Thanks, But No Thanks

Hyung W. Kim

NEW ORLEANS, La. – One of the few days that we go out for lunch, we find ourselves waiting 45 minutes for our food. It’s a little sit-down restaurant two blocks from the office, and at half past noon, the place is full but not bustling. The waitress comes over and refills our glasses. “Sorry about the wait,” she says. “We’ve got about 12 Lutherans eating upstairs.” “Volunteers?” my co-worker asks. “They’re rebuilding the city, one house at a time,” she says, rolling her eyes.

I’ve seen the Lutherans, mostly packs of high school students, choking up the narrow sidewalks of the French Quarter. The Times-Picayune reports that about 37,000 of them are in town for a convention. The locals stare at these visitors who take pictures of streetcars, wait for the signal to let them cross empty intersections, and wear conspicuously colorful “Jesus Justice Jazz” t-shirts.

New Orleans has a conflicted relationship with the hordes of do-gooders who descend upon the city. On the one hand, it’s nice to have help, especially after what many consider gross neglect by Washington in the aftermath of Katrina. Yet there’s plenty of mistrust, not only because of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s blunders—formaldehyde-laced trailers, for example—but also because when you’re the destination for so many mission trips and “disaster tours,” you might begin to wonder if the rest of America actually sees you as fellow citizens. A popular bumper sticker even declares, “Louisiana: Third World and Proud of It”. And there are those inescapable issues of race and class: Many of the residents are poor and black, while the do-gooders are white and college-educated.

The Lower Ninth Ward sums it up well. Post-Katrina flooding wiped out entire blocks of what used to be a densely populated part of the city. Except for some awkwardly sleek new houses courtesy of Brad Pitt, lots lie abandoned and weed-ridden. Yet even along the canal, a few surviving shotgun cottages sit crumbling in defiance, facing the levee (watched over by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) that so spectacularly failed them four years ago. A city just giving the world the finger—there’s something very American about that.

Hyung W. Kim ’11, a Crimson associate magazine editor, is a government concentrator in Leverett House.