I recently visited New Orleans. It was beautiful, and wonderful, and fascinating, and uncomfortable. I went with a group from my college as part of a service trip, so there was a lot of pre-departure preparation, including a talk with a student from New Orleans about her personal experiences growing up there and what it was like to evacuate during Katrina. At the end of her talk, she asked us where we were planning to go in the city. She had only two pieces of advice: try the beignets at Café du Monde, and please visit the Lower Ninth Ward.
Her request was reasonable for us since our entire service trip was focused on rebuilding houses damaged during Katrina and the Lower Ninth Ward (one of the areas hit hardest by the storm) displays some of the most visible damage (and yes, there’s still a lot of visible damage there and in other areas around the city today). But she also expressed her wish that everyone visiting New Orleans would visit the Lower Ninth. She didn’t like how people were picking out the prettiest parts of her city and ignoring the places that still desperately need aid.
This sounds great, right? Encourage the tourists to explore the poor neighborhoods, see all the empty lots and even wrecked houses that stand abandoned, count how many spray painted X’s marking the date and number of dead bodies found in a house are still visible, maybe manage to pull them out of their haze of consumerism and force down some perspective for an hour or so.
Surprisingly (to me, at least), the city is very supportive of this idea. And it makes me very uncomfortable.
Not only are tourists allowed to roam around the private neighborhoods to peruse the detriment, but they are offered guided tours. You can stop by a travel agency in the French Quarter and pick up a brochure for “Katrina Tours” along with a pamphlet of dinner recommendations and a coupon booklet for local stores. You can stand by the plaque marking where the levee broke in the Lower Ninth, washing away dozens of houses and countless souls, and watch vans and buses drive by, sometimes even stopping to let passengers out for photo ops. You can snap away at the modest shotgun houses, or even the gaudily modern “Brad Pitt” houses with all their angles and colors, all while escaping the brutal Louisiana humidity in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle flooded with the cadence of clicking cameras and the stream of historical facts and analogies from the tour guide’s mouth. Best of all, you can feel like you did your bit for these people by just listening to their stories, which is very important, but is not enough.
I know that as a non-native, my opinions on this don't matter very and don't hold much weight (and they shouldn't), but I was genuinely shocked that the locals were so comfortable sharing their tragedy with people who will be shopping for snow globes and shot glasses in an hour. Somehow, concern seems less valid if it's rewarded with a souviner.
Can you see why that makes me uncomfortable?