On Clean Slates and New Beginnings: Katrina, Chicago and Crisis

Map (published by the R.P. Studley Company) of the area of Chicago burned during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, early 1870s. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Map (published by the R.P. Studley Company) of the area of Chicago burned during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, early 1870s. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops.

That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.

— Kristen McQueary, In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina

Others have said most of what I thought in response to McQueary’s column and apology (a column and apology written by, I should disclose, a friend of mine, a former colleague, with whom I did reporting I believed in), in particular as it relates to the disregard of the (mostly poor, mostly black) dead in pursuit of such economic achievements as busting teachers’ unions and firing city workers.

Others have talked of their own pain at seeing the lives they lived used as a metaphor. As hyperbole. As a rhetorical device for an opinion piece.

What I want to respond to is the central premise of the piece, of the philosophy known as disaster capitalism and its presumed target, which is my home. A wish that the scouring hand of God would wash away all that Chicago is, so that wise people could begin it again the way they want to.

That happened once.

And didn’t.

Starting on the Southwest Side’s DeKoven Street on the evening of October 8, the fire raged late into the next day and night, ending in the northeast on Fullerton Avenue, frustrated finally by Lake Michigan and a persistent rain shower. Two thousand acres were lost. Eighteen thousand buildings were destroyed and nineteen thousand people were left homeless. City Coroner Stephens and Cook County physician Dr. Ben C. Miller estimated deaths at nearly three hundred, noting the difficulty of identify bodies charred beyond recognition.

— Ross Miller, The Great Chicago Fire

The thing I always tell people about New Orleans back then was the silence.

The plane I took there in 2007 was full of raucous bachelor-party bros and girls on their 21st birthdays getting drunk on watered-down hurricanes. The French Quarter was calmer than I’d been told it had been in the past, but I hadn’t been to the city since I was 8 years old. I was relying on the accounts of others.

The neighborhood where we’d be gutting was as silent as the tomb it had become. There were no stoplights to tell us to stop, or tell us to go. The street sign was hand-lettered, taped to a pole. When I asked why the markings on the doors — 1 dead, cat — were still up, like were people allowed to take them down, my friends laughed.

Allowed? By whom? Somebody in charge? Somebody in authority? Somebody enforcing the rules?

At the time, I compared it to Chicago. 

One of the things that continues to shock me is just how silent the streets are. I compared it to the day after a blizzard in Chicago, when the plows haven’t yet gotten to you and all the neighbors are helping each other dig out with skillets and cookie sheets and whatever else if they don’t have a shovel. And this, though, isn’t two days after the storm but two years. There’s no one; people are on their own.

This was two years after the storm, and there were no rules, and the only authority that existed was what people were able to stop from happening, on their own. There was a National Guard Humvee on the boulevard leading out of the airport, and it was empty.

Chicago was at the time of the disaster a growing but still provincial city. The fire accelerated its rush into the modern. Legendizing of the fire was compensation in part for all that was thought lost. Tales of the fire were consolidated with earlier stories of the city into a secular myth that offered a certainty once provided by faith. A modern Chicagoan, Saul Bellow, suggests we have not yet outgrown our need for large events and the language that always seems to envelop them: “How we all love extreme cases and apocalypses, fires, drownings, stranglings and the rest of it. The bigger our mild, basically ethical, safer middle classes grow the more radical excitement is in demand. Mild or moderate truthfulness or accuracy seems to have no pull at all.”

— Ross Miller, The Great Chicago Fire

There were houses lining the New Orleans street, on either side of the one my friends and I were gutting. Only one of them, one on a whole block, was occupied, if by occupied you mean by a trailer on the lawn where people lived, beside everything they’d lost. Rose bushes rioted, overgrown.

Someone had pulled a TV, a chandelier, a Mickey Mouse doll dressed in a Santa suit, out of the house before we swung our sledgehammers. There was a forlorn pile of possessions in front of a station wagon in the driveway.

It was a hot day, and we were wearing coveralls and masks. We would take breaks, drink water, sit on the curb. No one walked down the sidewalk. No one rode a bike in the street.

You cannot imagine the silence.

Unless you don’t have to.

I’m sorry, if you don’t.

I was very, very tired that night (unused to hard labor, stunned by what I’d been seeing), but I went to a party with fellow writers and artists, people who had lived in New Orleans for years. They’d invited us over to meet the community of bloggers that had sprung up after Katrina, whose words I’d been reading for weeks and months leading up to our trip, who wrote of what had happened to them with fury and courage and wild, mad hope.

It shouldn’t have taken a storm, for me to know them. It shouldn’t have taken a storm for me to go somewhere and learn something, from people like these.

They brought me drinks and food and asked about me and my life. They told me about theirs, why they lived there, what they loved about it. They hugged me and said thank you for caring about us, and I was ashamed of my blisters and my exhaustion.

I know at least three of them are dead now.

