New Orleans/Aspen resident: Can the city’s social fiber be restored?
September 10, 2005
From his Victorian home in Aspen’s West End, Paul Fabry is a long way from the flooded streets of New Orleans.Fabry and his wife, Betsy, left their home on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter a few days after Hurricane Katrina struck, and it’s not easy for him to talk about their evacuation in the face of the thousands of people left behind.”I am embarrassed by the fact that I walked out of the house, got in my car and was able to drive through the people marching in 105-degree heat over the Mississippi Bridge like an exodus,” he said. “I was going to my home in Aspen, so you can’t feel sorry for me.”But Fabry has a unique perspective on what has happened in New Orleans, where he moved in 1962 to help build an international trading center. Soon after, Fabry became the co-founder of the World Trade Center Association, with offices on the higher floors of the north tower in New York City.He worked for the association for 25 years before retiring and was in New Orleans four years ago today when his New York City office collapsed to the ground, taking many of his friends and colleagues with it.The difference between the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina is vast – and in Fabry’s mind it comes down to something fundamental. The hurricane struck a city starkly divided along lines of class and race, while the terrorist attacks did not discriminate.”September 11 very importantly was not a discriminating event – everybody went down, whether you were white or black, rich or poor, a secretary or a president of a company,” he said. “[The hurricane] was a discriminating national disaster because it affected people who couldn’t afford to build their homes anywhere else than in the areas predestined to be flooded. It was totally divided by class.”Historically, those who first settled in New Orleans, including the French, built their homes and businesses in higher parts of the city before floodgates were built. Eventually a poorer class of people built homes in the lower-lying parts of the city.Not only did the city’s wealthier white residents have more means to leave the city before or just after the hurricane, as Fabry did, but their homes in higher areas have sustained less flood damage. The images on television of people in the area who were trapped in the floodwaters have made it clear that those who stayed behind and suffered the most were non-whites.”If you don’t look at New Orleans in this fashion, as two cities, then you don’t know New Orleans,” Fabry said.What resulted is a question Fabry, who was born and raised in Hungary and has since traveled the world, has never considered before. How will one of the United States’ most culturally rich cities rebuilt itself when it is so deeply divided?Fabry, who is considering living in Aspen permanently now, said it will bother him to go back to New Orleans and face neighbors that he “left in the mud.””Can the social fiber be restored to the point that people are willing to go back and start from zero?” he asked. “If so, it will be a very long and difficult task, and we will need more than intelligent engineering. We need the spirit of the people and a willingness to accept each other rather than just dollars from FEMA.”A city with such historical significance should be rebuilt, he said, but the main question is by whom and for whom.Those who have recently evacuated and been taken to places like Houston, where they will attempt to find work and place their children in school, might never want to return to New Orleans, he said.”Is this exodus going to allow New Orleans to bring back a working population, whether it’s white or black, or will it be abandoned by industry and its own population? We need people who will put together a city that will not be divided so strictly as it is now.”Fabry said preserving the historical parts of the city is tricky. If, for example, the French Quarter is preserved but uninhabited, it runs the risk of becoming an empty tourist attraction. The people and the culture made up New Orleans’ greatness – so will all of that return?”It’s the social element of this disaster that disturbs me, and the division between the haves and the have-nots that was made so visible to everyone,” he said. “It will make it a more difficult project to rebuild the city into a place where people understand each other, and work together peacefully.”Fabry said he has confidence New Orleans will be rebuilt, and a new spirit will emerge there even if the city returns as a smaller, less prosperous place. There may be enough money and technical knowledge to rebuild, but what remains to be seen is whether the social fabric of the town can be repaired.It’s a question Fabry says he can’t answer.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org