The Hurricane and the City

An anecdote and a brief analysis:

I am stunned by an interview I conducted with New Orleans Detective Lawrence Dupree. He told me they were trying to rescue people with a helicopter and the people were so poor they were afraid it would cost too much to get a ride and they had no money for a “ticket.” Dupree was shaken telling us the story. He just couldn’t believe these people were afraid they’d be charged for a rescue.
— CNN’s Drew Griffin in New Orleans, Louisiana 9/5/05

Peter Levine, a research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said that New Orleans has traditionally had a weak civic culture, which would make it less likely for people to trust one another and sustain the social order when disaster strikes.

He pointed to New York City’s history of electricity failures. In 1965, when civic trust was high, residents maintained order during a power loss. In 1977 – a time of social upheaval – there were riots, fires and looting during a blackout. “By 2003, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the city’s civic culture improved and the peace held,” he said.
— Linell Smith, “Behavior of stressed disaster survivors draws eyes of experts,” Baltimore Sun 9.2.05

Well, what should cities do to strengthen their dangerously anemic civic cultures? In the current Church of England newspaper, Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests “a few possible priorities for those concerned with the life of the spirit in the modern city”:

The first has to do with the use and organisation of time. Religious communities are all agreed that time needs breaking up, punctuating, by festival (and fasting too) – by rhythms that mark and shape the passage of time and recognise different emotions, different stages in growth, recognising that dimension of human living that involves process and the shifts of ‘climate’ in the life of mind and heart. …

Perhaps it’s often a matter of hanging some of this onto existing festival dates in the Church’s calendar – commemorating specific local trauma in Holy Week, using Mothering Sunday to say something about the joys and challenges of parenting in a community, perhaps to remember the local difficulties or tragedies of children, certainly to make a point about communication between generations. …

A second possibility. The urban landscape is characteristically characterless. What, then, gives ‘character’? Somewhere between the provision of space for quiet in households and the recognition of publicly accessible significant space is a phenomenon that seems to have become more prominent in recent years – an interest, mostly among voluntary groups, in reclaiming small public spaces as memorial gardens, protected places for quiet. The message that an environment is in some sense simply manageable – that it does not have to spiral out of control as far as basic cleanliness and usability are concerned – is a serious element of what the good news can entail in a physically degraded setting.

A third area is perhaps more obvious. Local trading schemes, micro-credit initiatives and so on are structures with well-defined and close local accountability, a good record in developing skills and restoring a sense of limited, but real, control over economic circumstances, and a low level of capital and organisational outlay. They generate self-respect and broad and forward-looking vision for oneself and others. They are something that a local faith community can contribute to very effectively, offering a ready-made pool of volunteers.

Does the shaping of time, landscape, and economic life in our own cities communicate any sense of human togetherness or the awareness of a spiritual horizon? Or does it tell us that we are just a collection of expendable people thrown together by chance and the market? Perhaps the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will force us to really ask these questions.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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