A community that genuinely cares about itself does not just let problems fester. When I returned home that morning from the hardware store to read the paper and finish my coffee, self-terrorizing on the brain, instead of the usual wearying coverage of murders and civic distress and whatever was happening with the Saints, the local newspaper’s front page featured a beaming Lizzo, the exuberant and uncompromising champion of self-esteem and self-empowerment. She was pictured standing in stadium bleachers, surrounded by the famous marching band at Southern University, a historically black college up the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. The band, called the Human Jukebox, had been featured in her new video for “Good as Hell,” a moving, joyful celebration of community. Through the pain, frustration, and work of individuals supporting one another comes the exultant communal payoff of an excellent band in action. It felt both distinctly local and also universal. Suddenly my thinking was reoriented. How might this city show real love for itself?
It would take a reframing as radical as Lizzo herself. Previous attempts to regulate Mardi Gras have been seen as “killing culture”—never mind that Carnival is an ever-evolving, centuries-old tradition, and throwing hundreds of tons of Chinese-manufactured plastic trinkets into the streets is a relatively new addition. Could city officials, parade organizations, and citizens agree that reducing the number of beads in our environment would be a positive change motivated by love for the city? Can the city clean its drains, protect its gutters? What about reimagining our lax open-container laws, especially in the French Quarter, to somehow mitigate the subterranean mass of plastic cups that authorities found while investigating the early-morning shit bomb? If New Orleanians don’t want tourists to openly trash our city, shouldn’t we commit to the same?
Which is not to say that the city isn’t trying to make a better environment for citizens and tourists alike: The mayor launched a million-dollar “CleanUp NOLA” anti-trash program. An initiative to redesign city streets is making them safer for people to move around in, without fear of being hit by cars. The city continues its inconclusive experiment with an education system consisting entirely of charter schools—an experiment that has at least gotten the middle class to pay attention to public schools. And lately, the city government, Carnival organizations, and grassroots organizers have taken small steps toward acknowledging the harmful effects of New Orleans’s signature holiday.
Carnival is here, and parades have been rerouted around the apocalyptic ruin of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel. A few weeks ago, the tarp covering a deceased worker’s trapped, decaying remains blew off during high winds, temporarily exposing the body to the street and creating a grotesque social-media furor. Shortly after, protesters marched from the accident site to City Hall, where they demanded accountability for the hazards, injuries, and deaths the developers had created and about which the city has been largely silent. Political spin, civic boosterism, and social pressure often encourage New Orleanians to look away from social ills, lest we sully our “lifestyle” and our city’s national and international reputation. Historically, our troubles have also fed our celebrations, enabling true catharsis for the community. This time, though, I’m struggling to reconcile the citywide extravaganza with that yellow tarp hanging over North Rampart Street.