Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bring in the troops

National Guard members patrolling my old New Orleans neighborhood last October.
(click to make larger)

A lifetime ago, before Hurricane Katrina, I used to walk around my old crime-infested hometown of New Orleans and dream of squads of heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets.

Over time, I became convinced that my fantasy was actually the best, and only, solution to the city's tragic bond with violence.

My prayers were answered by the storm.

Many nights after Katrina, usually when the power had failed, I sat on the steps in front of my Bywater house and greeted young guards from the state of Washington as they moved slowly down my street, a fully-armed message to punks and thugs to stay away.

They were kind, friendly, often chatty and showed deep empathy for the pain and suffering around them.

I started doing things I had never done before.
- Walking my dog alone after midnight.
- Leaving the steering wheel club in the back seat of my car at night.
- Walking the 10 or so blocks to the French Quarter at night.
- Answering the questions of strangers after dark.

In that new New Orleans - during the earliest weeks and months after Katrina - the brightest hope for the city actually seemed possible; that from all of the tragedy wrought by Mother Nature, the Crescent City would find salvation and redemption from the bloodbath that had stained its streets and choked its throat for the last two decades.

By the time I left New Orleans in late March, most of the soldiers had gone home and some things were all too quickly returning to normal.

In my last couple of weeks there, a Marigny resident was brutally murdered in a mugging near his home, countless armed robberies occurred in or near my neighborhood, and burglaries were again on the rise.

One afternoon, after covering a press conference by ministers in a flooded and abandoned neighborhood, I watched a couple of young guys carry an old clawfoot bathtub out the front door of an old shotgun house and hoist it into the back of a pickup on top of what had to be at least 15 other tubs just like it.

Some people probably winced at the recent return of soldiers to a great American city. I've been wondering why they ever left in the first place.

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