Do You Know What It Means to Myth New Orleans?
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Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

Beth Butler believes the letter is not only frightening, it's untrue. Butler is a community organizer for New Orleans ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which created the Katrina Survivors Network, an evacuee group that emphasizes evacuees' "right to return." Butler criticizes multiple parts of the letter, including the warning about lack of grocery stores. "The Lower Ninth Ward didn't have a supermarket before the storm," says Butler. "It had corner stores and, yes, they're more expensive, but they always were."

Not everyone sees the letter as discouraging. Even people living in New Orleans can't agree about what's accurate. Part of the difficulty is that the recovery varies widely from neighborhood to neighborhood and sometimes even from block to block.

The letter seems realistic, says Rafael Duboe, who owns Regal Automotive on St. Claude Avenue and agrees with the assertion that many mechanics are lagging a week or more. "Right now, I am behind," he says, looking at the row of cars outside his garage. Donald Mills used to run a car wash a block away, on St. Bernard Avenue. He sees "nothing inaccurate" in the Katrina Aid Today letter. "It's only an alert," he says. "It's telling people to stay on their toes." Antoinette Allen, who grew up nearby, stops to scan the letter as she runs into the corner store with her kids to get two cans of pork and beans and some hot dogs. Nothing wrong with that letter, she says. "They're just talking about what's really going on."

ACORN's Butler says the myths about New Orleans extend to its people. "Doesn't everyone from out of town think that everyone who was rescued from the roof in the Ninth Ward was poor, including Fats Domino?"

Butler felt belittled as an evacuee in Baton Rouge. "I kept saying we should print up T-shirts saying 'Ninth Ward Marauders,'" she says. "People saw the exaggerated news accounts and viewed people from New Orleans as criminals."

Early on, the general public wanted to make sure Katrina evacuees weren't getting handouts. Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brookings Institution, an independent research and policy institute, remembers being a guest on a National Public Radio call-in show in November. "Three callers in a row said, 'I don't understand why we have to give more money to these families,'" says Liu. "That sentiment was out there even three months after the storm." Liu says that Brookings has been careful to emphasize that many evacuees lost everything. "But people don't like money that has no incentives attached to it," she says.

Peek says people have formed an image of Katrina evacuees. Many Denver evacuees she interviews say, "I can't get a job because I'm from New Orleans." As a result, some job applicants have started lying about being from New Orleans in order to get hired.

That's because potential Denver employers assume that if someone is from New Orleans, they must be poor, they must be immoral, and they must be violent. After all, everyone heard how much poverty New Orleans has; they know that New Orleans is known for corruption, partying, drinking, and drugs; and they saw the news stories about violence. "It doesn't matter that those stories about violence were proven untrue," says Peek. "Because new employers and new neighbors only remember those negative stories."

Debunking these myths isn't simple, because there is some truth behind them. After all, New Orleans has problems with its schools, it elects dirty politicians, and its per capita murder rate is, and has been, extraordinarily high. So what is the line between ignoring the problems and creating a stigma? "New Orleans has this spotlight," says Peek. "The challenge here is to figure out how to use this spotlight to repair some of the problems."

Originally published on August 22,2006, in the Gambit Weekly. Copyright © 2006 by Katy Reckdahl. Reprinted with permission of the author and the Gambit Weekly.