TEXT OF INTERVIEW
KAI RYSSDAL: Mardi Gras is still almost two weeks away, but things are really set to get rolling in New Orleans starting tomorrow. That’s when a bunch of parades and floats start winding through the city’s neighborhoods, and that continues right on through Mardi Gras. But the good times in New Orleans don’t stop when the parties end. Even in the face of adversity, and there’s a lot of adversity down there between the crime and the corruption, most people just seem to be enjoying themselves. That’s what Dan Baum found when he went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His book “Nine Lives” looks at the people there and why — even after Katrina — so many of them wanted to go home.
DAN BAUM: Most people in New Orleans live their entire lives — before the storm — lived their entire lives never seeing a face that they didn’t know their whole life. It is an extremely neighborhood-based city. You spin those people out of the city for the flood and you send them off to some big soulless suburb of Houston, where they don’t know anybody, and it’s like being spun off the face of the planet. It’s anomie.
RYSSDAL: And that’s exactly it though because doesn’t that sort of belie an insecurity, right, a lack of trust of authority of people who have let the city become corrupt and let the education system suffer and the rise in crime and all of that…
BAUM: Well it’s not like the people in New Orleans like having a bad school system or that they like the crime, but it comes as part and parcel of this culture. New Orleans is the only place in the United States that I have found that is not ruled by the dollar or the clock. Down there, what’s important is that right now is pleasant and it makes life… People have time for their friends and people have time for their families and their communities in a way that the rest of us out here in what we call the “real world” don’t. It is a very seductive lifestyle, but it is not a place where a high premium is placed on getting stuff done.
RYSSDAL: You tell the story of this city and of the storm and of its history through the lives of nine people. One of whom is a businessman named Billy Grace. Tell us about him and what you learned about New Orleans telling his story.
BAUM: Billy is something of a striver and he pays a social price for that and he lets it known that he’s looking for business opportunities. And he does not make it into the Louisiana Club, which is one of the very exclusive lunch clubs in New Orleans. And that stings. And it’s never really spoken why he doesn’t make it into the Louisiana Club, but he is made to understand that perhaps he’s just a little too pushy, he’s a little too work-oriented. We don’t need that kind of industry and energy ruffling the very still atmosphere inside the Louisiana Club.
RYSSDAL: How has that been reflected in the, what, three and a half years now since Katrina hit this place? How is that affecting the rebuilding and the re-population of the city?
BAUM: You see a lot of activity individually. Neighbors helping each other rebuild their houses. It’s one street in the lower 9th Ward where everybody is coming back. What did not happen manifested in New Orleans after the flood was any kind of large, top-down, planned recovery. There was all this talk about making New Orleans bigger and better and all these new urbanism and mixed-income neighborhoods. But I think people heard these plans to make the city bigger and better as a plan to make the city run by the dollar and the clock, the way the rest of the United States is, and people said ‘We don’t want that.’ But to say nothing is happening in New Orleans is a lie.
RYSSDAL: Do you worry at all that maybe you’ve been too captivated by New Orleans to see the destruction?
BAUM: I’m a partisan. I’ll admit it. I love the city. People ask me ‘What’s going to happen to New Orleans?’ And I say, look, you know I think that in 10 or 15 years New Orleans will be the disorganized, impoverished, violent, screwed up, corrupt city it was before the storm and that’s really the way they want it.
RYSSDAL: You know, your take on this city, that they’re really in it for the moment, that time and money don’t really mean anything, it’s got a certain charm. But how’s it going to play down in New Orleans if we went out and asked people what they think about this book?
BAUM: I think it’ll play well. New Orleans is proud of itself and it’s proud of itself for all the reasons that I love it.
RYSSDAL: Dan Baum covered Katrina and New Orleans for The New Yorker. His book about the city is called “Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans.” Dan, thanks a lot.
BAUM: Thank you very much.