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Writing Out the Storm

Adam Nossiter reports about New Orleans for The New York Times from the perspective of a longtime resident.

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In the months immediately following Katrina, when the fate of the city was seemingly tied to its being held in high enough esteem in Washington and elsewhere to warrant federal assistance, what the major news outlets were reporting at times felt like a lifeline, and at other times a death sentence. The first time a Katrina-related New Orleans story didn't make the front page of The New York Times, a friend called me practically in tears. "They're forgetting about us already," she said.

It may have been an overreaction, but it was a feeling shared by many residents over the past few months. Even as most of us are still trying to digest the full impact of the hurricane and its devastating aftermath, planning for the inevitable Katrina anniversary issues is already well underway in newsrooms across the country. The question now is: Will anyone still care about us after Aug. 29?

"The plight of this crippled city seems to have become background noise," Howard Kurtz lamented in a recent column in The Washington Post, pointing out the inherent difficulty in portraying not the city's progress, but the distinct lack of it. Still, Kurtz concluded, "Journalism's work here is not done -- not by a long shot."

Since October 2005, longtime Crescent City resident Adam Nossiter has been part of the team of New York Times reporters detailing every dramatic high point of life in the new New Orleans. The author of two books that dealt in part with issues of place and identity, Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers and The Algeria Hotel: France, Memory and the Second World War, Nossiter is quick to insist he's no native, although he admits to having an advantage over many of his colleagues in covering the city.

"New Orleans is an especially difficult place for an outsider to understand," he said during a recent interview. "It's complicated. It's much easier for people like me who've been marinating in it for a while to attempt to come close to try to get it right." Nossiter recently answered questions for Gambit Weekly about his impressions of New Orleans, how the city appears to others, and what life here is like post-Katrina.

GW: A few months ago, you spoke about the enormous commitment The New York Times had made to this story. Do you have a sense that its interest is waning?

AN: It is absolutely not true at The Times. New Orleans was on the front page today, on the front page last week. As of this moment, besides me, there are two other full-time reporters in town and a photographer, The Times still has a house Uptown. [The New York Times Managing Editor] Jill Abramson was in town just a few days ago; it was her second visit. Howard Kurtz had a piece in The Washington Post on this theme of media's Katrina fatigue. And I don't want to sound like a New York Times PR rep, but [The New York Times] came out on top of those totals.

I think The Times has rightly understood that New Orleans is very important to the country culturally, if not economically. I think New York, as a center of urban culture for several hundred years now, has this natural affinity for this other American center of distinctive urban culture. We don't have too many cities like that. So there's that natural affinity that, say, Washington doesn't have, Chicago doesn't have, L.A. certainly doesn't have.

And then the editors have understood that this is an immense human drama -- tens of thousands of people have suffered -- and they're fascinated and horrified by that. They want to continue to bring attention to the fact that people are still suffering. So quite admirably, I think, they've made the determination that they're going to devote a lot of resources to this. This is not a capricious decision on the part of the paper.

GW: But now that all the post-Katrina "firsts" have passed ­ the first Mardi Gras, the first Jazz Fest, the mayoral election -- is there anything left to hold the country's attention?

AN: I think interest is holding steady. The story has gotten a little bit more difficult to cover because it's not quite as dramatic, inevitably, as it was. At least in the case of The Times, there definitely is a continuing commitment to stick with it to see how things play out, I would say beyond the year anniversary. How far beyond, I don't know. The issues are certainly unresolved. The fact that they are still unresolved will mean people in New York at least will be interested.

GW: You'd been covering the mayoral election closely for The New York Times. Were you surprised by the outcome?

AN: To a certain extent. I knew it would be close. I didn't expect that the electorate would represent so closely the pre-Katrina electorate: 57 percent black is not that far off from what it was before. (Mayor Ray) Nagin seemed to have done himself a lot of political damage, but he recovered -- he ran a hell of a campaign.

GW: I'm surprised at how often I'm asked by friends and relatives who don't live here how it was possible that Nagin was re-elected, as though it is a sign of the city's certain demise.

AN: I don't think so at all. Nagin is a baffling figure for people outside New Orleans, and I've written about that in my stories. The fact that the outside world doesn't quite get him doesn't mean he's bad for New Orleans. The rest of the world is never going to get New Orleans in any of its aspects. You have to be here, live here day to day, to understand it fully. I don't think New Orleans is baffled by Nagin. The outside word has been baffled by the strange ways of New Orleans from the beginning. ... It's an unbroken tradition of misunderstanding and judgment.

GW: It has been almost surreal watching New Orleans, which before Katrina was so far off the national radar, adjust to being in the media spotlight. Have you felt burdened by a need to translate for other reporters?

