New Orleans: A grand city lost … or still to be revived?
October 26, 2005
Editor’s note: The author and his wife, forced to abandon their beloved city after Hurricane Katrina, moved to their second home in Aspen but returned in late October to survey the devastation. We asked them to write about their experience.It is hard to tell what is more difficult – leaving your suffering city under siege, or returning to it once the disaster appears to be over.It requires a tough and tearful decision to abandon one’s old homestead, run away from danger and write off the town as lost. But to return in search of friends, properties and images of the past can be even more painful.My wife and I were reluctant to leave peaceful Aspen and fly back to New Orleans, which suffered so much since Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29. Two months later, we knew we would face a different, deluged, naked and disassembled world in its place.Did we embark on a sentimental, nostalgic journey for a requiem of the Queen City of the South? Or were we optimistic enough to hope for New Orleans’ rebirth? Can the devastated city move forward to an entirely new life, or should it look to its past glory and try to restore its classic customs and lifestyle?Revival out of confusionI am old enough to remember the revival of many war-torn cities in Europe – the spirit of the British restoring their capital, the rebuilding of Rotterdam and Dresden, the regained pride of Budapest and Warsaw. Just recently we marveled at the amazing cultural rebuilding of Berlin.
With such examples in mind, we found New Orleans at the end of October still in a state of identity crisis. So much is depressingly reminiscent of the human vacuum and physical ruins on the old Continent after World War II. The damage of the hurricane, the floods, fires and utter confusion are still in the air and the hearts of the people who have returned.The tough question remains the future. The romantic image of the Crescent City with its French and Spanish heritage is no longer valid. Many of the working-class neighborhoods and their citizens are gone.To capitalize on the remaining Vieux Carré – now an island in the center of a destroyed city – as an architectural curiosity and tourist attraction seems almost offensive to its inhabitants. And the plans to change the urban environment around the old French Quarter, to surround it with cheap housing and a line of gambling casinos, would be the death sentence for an area that evolved over three centuries.We knew as we left Colorado that we would find a largely empty, poor and trashed city. We also knew, as everybody else, that it will be a New Orleans different from the city known to millions of annual visitors. Another question after Katrina is: Who will come back when it is time to rebuild? The demographic mix will be radically changed, and the very subject has dangerously racial overtones. When I first settled in New Orleans in the early 1960s, the population was near 700,000. In October 2005, there are probably fewer than 200,000 permanent residents. No American city, except perhaps San Francisco 100 years ago, has suffered a similar disaster. Even if 100,000 more people return from their voluntary exile all over the country (an unlikely event), New Orleans will have lost more than half of the population it had just four decades ago.
New Orleans was once a rich city, the nation’s leading port, a cultural center and a top tourist destination. In recent years, the overwhelmingly white majority became a minority, making up only about one-third of the city before Katrina. Since the disaster affected mostly the poor and the black citizenry, forcing them to evacuate to places unknown, the white versus black ratio of the city will likely see a radical change. According to some estimates, 40 percent of the population will not return and New Orleans will lose its black majority.Levittown, La.?The history of the Quarter, the heart of New Orleans since the French settled the slightly elevated bank at the Mississippi River’s sharp bend, is full of catastrophic events, fires and hurricanes. Our mid-19th-century brick home on Bourbon Street served us well since the ’60s. It stood up to Katrina as well as it did to prior onslaughts.It was with considerable trepidation that my wife and I first entered the long, dark corridor of our Spanish-type house, last seen during our hasty exodus, three days after the storm blew through. We looked for mold and water, but were happy to find only some broken windows, dust and fallen shingles. In this part of town and the old Garden District with its stately mansions, the damage to most homes was limited.What of the rest of the city? We called a dozen friends and drove around the damaged districts, hearing dramatic stories of risky escapes by boat, encounters with mobs and looters, arguments with insurance adjusters and lack of security. What concerned us most, though, were the disappearance of the municipal work force, the loss of a functioning school system and the lack of a tax base.The planned model for a “new” New Orleans? Everyone has a quick solution. A suburban ring that would replace the inundated parts; huge buildings like those erected around the bombed-out European cities by socialist governments, or papier-mâché homes like Levittown – prefabricated camps or trailer-parks set up by FEMA that are dangerously vulnerable to storms.The ideas from Washington and Baton Rouge were as unappetizing as the muddy ruins we found much around town and the abandoned settlements they proposed to replace. A new collective lifestyle for the new “mix”? It all sounded to me like postwar refugee camps. No plan seemed to fill the needs of 21st-century urban life to replace a 19th-century city with roots in Franco-Spanish colonialism.