A sense of impending chaos led the federal government to call out the Army. Although General Sheridan denied that there was any civil unrest, his presence helped insure order. His confident show of force was a sure sign to outsiders that Chicago was going to survive intact. In response there began almost immediately a tremendous outpouring of aid from other states, foreign countries, and national businesses.

— Ross Miller, The Great Chicago Fire


Many readers thought my premise — through my use of metaphor and hyperbole — was out of line. I certainly hear you. I am reading your tweets and emails. And I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction.

— Kristen McQueary, Hurricane Katrina and What Was In My Heart


When something happens to us, something that isn’t survivable, and we survive it anyway, we tell ourselves it happened the way we need to think of it happening, in order to stay alive. We make up a story, that we are biggerbetterharderfasterstronger, and we tell ourselves that story when we can’t sleep and all we can see is everything that’s gone.

I have lost NOTHING in my comfortable life, I swear to you, nothing out of the ordinary, and I still have a story I tell myself. If you told it to me, told me I was better off? For my ordinary suffering, for my ordinary everyday series of misfortunes and miseries? If you told me I would learn from them someday? (That they would be worth it? To whom I don’t know. Maybe to you?)

I would tell you to go to hell.

I would tell you: Tell it to the dead and the lost.

All our truths belong in our mouths alone.

Let any man figure to himself what he would endure if he were stripped not only of everything that may make him conventionally “respectable” or eminent, but of the wherewithal to supply the first conditions of physical existence — food and shelter — and all his neighbors stripped of all that could alleviate his sufferings, and he will form a notion, faint and far off indeed, but far truer than description, however ample, could give him, of what has befallen, and for many days to come will befall, myriads of men as capable as himself to suffer and enjoy.

— Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlain, Chicago and the Great Conflagration (quoted in The Great Chicago Fire)

I didn’t grow up in Chicago, so it isn’t mine any more than New Orleans is. But I’ve worked here and loved it for nearly two decades, and I’ve spent time in almost every neighborhood anyone can name. I’ve crawled all over it day and night talking to drug dealers and car dealers and homeless dudes and cops and moms at the park, and I’ve celebrated all its ragged, filthy, noisy, busy glory. I love it here.

Many of Chicago’s neighborhoods are as poor and as segregated as many in New Orleans, if not more. Its government is corrupt and its finances are predicated on the same high service, low tax dodge as the finances of many US towns. Its school system has been starved and abused, and its leadership is more interested in throwing parties for tourists than in picking up litter in places the TV crews are afraid to go. It burned down, once, and people rebuilt it.

It is broken, and people are fixing it.

Not in a great conflagration. Not after a majestic, literary storm. In small ways, every day. The priest I interviewed once, who spent nights organizing basketball games to try to save his neighborhood from gang warfare. The woman whose husband and all his brothers served in the Second World War, who painstakingly saved their letters and read them to me. The owners of a barbershop who let schoolkids wait there after class, so they could walk home safely.

To wish for a clean slate, a crisis-type “fresh” start, is to wish for them to be wiped away. It is a wish for death and destruction, as the only sufficient means of improvement. It’s a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire: Take all that I am and let me start again. As if you can’t fix something, without striking a match.

It’s a wish for the easy way out. The laziness offends me more than the metaphor. You shouldn’t NEED a storm. You shouldn’t need the world to burn.

It’s always burning, always. The world is ever ending. And you get the chance every single day,  to start again each morning when the sun comes up, and fix it as you think it should be fixed. It’s hard, sure. It’s hard to do the work every day. It’s hard to improve by inches, but it’s the only way we live.

There’s no such thing as a clean slate. Even if the world burns, we still live in the ashes.

The desire to substitute something sublime and harmlessly abstract like the image of the phoenix to distract from the city’s conflicts remained into the 1890s. Seen as an era of common purpose, stripped of tragedy, the fire (confused with the rebuilding) was popularized as a positive agent of change. The losses and displacements were conveniently forgotten.

— Ross Miller, The Great Chicago Fire

I went back to New Orleans in 2011, for a conference. Many of the people I’d met before were there again, happy to see me and one another. We killed off a keg in the conference center and then went out for something called “hog balls” at a bar too small to hold us all.

When we left, Adrastos and the lovely Dr. A insisted on walking with me the whole way out to the car, because it wasn’t quite safe in the safe-looking neighborhood we were celebrating in.

As we drove to the airport the next day, I noticed the buildings that still had waterlines on the outsides. Marking where the flood had risen.

Even after a storm, we carry what we are forward. No storm obliterates everything.

No fire, either.


6 thoughts on “On Clean Slates and New Beginnings: Katrina, Chicago and Crisis

  1. Mighty post, A. So glad I got to meet you during your visit in 2007. I will never forget you wearing your “little black dress” at the crawfish boil.

  2. What an amazing mastery of juxtaposing the excerpts from the other narratives into your own story. I am beyond awestruck. I can’t think of a more eloquent commentary I’ve ever read – not just in your consistently strong posts, but from anyone. Anywhere. In any written form.

  3. What an incredible piece of writing. Thank you for so eloquently writing things that I can’t seem to say.

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