I paid my first real visit (rather than an airport stop) to New Orleans in 2002. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, devastated the southern coast, particularly New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. In 2010, the Gulf oil disaster exacerbated the five year-old devastation. The structural changes in New Orleans as a result of these disasters, and the benign neglect of American economic despotism, have been substantial: 2010 Census data indicates New Orleans lost 29 percent of its population from the previous Census ten years earlier–and 11,000 less than the 2009 estimate.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s awkward spin that “we are . . .creating the city we want to become, brick by brick and block by block” betrays the several blocks visibly, observably dead: otherwise beautiful buildings, old structures, sitting dormant and scarred, all over the city. No less beautiful, but socially unfortunate, and begging for restoration by those who would know what to do with it. Visit New Orleans now and you’ll see a lot of this, adding a sense of desperation to the beauty. Visiting it proved an effective contrast to the dismissiveness and condescension of so much of the right-wing press throughout Katrina.
But with its celebration of magic and hedonism and community and solidarity, New Orleans, for me, was more attractive than ever. When I think of what the Big Easy has been through, I prefer the end to another recent speech by the Mayor:
when confronted with the fires of violence and poverty and distrust, we refused to yield. We refused to back down. We will be ones who walked through the flames and found ourselves unbowed and unbroken. United and proud.
I wanted to see how people were doing; how the city was doing. New Orleans represents a community of positivity, a city to be celebrated. Was it still such a city? And so, as a reward for surviving a hard year, I set off to The Big Easy, the Crescent City. While there, of course, spillways were opened condemning other parts of Louisiana to flooding for the sake of New Orleans and Baton Rouge—a reminder of anti-rural bias and a sign of the incompleteness of our ability to manage water. In contrast to the aftermath of Katrina, however, the response to these controlled floods has been almost rational and fair. Crop insurance, FEMA and USDA relief, and a reasonable infrastructure have mitigated the damage. Ample shelters have been put in place, and key facilities protected. It’s not a perfect situation, but the difference between 2005 and 2011 is stark.
The city that got the worst of Katrina was spared any grief this time around. And so, with the help of a good friend, I saw and ate and drove and smelled the New Orleans area, experiencing the history and diversity that makes this area wholly unique, and truly American. I ate at Mothers—not once, but twice. A great seafood place, Landry’s, is on North Peters street, and quaffed coffee and ate myself dim on beignets at the legendary Café Du Monde. I walked the French Quarter, with its antiques and art shops and book and memorabilia stores. Skilled musicians and savvy entertainers filled practically each city block, with large and appreciative crowds congesting the Quarter. I purchased books on Andrew Jackson for my son, also named Andrew; reproductions of jazz paintings; toys for the younger kids. I toured the site of the Battle of New Orleans, and a most unique cemetery: with 15,000 headstones of veterans of the War of 1812 (including one Battle of New Orleans vet), the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, and Vietnam.
Driving state highway 46 through Saint Bernard Parish, past platform houses and beached fishing boats, I felt both the peace and the discomfort of a community trying to rebuild itself. On Shell Beach, there is a memorial to the residents of the Parish who died in Hurricane Katrina. Some people were trying to sell their boats, but there were plenty of others out on the water.
The most amazing thing about New Orleans proper, and its surrounding social geography, is the humanity. Everywhere—the French Quarter, downtown, the airport, the business district, the fishing villages, the battlefield cemetery, diverse humans are integrated. That this vitality and spirit of love has outlived social disasters disguised as natural disasters—avoidable catastrophes manipulated and interpreted as punishment for being New Orleans, inspires me. It was good to see the city and area alive, frustrating, though, to see the struggles it has yet to overcome.