HOME IS WHERE THE HATRED IS: 10 Years After Katrina
By: Willard Hill
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
– Matthew 5:14-16
I’ve had 10 years to think about this. It may piss some people off. I may lose a few friends. I may even get swung on. I don’t care one way or the other. The truth is… I kind of hate New Orleans now. I love the people I know, the good memories I had, and our culture, but I hate what the city is becoming.
I tried moving back but every time I do the city makes me want to leave again.
Let me explain…
Verse 1: Black In The Big Easy
Growing up in New Orleans I never felt like the city was “mine”. I didn’t come from an elitist family, nor did I have ties to the streets. I wasn’t a standout athlete. Shit, I wasn’t even doing music! I was just another middle class, highly forgettable, dark skinned teenager trying not to get placed in an NOPD lineup. I was on the fringe at all times and didn’t have much of my own identity. I felt like there was more to life outside of Orleans Parish so after high school, I dipped. Both my parents were sick, my grandparents were all gone so what did I have to lose?
At that point, my relationship with New Orleans was like something out of a Tyler Perry scene (take your pick). I was the motherfucka with the bags by the door, threatening to leave, getting told…
“Bitch you ain’t shit without me! You’ll be back.”
The irony was that as soon as I left New Orleans, that’s all anybody knew of me. The city became my identity! People only wanted to hear my slang, my accent, or find out if I knew Juvenile or Lil Wayne— I didn’t.
Eventually… I went back.
Before I carry on, here is my new song, “To Miss New Orleans” ft. Asante Amin. My narrative continues afterwards.
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Verse 2: Katrina Tours and Black Rage
When Katrina hit I ended up in Cleveland, OH. I was stressed, depressed, heartbroken, and conflicted about what to do next. Do I go back and rebuild? Should I say fuck it and stay gone? I mean, all of what was keeping me there was now gone. I was depressed when I was there and depressed when I was gone—so why fight it? Yet in some part of my mind, I thought that it was a chance to stake my claim in the city for once. I figured since everybody was starting over so could I!
First things first… I gotta clean this shit up.
One morning, while inspecting the damage at my family’s house in the Lower 9th Ward, a charter bus crept by with a group of white people taking pictures of the damage to my block. These were “Katrina Tours”. Imagine you’re bagging up your memories while fighting tears. You drag all of those years to the curb and —*flash*— your pain is a Facebook post.
I had dealt with racism before: white boys calling me a “nigger” to provoking me to fight, or white women holding their purses tight. This, however, was the first time I had experienced the type of racism that made you feel like nothing. I was nothing to them. They didn’t acknowledge my pain or presence. I didn’t know how to feel. Either way, it stirred something in me that never left.
All at once I knew who I was: I was a black man. It didn’t matter what I could do, or how intelligent I was, or even how spiritually connected I am to The Creator. Hurricance Katrina, The United States Government, and that fuckin’ bus had shown me exactly where my place was in the world. I was a source of entertainment. I was a source of labor. I was replaceable.
“Oh you play music? Come entertain us.”
“Oh you’re funny! Come make us laugh while we trash your city and go home. Can you clean this up too?”
“You just lost everything and y’all are having a second line to help get over the pain? Let me come dance with you then go home and do nothing to help.”
I began to resent what was my city’s culture. I resented the subtle racism I had never noticed until then. I resented the “shuck and jive” I saw my people perform when they went into the French Quarters to work. I resented the fact we’d rather party than protest. I resented the fact we looted and didn’t riot for our rights. I don’t know. I was angry and didn’t know which way to point that loaded gun.
It was killing me to see the city go right back to what it was. All the potential, to rebuild New Orleans to better serve those who make the culture what it was, got poured down the drain like spilt beer. Crooked politicians, miles of red tape, and niggas— content to sit and wait for God and the government to fix their issues— began to make the same ol’ bitter gumbo we all ate before. I couldn’t stomach that shit so I left… again.
