The flooding in New Orleans reached its current epic proportions when—after one levee was breached on Monday morning, August 29, in the eastern, downriver portion of the city, known as the Ninth Ward—another was breached across town at the 17th Street Canal Levee, very early Tuesday morning, August 30.
The 17th Street Canal separates New Orleans’ Jefferson Parish (west) from Orleans Parish (east). The canals of the city, as well as the Mississippi riverbanks and the shore of Lake Pontchartrain are lined with earthen levees that usually keep the low-lying city from from being flooded. But as high water and wind from Katrina scoured the levees, large sections washed away, including a section reportedly several hundred feet long along the eastern side of the 17th Street Canal. . . .
The breach in the levee along the canal’s eastern bank is obvious as a break in the tan line that runs along other portions of the canal. The hole allowed Lake Pontchartrain to pour into the neighborhoods known as the West End. Some homes and other buildings are completely submerged, while the roofs of others appear to float above the murky water.
The West End is 90% white, 1.7% Black. 9.1% of its residents were living in poverty. The Lower 9th Ward is 98.3% Black, .5% white. 36.4% of its residents were living in poverty. On average in New Orleans, 66.6% of the residents are Black, 26.6% are white, and 27.9% lived in poverty. One of the wealthiest and whitest parts of New Orleans, the West End was presumably one of the areas whose residents mostly got out of New Orleans in time to escape the devastation that is now there (though their homes and other possessions may not be so lucky).
The map, above right, shows NOLA neighborhoods by percent white, with the West End outlined in red. Click here to see the same map done for percent African American, Asian and Latino. All demographic data in cited in this post are drawn from 2000 census data, as assembled by the Greater New Orleans Data Center.
The West End has been a wealthy area of New Orleans since the the turn of the 20th century. With lake front property, it was a resort area whose patrons wanted to hear the African American vernacular dance music, known as jazz.
West End was originally called New Lake End to distinguish it from Old Lake End, which sometimes referred to Milneburg.
New Lake End served as a port for craft traveling along the New Basin Canal. Between 1835 and 1876, individuals involved in the coastwise trade and those who belonged to yachting and rowing clubs primarily frequented New Lake End.
The Mexican Gulf Ship Canal Company had begun construction of a harbor with railroad facilities when the city acquired the company’s partially built embankment at the New Basin Canal and the Seventeenth Street Canal. The 100 foot wide bank was raised to a height of eight feet. Subsequently, the New Orleans City and Lake Railroad routed trains to the embankment, which was developed to house the West End resort.
A hotel, a restaurant, a garden and various amusement spots were built on a large wooden platform that was constructed over the water. In 1880, New Lake End took the name West End. Sailing and rowing regattas added to the popularity of West End. Over the next 30 years, West End achieved popularity to rival the resort at Spanish Fort.
West End contributed to the early development of jazz in New Orleans. Its bandstand was a center for early jazz concerts performed by notable jazz musicians including Louis Armstrong. The famous jazz song “West End Blues” was inspired by this resort area.
In 1921, the city completed improvements that included the construction of a seawall 500 feet further out in the lake and filling in the space between the old embankment, expanding the park to thirty acres, all of which resulted in the present West End Park. The first houses were built near West End Park around the 1920s.
Within the city of New Orleans, African American vernacular dance music originated in a number of places, far across town from the West End. One of the most vibrant homes of early jazz was the Back o' Town neighborhood, where Louis Armstrong grew up.
Back o' Town included illicit gambling and prostitution houses as well as residences. The adjacent South Rampart Street corridor contained more respectable AfricanAmerican businesses and legitimate places of entertainment. From the turn of the century through the 1920s, Back o' Town had a concentration. of saloons, social halls, dance clubs, and vaudeville theaters where early jazz was played. These ranged from low-down dives, such as the Red Onion, to a middle-class ballroom like the Parisian Garden room in the Pythian Temple building. Most of the area has been redeveloped for government offices, parking areas, high-rise office buildings, and the Superdome. The Red Onion, the Pythian Temple Building, the Odd Fellows and Masonic dance hall, and the Iroquois Theater remain. Louis Armstrong's birthplace, Union Sons hall, the Astoria Hotel and Ballroom, Spano's, and several other important early structures have been torn down.
Another source of musicians for the wealthy audiences on the West End would have been the Eighth and Ninth Wards.
The Eighth and Ninth wards begin east of Elysian Fields Avenue. This was a racially mixed workingclass neighborhood at the turn of the century. Woodmen of the World Hall, where early jazz was played, still stands. Famous residents of the area included Papa Jack Laine, Manuel Mello, Manuel Perez, and John Robichaux.
The African American working class people of the Ninth Ward were still supplying labor for the the greater economy of New Orleans, up until last week, when their neighborhood was destroyed and they were left to the death and chaos of their flooded neighborhood and city. (Map above right: NOLA neighborhoods by percent African American, Lower Ninth Ward outlined in red, other racial composition maps here.)
People in the Lower Ninth Ward use the bus to get to work because of lack of finances, lack of private cars. You've got to use the bus even though the services continue to be limited. You've got to use the bus because that's the only means you have to get out to make money. There are no jobs here, and there is nowhere you can walk to do things. (75 year old African American social worker, Fall 2003)
"In other parts of the city, a lot of people have the option of walking to their jobs. But on this side, because of the canal, we are separated from the city.” (53 year old African American laborer, Fall 2003)
Whereas only 6.1% of West End residents had no vehicle available, a third of Ninth Ward residents were without vehicles prior to Katrina. There were things that could have been done to get Ninth Ward residents and others without cars out of the city, along the lines of what Malik Rahim has pointed out.
We have Amtrak here that could have carried everybody out of town. There were enough school buses that could have evacuated 20,000 people easily, but they just let them be flooded. My son watched 40 buses go underwater - they just wouldn't move them, afraid they'd be stolen.
People who could afford to leave were so afraid someone would steal what they own that they just let it all be flooded. They could have let a family without a vehicle borrow their extra car, but instead they left it behind to be destroyed.
There's lots of ways to guess at the meaning of Louis Armstrong's rendition of his mentor Joe "King" Oliver's West End Blues. Maybe it was just a blues written while in the West End. Maybe it was a blues for people whom Oliver performed for on the West End. Maybe it was a blues for all the people who worked in the West End and lived someplace else. Right now it's a blues for all of New Orleans, though some folks have it worse than others . . .
Louis recorded the song in Chicago, after he had left New Orleans and had already spent some time in New York City. The Hot Five/Hot Seven recordings were not three minute digest versions of what he was doing in the clubs. Rather, the ensembles and the arrangements were assembled especially for the studio dates. Louis' West End Blues were designed for the act of recording and were therefore a blues for all us.
Anyone with an ounce of compassion also has more than just a touch of the West End Blues—especially if they're asking questions like Marsha Joyner's questions.
Did Katrina open our eyes to a problem, which has been glossed over? Are we seeing the under belly of America, the poor, the minorities, the people who could not afford to evacuate; whose very existence depends on the meager handout of the government. A government, which we saw was too long delayed in coming to the rescue.
Did Katrina show us an America that we pretend does not exist? The magnitude of everyday suffering is intolerable and such conditions must be changed through social action. We, members of SNCC and countless others, worked tirelessly to enact social changes only to see subsequent Administrations dismantle them. We are now back to square one. Like Victor Hugo, again, we must convince America that the poor, the minorities, the outcast, the people stealing in the midst of Katrina, the outcast—the misérables—are worth saving.