Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Orleans is a big mess

Hell and high water.

I’m heading home from two-and-a-half days in New Orleans. It’s the post-Katrina New Orleans I’ve shunned for two years. Please forgive my previous utlra-cranky post. After this trip, I have nothing to be cranky about.

New Orleans. Thick with wet air, temperatures near 90 degrees, crime-filled and corrupt, it’s one of those places I’ve never understood. I had visited once before, about 15 years ago, with my grad school pal Roger. His brother taught at Tulane and his Quebec-born sister-in-law had a certain impatient flair that seemed fitting for New Orleans’ curious ways.

I found the city as eerie as an Ann Rice novel. I expected witches and vampires to be lurking in the azaleas and bougainvillea. I expected to be jumped by a mob of angry Black teenagers from one of the run-down public housing complexes that ring the French Quarter. I expected cockroaches to crawl out of my etouffe. I expected the water in the river, the river that crested on the bank above the streets below, to overflow and wash me away. I expected to be stabbed. I expected to get mosquito bites. I felt an emptiness, one that seemed sinister compared to the feeling I got in other humidity-drenched cities like Atlanta and Savannah and Cincinnati.

When the hurricane hit the city, I watched the images of angry mobs and dead animals, the collapse and destruction, the flooding. And I thought, “I knew it! I knew it was going to happen! I must have just had that weird feeling all along. Gosh, that’s creepy.”

I read in today’s Times-Picayune that the police were enjoying a three day reprieve from the city’s insane violence. This weekend, no one was killed. One person was shot and a few others stabbed, but the city couldn't claim a single fatality. This is apparently good news. The paper reported that two weekends ago eight people were killed. And in early August, 11 were murdered.

The freakish brutality made sense to me. I had a disaster show-and-tell this afternoon. My nearly three-hour tour in the comfort of a New Orleans transit coach showed me destruction and hopelessness. The bus wove past broken levees and weed-filled golf courses. Popular malls that had been knocked down. Boarded up, crumbling Winn Dixie stores and McDonald’s restaurants – things that don’t usually shut down unless a new and improved version is being constructed a block or two away, allowing the existing spaces to make the transition to Dollar General stores and Irma’s Burritos, usually with a new coat of paint and replaced signs.

Grocery options are limited, even on Canal Street.

We drove by thousands and thousands and thousands of houses, from tattered to collapsed. And thousands of empty lots, where the debris had been cleared and replaced with ‘for sale’ signs, sometimes spray painted on scrap wood. Our bus passed piles of trash: broken beds, toilets, cars, sinks, dog houses. We passed trailers parked either in FEMA lots or in front of the houses that were too dangerous to inhabit, but whose owners didn’t have the money to make their homes safe enough to go inside.

Golf anyone? The lack of people means there's no rush to fix what was once one of New Orleans' larger golf courses.

Hosted by the bus company, RTD, we silently rolled past the agency’s three transit facilities, looking at the hundreds of buses that were flooded, looted, smashed, and destroyed. The transit agency currently operates only 20 percent of the service they operated in August 2005.

Most of the buses don't look so good.

Amid the mess, houses had been rebuilt. Some were on stilts or manmade hills. For those without enough insurance money to cover a big redesign, new houses were perched right on the concrete slab where similar houses once stood. No logical order to why some houses had been rebuilt and others had not, these rebuilt or remodeled homes are scattered across New Orleans like small residential compounds: miniature Green Zones, each for one family, surrounded by the remnants of destruction, loss of community and a sense of lawlessness.

Two years later, this is the dominant scene.

But some construction is underway - in pockets everywhere.

The French Quarter seems intact. If I hadn’t ventured out of the tourist and historic zone, I might have thought – after a fifteen-year absence – that it looked a little rougher around the edges, but still maintained about the same level of rundown charm and overall uneasiness I had perceived during my previous visit. Across Canal Street, downtown looks a little worse than other American downtowns in Detroit or Oakland, but not markedly so: plenty of abandonment, but also signs proclaiming McDonalds “now open” or Eugene’s “coming back soon.” Just north of downtown, like a reminder of the war zone, several buildings between six and 15 stories still hover over Canal Street, windowless and missing signs.

I was directed by my tour guide to return home to San Francisco and write to my congressional representatives, informing them that I believe more funding should be directed to Louisiana. I was also implored to tell my friends and family members to go to New Orleans, to enjoy the Creole restaurants, suck down a bunch of Hurricanes (the drink!) on Bourbon Street, and enjoy the city.

I’m sorry. I can make this plea to send money to New Orleans: please send money to organizations trying to rebuild. But I can’t tell you to visit. I couldn’t tell you to visit after my first trip 15 years ago and I can’t tell you to go there now if you want to relax and enjoy yourself. But if you want a reminder of how fleeting everything really is, how countless communities have disappeared and how depressing an American landscape really can be, then you should go.

I have no doubt that the destroyed neighborhoods will be rebuilt. It’s happening already. It will be very different.

A rebuilt levee wall. The neighborhood to the right of it is gone.

No comments:

About Me | Contact Me | 2007 Joey Goldman