Trying to Fathom New Orleans

Fifteen months later, it’s worse than you think
I’ve been putting this post off long enough. It’s been a couple of weeks now since I got back from New Orleans and I haven’t written one word about it. I would have long ago, except for one thing: it’s hard to think about.
not as seen on tv

The city was my home for seven years. Admittedly, for the first four I was a college student, but I was a fairly active student, at least in Tulanian terms: I engaged the city outside of campus as a tutor in the public schools. During the last three, I got to know the city even better, especially while I was coordinating a program that provided minor home repairs to the elderly. As part of that job, I visited people in almost every neighborhood of the city, many on a regular basis.

As I prepared to return for my first visit, I had a vague idea that the city was in rough shape and that it wouldn’t be the same place I had known from 1996-2003; but I had no idea the extent to which that would be true. Even as I arrived, I was making plans in my head to write about the food and the restaurants and how they had changed as a result of the storm. Now, I can’t even think in terms of food about the city without first explaining the city itself: she ain’t what she used to be.

in the less damaged part of town

My early expereinces served to re-inforce my preconceived notion that I could still think about my old home in many of the same terms I had already. Sure, as we walked around, there were some damaged houses and there were some FEMA trailers. In some parts you could still see water lines halfway up most houses front doors, but around it all, there was bustle to fix things. You couldn’t walk twelve steps without seeing another pickup truck with a magnetic sign for Such & Such General Contractors stuck to its door. What I hadn’t realized was that these symptoms were emblamatic of the lesser-hit parts of town.

we thought lakeview was bad...

My concept of the city began to crumble when we entered Lakeview. Toppled trees still rested on roofs, houses with shifted and tilted foundations sat unoccupied, and contractors with backhoes tackled the messy work of tearing down remnants. We drove slowly through the nearly deserted streets with our camera out the window, snapping photos of scenes we could scarcely believe.

From there it was a short drive to the high school where I very briefly taught. When I was there, it was the second biggest in the city. Today, it is closed, seemingly abandoned, though every entrance is open. the sign outside still reads (almost) exactly what it did before Katrina struck:

Kennedy High School's sign

If I’m reading this correctly, “Welcome Back Cougars! Classes begin August 30. Be on time. Jamboree Friday.” The storm struck on August 28. No one has had reason to change the sign.

My classroom door was open; it was easy to find because I was stationed in a trailer behind the main building. The desks were strewn about, the cupboard was open, its contents spilling out. This was the last picture I got before my camera ran out of batteries.

my old classroom

I cautiously and quietly stepped through the back door of the school, near the gymnasium. Free weights rusted on their racks. A pair of sneakers sat abandoned just inside the gym, an umbrella in Kennedy Cougars colors close by. I heard something echo from somewhere in the school and I left, quickly. I had no idea who or what else might be poking around. My wife and I went back Uptown for the evening, to give ourselves, as much as the camera, a chance to recharge.

The next day, we went to the Ninth Ward. I had visited that neighborhood a lot for my job. Three years ago, I knew those streets well. Now, I can’t recognize anything because there’s really not much left to recognize.

in parts, almost nothing remains

The area near the 17th Street Canal (the primary floodwall breach) is to the right in the photo above; to the left, there used to be a neighborhood. The sheer force of the water rushing in from the lake swept many homes away; the rest have been demolished. Evacuees who returned could often find their homes, but they were usually a good distance down the road from where they used to be.

all too common of a scene

Though large crews are at work excavating the neighborhood and removing the rubble, scenes like this one are still all too common. There’s just so much that has to be done; the damage is not contained to any block as it might have been were the disaster a large explosion. Square miles worth of homes were pulverized.

there used to be a house behind this gate

Sometimes, it’s more surprising what remains than what doesn’t. Parts of fences remain while adjoining sections and the houses that had been behind them are no more than memories.

sign of hope?

Many people who lived there still seem determined to return. I couldn’t do it, I’m fairly certain; the whole process of trying to reclaim something that has been so changed would be too much for me. I would wash my hands of it and move on. Their fortitude is awe-inspiring. Just the couple of hours I spent in the area over a year after the damage occurred was a shock to my system. I can’t imagine having been there at the time or being one of the first responders.

