opportunity, the wide open time and the entry point of sharing a song. Traveling and performing day after day is tiring, but it is the easy part. Now I have to see people in their complexity every day, when I’m back in Brooklyn, in a rush, plunged into large crowds and quick to look for a shortcut that let’s me know who sees the world the way I do, who is worth my time and attention. I won’t be able to hear from each person the way I can now. But I will remember that it could happen in the right circumstance, that most people will talk with you if you’re really listening. That even though many, many people will remain strangers, I don’t need to think of them that way. I won’t hear these people one by one. I’ll have to hear from all of them in that shouting, honking, laughing, mumbling mass. And rather than think, I bet I could care for these people if I really got to know them one by one, I’ll love them just like that, the whole big lot of them. –Jillian