January 22, 2007—New Orleans, Louisiana
The Reverend Clarence Washington, senior pastor for nearly forty years at Gethsemane Baptist Church, shifted his three-hundred-pound frame in the swivel chair and tossed the stack of unpaid bills into a wire basket on his desk. Behind on just about everything, he thought. That hurricane sure did a number on us. He could pay only the smaller bills and would have to continue to beg and wheedle for time on the bigger ones. But he was determined to keep the note on his wife’s Mercedes current. They would both have to continue taking just half of the salaries they had received before the hurricane sent much of his congregation to live in places like Baton Rouge and Houston.
He stood and stared out the second-floor window just as he had, amazed and distressed, on that last weekend of August, 2005, when Katrina’s precisely aimed blow flooded all the low-lying areas of the City. He had prayed continuously then and God had finally answered his fervent prayers, but only after the waters had stayed for weeks wreaking destruction throughout his beleaguered neighborhood, Bacauptown. In many ways, the seemingly interminable aftermath of the storm was proving worse than the hurricane itself. When would things finally start to get better?
Often in more recent months, he had gained strength and taken pleasure from imagining the block across the street with a beautiful new building filled with apartments and businesses that would bring renewed life in place of the devastation. Just gazing out the window would bring him hope and, yes, feelings of civic pride that New Orleans’ revival could begin right there with the plan he had conceived. But not today. Today he felt only discouragement and could detect only the sad reality left behind by Katrina—the blocks of weed-grown lots, the stench from the remains of the two-story pile of discarded refrigerators, the shotgun houses and small cottages dislodged from their foundations that had been in poor condition even before the hurricane. All this poverty and rot and desperation just a few blocks from St. Charles Avenue. It’s not right . . . never has been.
Clarence turned his gaze to the bookshelf by the window, full of autographed photos from mayors and other Louisiana politicians over several decades. The one from the current mayor, received not long before the hurricane, was signed with the words, “To Clarence. Blessed are the peacemakers! Mayor H. Juneau.” The mayor, a long-time friend and sometimes political ally, had given it to him at the opening of a now-vacant recreation center that was designed to keep the neighborhood youth off the streets. He could see the neglected center and its basketball courts in the distance, its windows broken and its crumbled parking lot now edged by five-foot willow trees.
The phone rang. Mrs. Walker, the church secretary for almost as many years as he had been pastor, transferred a call from the accounts receivable department of the utility company.
“Hello, this is Pastor Washington. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
Gethsemane Baptist Church was one of the largest black churches in New Orleans, and it did not take the reverend long to get another extension of his due date.
“Sir, I assure you we are doing everything we can to get our bills caught up. All of our money in recent months went to the massive repairs we needed downstairs. I must ask for a little more time.” There was a short pause as Clarence listened to the caller’s tepid response. Undaunted, he said, “Bless you for this consideration, and may you have a glorious day.”
Clarence then called out his door. “Mrs. Walker, will you kindly get the mayor on the phone for me?”
Clarence did not like being dependent on white people. Growing up poor and black in the Ninth Ward, he’d had few interactions with white people, and most of those were with teachers and police officers when he was in trouble. And right now his whole future and the future of his church and neighborhood felt as though they were dependent on the actions of a white man the mayor had forced him to partner with on the big neighborhood renewal project that had been his idea. This man—the great Joe Pacello, Clarence thought derisively—had made a lot of money masking himself as a community do-gooder. If he’s such a do-gooder, how come he made so much money while my community and all the rest of black New Orleans stayed poor?
Clarence had learned in many past circumstances that the white minority in the city was still dominant in business and finance, and he promised himself, as he had many times, that someday he’d do a deal when no white man was sitting at the table. But for now he had no choice but to work with Pacello. After all, what Baptist minister knew enough to pull together a $24 million housing project?
Pacello. The man lived in an Uptown mansion on St. Charles Avenue, but the name called up bad images from fifty years back when the downriver parishes where Pacello grew up had been havens for some of the most stubborn racists in America. And he had heard bad things about this man, including that he was known to use the N word. That word’s only okay when we use it among ourselves.
“I have the mayor on line one,” Mrs. Walker said.
“Splendid! That’s one miracle for today.” He picked up the phone and addressed the mayor as he often did in private. “Chief nigguh Juneau, how are you?”
The mayor laughed. He was direct in his response. “I know you’ve been calling and I know what it’s about. Clarence, I’m just as impatient as you are, and you know why.” The mayor expected a tough fight for reelection, and he needed to show progress to the voters, white and black alike, in bringing the city back from the hurricane’s damage.
“Are you pressing Pacello to get us a closing?” Clarence asked. “I can’t pay my bills here, and the neighborhood’s not getting any better. You know that incident a few nights ago has everyone feeling scared.” Some kids had robbed and beaten a tourist who wandered off St. Charles Avenue just a few blocks from the Convention Center,and the incident had been in the headlines of the Times Picayune, Morning Advocate, and other local papers. The Convention Center director had been quoted as saying the city lost two big meetings to Chicago from that one incident.
“Bad, bad PR for the city, Clarence. We do need some positive press,” the mayor said. “I thought you had those gangs over there under control.”
“I do. But some outsiders from the West Bank came over and didn’t respect our rules here. You know it would help if I had some money to spread around and buy us more time to improve things.” Here I go, begging again, Clarence thought.
“I’m going to call Pacello and read him the riot act,” the mayor said. “If he can’t close, he needs to get out of the way and turn the project over to someone else. I checked with the finance authority, and they’ll approve a change if I tell them they should.”
Clarence had heard this kind of posturing from the mayor before, but in fact there was little he or the mayor could do to force Pacello to move ahead. A black man in New Orleans was still a black man even if he happened to be Mayor Hypolite Juneau.
Clarence thanked the mayor and hung up. He felt frustrated and powerless. Forty years here, and look where I stand, having to play some kind of Uncle Tom to a redneck white man. He sighed. “Mrs. Walker,” he called through the partially open door, “please come in and assist me with some paperwork.” He spent the next hour deciding which bills to pay and making calls to creditors who would have to keep waiting.