When he heard I was from Ireland, he started to play ‘Danny Boy’ in a manner which said as much about his own native city as about my native land. It was one of those relaxed meetings with a nameless stranger which has become so much a part of our world – Jackson Square, New Orleans, late summer, 1991.
In recent weeks I’ve been wondering about that man in the photo. I know what has happened to his city, even if I can’t quite imagine what it’s like. I know that he is no longer there. He might no longer be alive, but there must be some who would recognise him all too well if they ever saw that photo.
We live in a world in which our stories are increasingly interwoven and in which the problems we face, in so many different ways, have so many realities in common. The horrific flooding, endured by the friends and neighbours of the man with the trumpet, may be outside our experience, but we know that they want to get back. We can understand what its like to say ‘I come from…..’ We all know what it means to talk about home and to come back home. What will it be like for those people who must now wait for their city to be rebuilt? How will they come home to New Orleans?
There will be an urgent need to get people rehoused but there is a lot more to housing than bricks and mortar – and more to a city than streets and buildings. One of the key factors in ensuring that housing is well maintained, even in the bricks and mortar sense, is a strong community which has that inbuilt social authority which can keep dysfunctional behaviour within bounds.
The New Orleans disaster has shown that something more than a city needs rebuilding. It has exposed glaring social inequalities and President Bush talks fervently of social justice. That talk will be meaningless if it is not accompanied by a more effective political inclusion of marginal groups. Every form of government grows stale in the course of time, and democracy as we know it has grown stale. People feel excluded. They are losing that sense of ownership and responsibility for public things – what is called ‘civic spirit.’ How can we recover a sense of joy and participation in the political process? The Dialogue on Democracy Seminar, about which you will be hearing more, is attempt to address these issues and to come up with some answers.