Gwen’s Take: New Orleans today is a story of pessimism, optimism and grit

NEW ORLEANS — When I set off for New Orleans to help cover the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, I confess I expected to bear witness to remarkable rejuvenation.

And I did. The new houses are sparkling pastels, with solar panels glistening on nearly every roof. The restaurants are full, and the downtown streets populated by tourists are swept clean.
The president acknowledged this remarkable progress when he toured new projects in the city this week.

“Today, this new community center stands as a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of this city the resilience of its people, the resilience of the entire Gulf Coast and of the United States of America,” he said. “You are an example of what’s possible when, in the face of tragedy and in the face of hardship, good people come together to lend a hand, and — brick-by-brick, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood — you build a better future.”

But during my visit, I also immediately saw the downside of that recovery and the bitterness that still divides the city. Many residents chafe under the weight of black unemployment that is higher now than before Katrina. Others resent that the earnings gap between black and white households has widened dramatically during the decade-long recovery.

But those are just numbers. The story that stuck with me after I moderated a panel for an Atlantic magazine discussion about post-Katrina New Orleans fell from the lips of a teenager.

Madeleine LeCesne, a New Orleans native who is headed to her first year at Princeton this fall, was nine years old when Katrina effectively washed away everything her family had built in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood.

Watch the town hall Gwen Ifill moderated in New Orleans in August.

Maddie, as she is known, started writing poetry at the age of six, scribbling her compositions on the headboard of her bed. The bed was lost in the storm. Her family was evacuated to Texas.

She is now a cheerful and accomplished young woman. In 2014, she was a National Student Poet. This week, she shared a stage with a who’s who of New Orleanians — lawyers, writers, politicians — who all agreed on one thing: The city has not come as far as it should have.

But for Maddie, the storm’s wake brought a particularly painful sort of pessimism.

“I can say that I will never own a house one day, because I had to watch my parents lose everything,” she said matter-of-factly. “I can say that I have been of voting age for more than a year. I haven’t filled out my voter registration forms, because I don’t trust politicians. My parents voted. They paid their taxes. And they still lost their homes.”

“And I would say a lot of people my age and older that went through that experience have the same feelings and the same beliefs,” she continued. “And I can’t tell you a way to fix it.”

She described an “overwhelming anxiety” that she lives with every day.

Keep in mind, Maddie is a success story.

This theme continued throughout a day of discussion, as people who love their city cheered its economic development and its successes, while reminding everyone who asked about its shortcomings.

“How do we get noticed?” said Tracie Washington, the president and CEO of the Louisiana Justice Center. “Well, we get loud.”

“You will vote,” she said, turning to Maddie, seated to her left. “Because you will get angry. You will buy a house because you will want a homestead. And you’re going to say, ‘Doggone it, I am not going to live being forced to be resilient.'”

“This city isn’t going anywhere without me,” she added.

So there it was in one place. Pessimism, optimism and grit — all on display to anyone who wants to learn a lesson about survival, even when we do not bounce all the way back. That’s the Crescent City, ten years later.