Peter Pringle's America: Darkness beyond Bourbon Street

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The Independent Online
NEW ORLEANS always beckons as a lovely and wicked city, and like many a traveller I am seduced by the food, jazz and languorous Southern hospitality. But the welcome can wear off faster than a mint julep hangover if you stray out of the French Quarter. Beyond the gaiety of Bourbon Street lies the corrupt Louisiana state legislature, the filth and degradation of the St Thomas flats complex and, always, the Liberty Monument.

For decades the Liberty Monument has been an embarrassment to all but a handful of die-hard white supremacists. This grey granite obelisk, about 20ft high, was first erected in 1891 to honour an uprising of local white citizens against the bi-racial Republican government that ruled Louisiana after the Civil War. Those years were some of the most troubled in the history of the city, with carpetbaggers from the north invading commerce and politics and trying to seat blacks in the state legislature. The newspaper, which was then called the Daily Picayune, complained about the 'Africanisation' of Louisiana. A group of defeated white Confederates attempted a violent take-over of the city and the state government. They charged into police cannon fire in the Battle of Liberty Place and several were killed. Their names were inscribed on the obelisk together with an inscription, which their landed allies thought appropriate. It was about sacrifice in the fight against 'Negro domination'. In the Thirties, when the white supremacists were back in power, they added to the carvings.

Over the years the monument on the city's main thoroughfare became a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan. In the Seventies, civil rights leaders argued that it should be removed because its presence added to racial tensions. For a while it was stored in a warehouse, but supporters of David Duke, the one-time Klan leader, sued the city for its return and won. This time, the city fathers tucked it away between a car park and an aquarium on the banks of the Mississippi. They removed the offensive wording and replaced it with: 'A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future'.

But that has not stopped citizens having their perennial debate about it. In an effort to close the issue, the city council has declared any object publicly displayed that is deemed a nuisance should be locked away in a museum or similar repository - especially if it 'honours, praises or fosters' ideologies in conflict with the Constitution's equal protection of all citizens, or has been or may become the site of violent demonstrations, or is regularly vandalised or presents an unjustified security expense.

The monument qualifies, but so do several elected officials of the Louisiana state legislature. They would have trouble passing muster on the nuisance criterion. Under a 109-year-old 'arrangement' with the private New Orleans Tulane University, each of the 144 legislators is allowed to award a one-year tuition waiver to a student. The mayor of New Orleans is allowed five such scholarships. The idea is to help disadvantaged youth, but the awards, which can be made without public disclosure, have been going to members of the lawmakers' families. The mayor gave one to his son. Five other New Orleans legislators admitted doing the same, and several others awarded them to relatives, public officials and business partners.

Representative Quentin Dastugue confessed to the Times-Picayune that he gave a Tulane scholarship to the brother of a girfriend who later became his wife. The university authorities have decided no longer to honour the scholarships unless the selection procedure is made open. So far, half of the New Orleans officials have refused to comply.

If their activities cannot be closed down and consigned to history, those of the New Orleans public housing authority should be. Another story in the Times-Picayune mentioned the plight of 900 black families who live in the part- abandoned, 60-year-old housing project for poor people known as St Thomas. According to the newspaper, it is 'one of the city's most troubled developments'. Curious, I asked for directions. 'You musn't go there, no white people go there, you'll be shot,' I was told.

A kindly social worker named Don Everard, who lives and works in the project, showed me round. He, too, said I shouldn't go alone. Once a neat collection of courtyards with huge oaks and three-storey blocks decorated with typical New Orleans wrought-iron balconies, it is now a filthy slum. There is shooting every night, says Mr Everard, mostly by youths showing off, but there were 21 murders last year. Almost everyone has a relative in prison, and the saying goes that the young men of St Thomas leave either in a police car or a hearse. Rats come out of the sewers at night and brazenly molest the residents. In the Eighties the city started a renovation of the complex, but the construction came to halt because of a dispute over the cost, and funds from Washington were reallocated.

The main preoccupation of the mostly unemployed youth for the past 20 years has been selling drugs. A city official, warned of the epidemic by a social worker, said in 1972: 'Well, now, sister, we know drugs are going to pop up somewhere in every city. At least we know where they are.' An local anti-drug group came in, painted some porches and put up signs proclaiming the area a drug-free zone. Only one sign survives. Drugs, says Mr Everard, are still St Thomas's main problem. 'They thought they could make the place look attractive and the drugs would go away.'

Like the Liberty Monument, St Thomas meets all the criteria of the new city council ordinance. Perhaps the entire complex should be put in a museum and marked 'a conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future'.