I went to New Orleans about a week ago to see if I could help out. It is an american tragedy and I had the opportunity to go there for the first time this past May for a friends wedding (the only 3 days I had away from the campaign for 6 monts) and see the greatness and uniqueness of the city so it was particularly poignant for me.
I've never seen anything like it, the devastation is amazing. Flying into the city, all you see are blue tarps on the roofs. The city is currently a ghost town with maybe 100,000 people by day and according to some city officials about 50,000 at night. Whole areas, the size of west roxbury are completely abandoned, the homes flood damaged up to the first floor cielings, or just knocked aside. I saw corvettes hanging out of trees. No one really seems to know what is going on.
Saying that, the city is not as bad as the press would lead you to believe. Downtown is still intact, the French Quarter is fine, and is mostly up and running and the Garden district is only slightly scathed. New Orleans will be back, with much if not all of its original character, perhaps with some new ones. But, the city will come back whiter, and more affluent. Interestingly, people spoke to me about concern about hispanics coming in and taking jobs that the blacks used to do. Anecdotally, I did see and come across a number of hispanics working in construction down there including a guy from Honduras who didn't speak english (I spoke to him in my poor spanish) working on one of the road crews doing government work. So, perhaps some of the fears are justified. There are jobs down there, but little housing.
I went to City Hall, and the building department to see what I could do, and the process for getting certified to work down there and to get building permits. I spoke to a number of City Workers who said they had meetings every morning at 9, but that no one was making the tough decisions that need to be made and so no one really knew what to do. I met a man who was a local contractor and I said "you must be really busy". He said no, and that he was building a new house with a permit he had before the hurricane because no one had any money and the insurance companies weren't releasing any so everyone was waiting.
I went to a meeting in the Lake District with about 2,000 residents local, state and federal officials. This is the neighborhood that was destroyed when the 17th street canal levy broke. The people at the meeting were 98 percent white. The officials talked about a bunch of stuff but no one had an answer about what was going to happen with the levies to ensure that they wouldn't break again. There were some populist silliness about the Saints and LSU which showed the weakness of the public officials to be able to say or do anything of value. These people left the 2 hour meeting without a lot of answers about what is going to happen to their homes and neighborhood other than same vague promises of "we will be back".
As if I needed any more convincing that charter schools are not the answer for moving America forward, the largest cheer of the day was given when a member of the school committee said that they had the votes on the school board and that charter schools would now be allowed and that people could start to set them up. Charter schools are just one more way for people a bit higher up the economic (or intellectual) ladder to seperate their children from the hoi polloi below them, and using public tax dollars to do so.
It is no suprise that of the 8 at large candidates, none of them went to Boston Public Schools (unless an exam high school which is essentially a private school). If this isn't evidence of how bad the public schools are, I don't know what is. People support charter schools because of self interest, they care about their own family, which is completely understandable. They don't have enough money to afford private schools, but by becoming involved in a charter school, they can essentially leverage the tax money of their neighbors and usually their own sweat equity into one school better than the local public school without costing them out of pocket expenses.
The allure of this is understandable. It can seem impossible to change the system as a whole (as I know all to well first hand!) i.e. improve the whole big city public school system. But making one school better, especially one close to you, along with a number of other neighborhood people or people with children can seem like an achievable goal. Especially since there are not as much politics involved (once the charter is established). But, I believe that this is another incidious form of classism (which can lead to racism). Where only the very bottom rungs will be in the public schools, those whose parents are afraid to get involved (immigrants), single parent families, or families whose parents are working multiple jobs to survive, or children without nuclear families at all, or whose parents don't value education.
So, when I see 2,000 white affluent people cheer loudest for charter schools in a majority minority city, I hear the echoes of "seperate but equal" in my mind.
Note on neighborhood schools in Boston. I am for neighborhood schools. For two basic reasons: economic and involvement. We spend precious dollars busing kids around that could be used better on education. If a school is local the family and child will be more likely to be involved and it can be a community building center.
However, the reason minorities are usually against neighborhood schools is because the white politicians in this town have historically not been trustworthy about providing equal opportunities to all the residents and there is a justified fear that neighborhood schools will not mean you get the same education in Roxbury as West Roxbury. A mechanism needs to be in place to allay that fear so that the whole city can move forward. That would have been the number one thing I was to work on if elected. I hope that we as a community will take this up.
Summary: someone in New Orleans has to take charge. The longer nothing is done, the more the city will decay. People will get used to there new location. There will be winners and losers based on those decisions, but the longer the decision is delayed, the more losers there will be. This is an extreme form of what happens when people don't elect responsible people. One thing I will say with our crop of candidates is, that I do think they are intelligent people that faced with a crisis there is a good chance they will do better than the New Orleans group of decision makers.
I'm going to go back this week and start rebuilding a couple homes near Tulane university for some student and administration housing and hopefully make a bit of progress.