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Issue Date:  September 23, 2005

Rebuilding New Orleans, city of hope


As they grieve, my family and friends fret about whether New Orleans will exist after the waters recede. I think it will. In fact, I think it needs to, and not only for its own sake. I’m hopeful, in part, because this is not the first disaster New Orleans has endured. Indeed, one could write the city’s history from the perspective of its fires, floods and plagues.

I am also hopeful because New Orleanians themselves are marked by an almost unfounded, even absurd hope. How else to explain the city’s early 18th-century foundation on a God-forsaken bend in the river and its expansions into below sea-level swamps? How else to explain the tolerance of sometimes obscene racial, social, economic and educational divides? New Orleans should have succumbed long ago, if not to natural calamity then to social catastrophe. That it has not yet done so, I attribute to hope.

To be sure, there is a morbid side to New Orleanians. Many of them turn first to the obituaries in their newspapers or discuss hospital admissions the way people elsewhere flip to the comics or follow the stock market.

However, New Orleanians can be hopeful because believers in this most Catholic-Christian of cities know that life follows death. Its economy and geography depend on this resurrection. Oil, the region’s financial lifeblood, derives from ancient extinctions. Its unimaginably rich estuaries have been cobbled together from land cast off by other states and delivered by the Mississippi River. Similarly, I think that hope will yet again drive its citizens to rebuild the structures and bridge the divides.

Hope also trumps despair because citizens have figured devastation into their plans. It’s always lurking, in the water and in the history. People live in New Orleans on the condition that they agree to devastation’s possibility. The not quite Buddha-like detachment that follows from this agreement allows residents to focus on the joy of life, family, friends, food and drink.

New Orleans needs to revive not only for its own sake but for that of others as well. What other city would permit its wealthy leaders to sashay around in tights and prom dresses as medieval kings and queens? The powerful need to be mocked sometimes, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans (as opposed to that in Disney World) allows much opportunity for turning the tables through mirthful ridicule.

More important, New Orleans reminds us of our own vulnerability. The advance of civilization, at least in the United States, seems to be measured by the ongoing elimination of insecurity. We are the world’s superpower. We live in safer communities powered by increasing consumption of cheap resources. We are on the verge of bearing designer children. We are masters of our own destinies, or so it seems. Deep down, most Americans must have a gnawing suspicion that this is not the case, a suspicion fueled by 9/11 and other recent events. With the Gulf of Mexico lapping at their thresholds, New Orleanians have always known this to be false. All human life is marked by precariousness.

As we recognize our own fragility, perhaps we’ll be able to see and respond to it in others. Since we are fundamentally insecure, since we are not, finally, masters of our own destinies, perhaps we can begin to see all as gift. Shared gifts can sustain us in the face of the precariousness that is common to us all, inspire the renewal of the city and spark the joie de vivre that so characterizes New Orleans.

Tom Ryan grew up in New Orleans and is now chair of the Department of Religious Studies at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005

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