AN: This is a place that people felt they already knew. But in fact, I don't think they did. What they knew were the clichŽs, and that has been an impediment to understanding. People have satisfied themselves with, "I know New Orleans because I know laissez les bon temps roulez, and that's all you need to know about New Orleans." But obviously that's not enough.

New Orleans wasn't the sort of place where news organizations had bureaus. It has happened sporadically in the past, usually more because of the eccentricity of a particular journalist. There was (New York Times reporter) Roy Reed in 1970s, in the 1980s the The Philadelphia Inquirer was here, and (Pulitzer Prize winner) Rick Bragg was writing from here for a few years. But otherwise, it's been off the national mainstream radar.

What does irritate me more is reporters -- and God knows reporters are always overworked and under pressure -- coming in here without having done a minimal amount of preparation, spewing out clichŽs. We've seen plenty of that. TV is especially bad. I don't watch TV. In the early days, when we had no electricity, we were spared that particular agony. We had no idea what was being reported. All we knew was what we were reporting.

The first month (after the storm), I was working for [the Associated Press], and occasionally the editors in New York would say, "Well, this was on CNN," and it was pretty easy to say, "Well, CNN's got it wrong."

GW: A few months ago, Mike Davis wrote a piece in The Nation suggesting that white Republican business leaders were plotting to reshape New Orleans into a predominantly white city.

AN: That's not true. That piece was an amusement. I told a friend of mine that piece was like a fun-house mirror distortion of reality. For one thing, this notion that there are rich white men controlling the destiny of the city is absurd. That's not happening. What's happening is individuals going out into their neighborhoods here and there and trying to make a go of it. (Local developer) Joe Canizaro has no control whatsoever over that process.

That's been one of the great, so-far untold stories -- that this grand plan that they came up with early on has gone basically by the boards. It's gone. There is no grand plan. The plan is individuals doing the best they can, largely in the absence of help from the feds. So it's hard to take [Davis' story] very seriously. It plays into The Nation's prejudices. It's good for a laugh, but I don't take it very seriously.

GW: Everything here is talked about in terms of "before" and "after." Will we reach a point where what New Orleans was before the storm will fade in relevance?

AN: I think it's always going to be relevant. [Before-Katrina] is always going to be the context. I think it's a useful benchmark, because it was low. It was a nadir. This was an intolerable situation in many ways, and those of us who lived here and had reasonable lives were kidding ourselves; basically we were going around with blinders. But we knew that. You take your bike five, six blocks in from where we are (in the Garden District), and it wasn't safe. That's an intolerable situation. I think measuring every instant against what existed before is useful -- and fascinating.

GW: You touched on race in your "Mardi Gras Diary" (published in The New York Times in February). You wrote, "There were some black families at the Krewe of Muses parade Thursday night, but where were the children and mothers streaming back to the tattered houses close to the Mississippi River?" Was that difficult for you to write about?

AN: It's tricky to write about (race) without being patronizing or offensive or obfuscatory. But for all the charm of the place, there were some violently unhealthy pathologies that existed here before. Were they concentrated in the black communities? Probably so ­ blacks made up 70 percent of the population here.

I think black and white people live together here in a way that they don't in other cities -- not in Washington, not in New York. They have to. We're right on top of each other. There was that aspect of it, too, but there was a great degree of racism -- racial animosity, instinctive racism by white people Uptown, racial resentment on the part of poor black people. Again, it's much more complicated than the clichŽs would have you believe.

GW: This is a question that so many people here are constantly asking themselves and each other: Do you think you'll stay in New Orleans?

AN: I've got no plans to leave. There's always been a consciousness that New Orleans had a unique and attractive cultural ambience, something no other place had, a way of life that didn't exist anywhere else. So there was a feeling of, why go somewhere else when we're already here?

On the other hand, here is also a disaster. There's this peculiar attraction/repulsion thing that I've personally felt. I've left here and been amazed at leaping suddenly into the 21st century. And you start to miss it and you come back. It's happened to me a number of times.

GW: Seems everyone has a book deal to write about Katrina. Do you have any plans to write a book about New Orleans?

AN: I think a book should have a beginning, middle and an end, more or less, and I don't know what the end is here. I know what the beginning was. I know what the middle was. I don't know the end.

"This is a place that people felt they already knew. But in - fact, I don't think they did. What they knew were the clichs, - and that has been an impediment to understanding." - Adam Nossiter
  • "This is a place that people felt they already knew. But in fact, I don't think they did. What they knew were the clichs, and that has been an impediment to understanding." Adam Nossiter

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