Verse 3: The Brooklyn-izing of New Orleans
Before I start this section let me say this… I fuckin’ hate hipsters. I hate you. I hate what you do to communities, you locusts. Go love your own city. You suck the culture dry, then move on when the “scene is dead” like a goddamn privileged parasite. You don’t give back to the people who struggled to give the neighborhood its “charm”. Fuck you, your mustache, and your coffee.
Two years after Katrina, and giving New Orleans another shot, I ended up in New York City. I took to that shit like a fish to water. Yeah, I had some hard times for sure, but there was always something new to get in to. I was working in “the city” (Manhattan) in a high-end recording studio, I was making music and doing what I loved, and I was finally getting over New Orleans and all that pain. Everybody was just trying to make it like me, and we all had weird accents and ate weird shit.
Now, I had never heard of the word “gentrification” before living in Brooklyn but, in the five years I lived in NYC, I became all too familiar with it. For the record, it’s not that I don’t like to live around white people. It’s not that I don’t like white people. I love all people that love me—simple and plain. What I grew to despise about the influx of our new neighbors was that paid no mind to the people, places, and faces that had been there for years. They didn’t try to include themselves in the cultural fabric of the neighborhood, or try to help improve the living conditions of the neighborhood kids and elderly. Nah, they only brought with them their ideals and their stupid fuckin’ coffee.
Almost overnight the areas that made me feel like I finally belonged started to remind me of “The French Quarter” back home— where I had better be working, spending money, or on my way home unless I felt like getting fucked with by police. I was running out of places to live and to fit in. Again I found myself resenting these white “urban explorers” taking tours of my neighborhood. Before I knew it, I couldn’t afford Brooklyn and was headed back home… to New Orleans… once again.
I got back to New Orleans to discover it overrun with the same motherfuckas I left in Brooklyn! While I, and a lot of my generation, was scattered and trying to figure out how to start careers and shit, these heauxs went on a land grab. Also, the State of Louisiana began to court the movie and other industries. They gave tax breaks to production companies to bring them down. They didn’t train locals to fill the higher skilled/paying jobs so subsequently… those companies brought in their own people. Those people “fell in love with NOLA” and decided to stay. Now, where once was an eclectic mix of colors, cultures, and commonalities there’s just coffee. The people who made that neighborhood a cultural hub are now forced to God-knows where and what’s left is a transplant’s version of New Orleans—synthetic, homogenized, and bleached. And you guessed it… the rent when up to.
I have to wonder if that was always the plan: let us drown then plant new seeds on our grave. Yeah that’s morbid… but it’s also how this country was founded, ya dig?
I hope—if you read this much— you’ll take inventory of your own situation. My parents’ generation didn’t do enough to protect their claim to the city. The grounds gained after desegregation meant we could go where we wanted to, so instead of improving our own shit, we fought to have a place among our oppressors. In my opinion, I think they focused more on the stretching the branches and not strengthening the roots.
Fuck it. Maybe I just can’t accept change. Maybe I’m just bitter because I feel like I never got a fair chance to get to know New Orleans, on my own terms, before shit got destroyed. Maybe I’m better off elsewhere. Either way, I can’t deny the fact that what I did love about my city ain’t there anymore; and what is there isn’t enough to keep me satisfied. I hate it what it is now.
For me, New Orleans is the mother that cares more for the children she nannies than her own. I’m not the only one. A lot of my friends split, are plotting on it, or wishing they had. The city may never recognize the brilliant minds it loses each day and I’m not in the business of swimming up stream. From where I see it, unless you are entertaining tourists… you’re useless if you’re black down there. I’d rather be where my light can shine brightest.
That’s my opinion. That’s my impression. That’s my story. If you disagree, then as the Hot Boys said, “Get It How U Live.”
(In South Central Los Angeles… for now.)
-Willard Hill is a Recording Artist, Producer, Songwriter, and Musician from New Orleans, LA.