New Orleans

Finally I may have a bit of time to blog. Last week, Cindy and I attended the Sakai conference in New Orleans. I may comment on the conference itself later – it was educational, especially about perceptions of open source. But the city was disturbing.

From the airport taxi downtown spread out before us – a handful of highrises, a small stadium. Everything was flat, like Toronto in miniature.

The first thing I noticed in New Orleans was race: taxi drivers and hotel staff were nearly all back; the guests were white. Most of the natives weren’t very friendly, sometimes to the point of rudeness. The conference bartender ignored me while he chatted, refused to suggest a drink, twice acted as though he never heard “thank you very much”. He wasn’t unusual. Other staff were all creepy overexuberant teeth and smiles, sporting earpieces like government agents. The hotel was flash without substance – an uncomfortable union of earthy colors and shiny surfaces.

The first morning we had breakfast at a diner. People there seemed more alive, more human. The employees (black) suffered from gold or missing teeth. I started to get the feeling of how much we were not seeing, how broken this society must be.

A colleague told a story of a wrong exit from the expressway, which dumped him just outside the French Quarter. People lounged in armchairs in the street, and clustered around oil drum fires. A car pulled up beside him, told him to turn around and get out of there before he was killed. Another night, he walked too far on the boardwalk and was checked by a cop, turned back into the protection of the good neighborhood.

Cindy and I took a tour of the town. The driver was a genuinely friendly fellow. We drove past beautiful old houses, and he told us how even now he would not be invited to a Creole party. He’s too black. Asked about safety, this big black man told us he would never go alone at night into any of the areas we saw. The big houses on the boulevards are worth ten times those immediately behind, which once housed slaves. The cemeteries with walls close at 1:30 in the afternoon; criminals lurk behind crypts; it’s never safe to enter except in groups.

The taxi driver back to the airport – a nice black woman – told us how drivers were killed regularly in the city. She only takes passengers from hotels and the airport; restaurants, gas stations, the street are too dangerous. What do you say to that? “It’s not like that where we come from.” “I’m sorry to hear it.” “I hope you get a better job.”

That society is broken. Beautiful houses stand for hundreds of years of terrible history. Cemeteries are places of murder and death. The divisions are so deep that they have destroyed civility. The great crime of slavery and the loss of the civil war lurk invisible.

Our history is blessedly brief, but we are not pure in Canada. We have poverty and bad teeth, homeless in the cities and the desperate conditions of Indian reserves. Witnessing New Orleans, I thought it doesn’t take long to break a society; once broken, who knows if it can be repaired.

2004-12-15

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