When the levees of New Orleans broke in late August 2005, Ethan Clark needed something to do. A recent emigrant from New Orleans to Asheville, North Carolina, the six-year Crescent City resident was isolated from his friends in the city but wanted badly to help.
One of Clark’s friends, New Orleans resident Shelley L. Jackson—whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding—e-mailed him, writing that he should anthologize the zines of New Orleans, compiling a collection of the self-published (and self-laid-out, copy-edited, printed, collated and stapled) publications to represent the culture of the city where Clark and Jackson had known each other.
While Clark believed that his old New Orleans zines were “really some of the best zines from the punk or the do-it-yourself underground—whatever you want to call it—from the last 10 years,” he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that putting together a book while the city was underwater and its residents scattered was “silly.” Still, he put out a call for contributions from other writers and collectors, and donations soon flooded his apartment. When underground comic publisher Last Gasp of San Francisco heard about the project, it offered to help put the book out, according to Clark, “for nothing,” and pass along proceeds from the book’s sales to a New Orleans nonprofit, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF).
Since the book, titled Stories Care Forgot, was released this month, Clark has been promoting it with a nationwide reading tour that includes a stop in Missoula on Saturday, March 18.
When Clark talks about why he and Last Gasp chose to support PHRF—a group that describes its focus as ensuring that the low-income black community plays “a central role in all decision making” during reconstruction of the city—he emphasizes not just New Orleans’ physical reconstruction, but the restoration of its ethos.
“Even now the Red Cross is paying college students from out of town to go down there and hand out brooms and hot dogs. It just seems like money could be put somewhere better,” he says, adding that it’s vital for the city to avoid becoming “some sort of caricature of what it used to be…Stuff like the French Quarter is going to go on existing no matter what, but that’s just not the prevalent culture of New Orleans. That’s not the whole picture.”
Nor, judging by the contents of Stories Care Forgot, is it what Clark and his coauthors treasured about the city. The tales collected in the anthology more often exist in New Orleans’ seedier spaces—strip clubs and bars appear with regularity—but the characters therein are not consuming commoditized deviance; they’re serving it up to tourists, living off the excess of others.
Even so, most of the anthologized zines have nothing to do with the constant stream of visitors on which New Orleans relies. Instead, they focus on local haunts like the bike co-op frequented by many of the authors or the collective houses in which several of them lived—really, on the countercultural community created by the immigrants who found such an easy home in New Orleans.
Yes, immigrants. The introduction to Stories Care Forgot notes that none of the young people who authored the compiled zines were born in New Orleans; rather, “They are people who picked it as their home, the place where they could see just how much could be done.”
And also how little they could do it with, reflecting an ethic Clark believes is a large part of why the “white zinesters” of Stories Care Forgot fit so neatly within the culture of New Orleans, or at least what Clark refers to as the “slice of New Orleans culture in the time and place that we existed in.”
“Under the conditions people lived in in New Orleans, there’s always been this very strong sense of poor people bonding together and creating their own culture, with second-line parades where people parade through the streets for funerals, or just the music that’s always on the street and the kind of artwork and aesthetic of New Orleans. Its always been a kind of do-it-yourself thing because there’s no money there, and there’s such a history of poor people bonding together and rising up and trying to create something beautiful under those conditions, and that’s what [do-it-yourself] culture tries to do, too.”
That confluence between native New Orleans culture and the relative newcomers anthologized in Stories Care Forgot was possible, because, according to Clark, antediluvian New Orleans was a place where “the rent was relatively cheap and there was a little more room and freedom to do what you want.” It’s a characteristic of the city that may have changed irrevocably since Hurricane Katrina because, with residential real estate scarce, rents have skyrocketed.
So the lifestyles related by Clark and his coauthors’ tales of New Orleans—stories of ingenuity and the community that comes from living poor but not poorly—are jeopardized by the post-Katrina economic landscape. This means, Clark says, “The storm isn’t the only thing that has harmed New Orleans culture right now. The powers of greed and development and money and the government turning a blind eye on poor people is what’s really going to cause a lot of harm to the culture of New Orleans.”
As for the prospect that a reconstructed New Orleans will be anything more than “a kind of wealthy playland for tourists,” Clark admits, “I have no answers…I don’t completely know how to do that, but a lot of people are trying really hard and hopefully they’ll do some good.”
Compiling Stories Care Forgot is something Clark felt he could do, funding activism on behalf of the folks who made New Orleans a place in which the authors thrived, folks who now face the prospect of being shoved aside. But even if activism proves unable to staunch New Orleans’ cultural reformation, Clark believes the anthology itself accomplishes something simply by memorializing a culture that might be washed away: “When the city that inspired it seemed more ephemeral than the writing, it was time to put the writing in a more permanent medium.”
Ethan Clark, editor of Stories Care Forgot, appears with New Orleans resident Casey Cottrell, who will speak on the evacuation and reconstruction of the city, at 4 PM on Saturday, March 18, at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. 3rd St. W.