I asked officials about plans for housing the estimated 1 million evacuees and no one could give an answer. This is the largest Diaspora in modern American history and with the majority declining to return to the Gulf region, the social and economic consequences will be felt for decades.During the past eight weeks, depressing images of the city’s poorest section, the lower 9th Ward, were seen on TV, but little footage focused on the fact that a large segment of the city’s middle class and many elegant homes in the Lakeview area were also obliterated by high flood waters. Those with low-paying service jobs will stay away, and only those with high insurance coverage and potential jobs will think of new homes in the suburbs.Shell of a cityThe emotional impact of visiting New Orleans’ most heavily damaged areas was heightened by the fact that my wife and I almost felt guilty that we had no reason to complain. With no serious damage, no memorabilia lost, our old home almost functional, we could lock the doors and fly back to civilized Aspen.What we have left behind is still a largely nonfunctional shell. Yes, the Irish bars are open on Bourbon Street, the Vietnamese waiters at the Café du Monde are serving the same chicory-laced coffee with the sugar-dusted beignets, and the first few schools opened for the kids that can be found. The streetcars are not running, and Desire Street is junked with smelly discarded refrigerators. In much of the rest of New Orleans the streetlights don’t work and nearly all of the large hospitals are closed. Life has a make-believe, on-and-off air, befitting the city that made itself famous with carnivals.
Before leaving, we meet our old friend Bob Carr, a noted radio and TV personality, complaining about the problem with roofers (their lists are thousands of houses long) and car repairs (150,000 waterlogged vehicles must be cleared from the streets) and the businesses that cannot reopen due to lack of workers. But Bob is, as always, optimistic. “Some restaurants are open and the food is good again,” he says. Indeed, we have a great dinner – although limited menu – at the Herbsaint restaurant on the eerily quiet St. Charles Avenue. The guests are a strange mix of Red Cross, FEMA, Army and Coast Guard people here to rescue the “sinking city” and a group of loud students from the still locked-up Tulane University nearby.If you have a home and money, then all is promising, Bob assures us. But he somehow ignores the fact that the two fine radio stations he worked for have no power and have gone out of business. And the 10 leading business and weekly publications he also worked with?”They have all closed down. No chance to restart the magazines now,” he says, “there are hardly any advertisers left in New Orleans.”
Besides roofing, however, one business is booming: the cleanup of trash. As we walk side streets even in the once-elegant neighborhoods, piles of debris, garbage and rusting mattresses, even cars and bags of rotten food, obstruct the walkways. The stench from the discarded refrigerators seems to line even the otherwise clean streets of the French Quarter, not exactly an invitation to the few tourists lingering around.Parts of town look like a landfill in a poor Brazilian suburb. The swampy heat and mud near the canals and broken levees are mixed with oil spills and chemicals that must be cleared. But when? More than 20 million tons of waste is waiting to be cleared in what must be the most involved cleanup job in American history. The 3,000 dump trucks in the city will be busy for years.
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No, the city is not dying; the people are still slowly, slowly, drifting back to their homes – even if they know they must be demolished.”One more hurricane and we will be Atlantis on the Gulf,” one neighbor says bitterly as we say goodbye to our old home. My wife, eternally optimistic, strikes a brave attitude and promises to be back to a “reborn city” early next year.We drive on the now misnamed Elysian Fields Avenue to the empty airport – where only a small fraction of the tourist traffic remains alive – and pass an enormous dumpsite. Heavy trucks and buses bring the daily trash, adding to the bad smell and dust that covers the parking lot. It is a reminder how much more has to be done before New Orleans can resume normal life and welcome visitors. It is only hoped that the spirit of the grand old queen of the South will be reborn and the classic city remodeled without becoming a theme park surrounded by mass housing.Paul Fabry’s travel articles appear frequently in the Times Weekly and other publications. He lives in his West End Victorian house with his wife, but plans to restore his New Orleans residence next year.