After the Aftermath

It looks like parts of Detroit. Or the riot-scarred and abandoned blocks of Newark or Philadelphia. Or Boston, along Melnea Cass Boulevard, before the overgrown urban decay started to get patched with light industry in the 1980s. Two years after the flood, not knowing the specific terrain before, I found it hard to tell that New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward has not suffered from some slow-burning economic calamity or midnight social convulsion. Looking down Des­londe or Tennessee Streets, where they run parallel to the burst levee, you see only continuous green scrub, a few trees, one very stubborn house battered but still on its foundation, and another askew, awaiting demolition. There is a single white trailer nearby, its door swinging. In the clearings where the brush and vines have not yet converged, you can find pieces of driveway blacktop and tiled kitchen floors.

The street signs are gone, but one citizen (the handwriting is all the same) has taken on the project of preserving those peculiar singsong New Orleans names: Dorgenois, Rocheblave, Tonti, Miro—each word lettered on scraps of whatever was handy and hung by the inter­sections on whatever stayed vertical against the press of brown water. It’s a reminder of the scrappiness of the place, alone on its treacherous frontier, and also its essential, indispensable strangeness.

A satellite view on Google Maps taken last year still shows the fields of splintered and piled houses as they were before most of the wreckage was removed from the Lower Ninth and nature began to move back in to a place from which it probably never should have been evicted. Now it looks like a park. And since the city currently has no plans to redevelop the area, since commerce is either distant or nonexistent, since title to the land (often the only asset of the displaced) is in many cases documented more by custom than paperwork, it is likely to stay that way for some time. What I didn’t understand, what one of my New Orleans cousins explained to me as he took me around, were the differing effects of the flood between neighborhoods that were washed away adjacent to the levee breaches (there were more than a dozen) and those that were more gently overtaken by ris­ing water as lower levees were overtopped and the sunken “bowl” filled up. In the first instance the streets are still ­barren; there are no houses to fix. But in the other areas blue tarps are slowly giving way to new shingles.

My cousin Ben was there for the flood and the aftermath, having just moved back home for training at a local hospital. He arrived days before Katrina. Most of the high-tide scum lines have been scrubbed off homes and other buildings, he noted, but they are preserved everywhere on the columns of elevated highways. You have to look up to see them. Downtown along the river, the natural and relatively safe zone where most of the damage was from wind and rain, he pointed to places where that new temporary shoreline weaved in and out of the skyscrapered streets. The Ritz-Carlton was flooded (it reopened only recently), but the Harrah’s casino up Canal Street a few blocks was spared.

From the Lower Ninth we drove out through Chalmette, past three or four abandoned malls (tellingly, a big-box carpet store was open and its parking lot full) and a roadside concentration of FEMA trailers ringed with fences and guard towers. Two years later there wasn’t a single flower­pot, clothesline, or overturned tricycle to indicate the presence of life. On Paris Road, which connects the two eastern arms of the city’s ill-advised sprawl, one has the always shocking experience (now more than ever) of driving up to cross the in-tervening wetlands—though apparently the flood­ing in the marinas there, cars and boats awash on the same brackish plane, is just business as usual in the delta. To see what remains of New Orleans East, blue-tarp country, we crossed the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet—the infamous Army Corps of Engineers boondoggle that formed a backdoor chute for Katrina’s surge—known locally as MR-GO. “I’d never even heard of it be­fore the storm,” my cousin said, looking down from the bridge.

From a distance it’s easy to entertain the idea that the city should be left to the elements or forcibly contracted through neglect, rigorous zoning, or architects’ brainstorms into a far denser settlement along the riverfront crescent that has always been the only place it made sense to build. My mother was raised in New Orleans; she left, but most of her family stayed. I grew up thinking of it as a precarious marvel. On one of our family visits—always centered around eating the things that, in those pre–Paul Prudhomme days, you could not yet get elsewhere—we returned with an old map of the city from one of its colonial incarnations: the neat grid of the French Quarter, walled Rampart Street, then miles of trackless marshes (condensed by the tricky cartographer because no one lived there) stretching back to the lake. It seemed an ideal city form, a compact island of urbanity fronting the great river that sustains it, a romantic fortress or secret entrepôt, a wilderness outpost of the Enlightenment.

It feels like that again. Since the flood the city has seen an influx of youth and energy that is probably unprecedented in its modern life. Out late one night on Frenchmen Street, I saw a trio of girls at a bar. I assumed these loud, hearty bottle blondes were in town to root against Tulane in some regionally crucial football contest. They dealt me into the card game they were playing, rolling bons temps still being the rule, and told me their story. They had all recently graduated from the prestigious art-conservation program at the University of Delaware, and smelling opportunity, they had come south together to restore soaked canvasses and scrape the mold off old masters. They had tons of work. The guy to my right, hitting on my sister, was a newly arrived preservation architect, vetting the historical value of damaged property for FEMA. All over town—and particularly in the Marigny, which feels a lot like the more fecund corners of Brooklyn—two minutes of conversation (and everyone converses) would uncover a story of entrepreneurial relocation, another talented aspirant taking a chance in this Wild South gold rush.

Higher levees and ingenious planning aside, these new residents are the great hope for the place. Many are likely passing through, but New Orleans is easy to love and hard to leave. The city may be saved by these nonnatives succumbing to its native magic. I stepped out of the bar that night and got it full in the face: one block down, some T-shirted teenagers had assembled with their brass and percussion, unpretentiously and ­unbidden—this was no chamber-of-commerce production, and anyway it was past three in the morning—and for hours played the most intoxicating funk-inflected jazz, trading off freely, occasionally joined by passersby. At the height of the frolic, 200 people, all the colors of Benetton, danced in the street. It was probably at that moment the warmest, liveliest, most joyous public place in America. And soft proof that, one way or another, New Orleans is going to be fine.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: November 2007

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