I hope that the neighborhood can recreate itself and that the city can recover, but when Aurora and I got back from the trip, we had a hard time figuring out what we thought of what we saw. The first analogy either of us came up with was from Aurora, who compared the city to a parapalegic. I pressed her on the matter because it didn’t seem quite apt to me, and found out that she meant like someone who suffered a horrible accident and lost some use of all limbs, but still had decent capabilities–like one of the guys who plays murderball: fiercely competetive and really tough, but not as able as they once were. I thought about that for a while and decided she was sort of on the right track, but not quite there. Eventually, I decided it was more like the double amputee we saw in the airport on the way home, hobbling along on a peg leg and using a hook for a hand, most likely to receive better prostheses before too long, but still permanently changed and never to be the same. The most cheerful phrase I was able to boil it down to is that New Orleans used to be a happy city with some sad parts, but now it’s vice-versa.

Like I said, I’ve been putting off writing this for a while now because it’s tough to think about.

We were in New Orleans for a wedding, which was a stylishly relaxed affair in Algiers Point. After the wedding, we rode the ferry from Algiers to Downtown. The bride and groom were chauffered in a beautiful antique rickshaw and many of the wedding party were on fantastic bikes created by our friend Ritchie, an artist who works in many media, bicycles among them. The most notalbe rides were a pirate ship tricycle, a tandem bike being steered by a skeleton, and a double-tall bike featuring a stuffed marlin around its crossbar.

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true

On the ferry, a man sitting in his automobile called me over, ostensibly to ask me about my camera. “I lost mine, you know, after the storm,” he told me, “but I’ve been thinking about getting back into photography. Is Canon still the best?” I told him I wasn’t sure. He nodded, then leaned forward a little. “Say, man, what is all this?” he asked me. I’m sure we looked like a circus, but I told him it was a wedding. “Sure is nice to see that there’s still something to smile about around here,” was all he had to say.

I found my something to smile about the first full day we were there. After we went out to eat lunch with my wife’s old co-workers, we swung by the house of a friend I used to provide home repairs for. I was a bit anxious as we approached; I didn’t know if she would still be there. She lived fairly close to the lake, but in Metairie, and the neighborhood didn’t seem to show too much damage. We pulled into the driveway and the house looked pretty much the same. The lawn and garden were still beautifully manicured. I knocked on the door and out came Irene. “Remember me?” I asked, and she looked at me blankly. “Jesse,” I said, “from the Volunteers of America.” She smiled so big and reached out to hug me, invited us inside for cake and tea.

Irene and me

She’d escaped the storm just fine and spent two months in a retirement community in Florida. She was back now, though, and doing just fine. The two and a half hours we spent with her were beyond a doubt one of the highlights of my trip, and proof that the city is more than just a collection of buildings: it’s the people who live there.

The people have made it through the worst of things. The nightmare is over and recovery has begun. That’s not to say that things aren’t bad, because they are, or that it won’t be tough, because it will; but there’s an obvious will among most New Orleanians and that the city will rise again.

5 Responses to “Trying to Fathom New Orleans”

  1. kari Says:

    heart to you and to NOLA, Jesse. thanks for this post.

  2. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Forget Bourbon St.: Go To Sophie’s Gelato Says:

    [...] Geneva Mercadel, otherwise known as Miss Gee, has been a Hollywood actress, Queen Zulu of the famous Zulu Parade, and now owns the fabulous Sophie’s Gelato Old-Time Ice Cream Parlor. The care and attention she puts into the product and training her staff are evident. The casual atmposphere of the parlor was just what I was looking for after long days visiting tougher-hit parts of the city (if you haven’t read this post, please do: I think it’s important that people realize the challenges New Orleans is facing). [...]

  3. Shoes » Blog Archive » We must not try to write the laws of any one virtue, Says:

    [...] Trying to Fathom <b>New Orleans</b> [...]

  4. Gabby~ Mercadel Says:

    Hey Auntie Gee,

    We miss yooh very much. Hows bussiness?. it looks lyk its going pretty good. well i’ve been good in school. Guess What? I made top person in my acting class for the first semenster of school (06/07). I was Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Everyone loved the play. It was soo awesome.
    We had to talk in a FRENCH accent. And i did soo great. well the reason why i love acting is because of when we went to your house and saw what u and auntie Zona did. Its was soo cool. So thats why i love to act. My parents think i am really good at it too. Well i hope everything is going well with ur Shop. I loved the ice cream there. Its really good.! ok well love you auntie.!!

  5. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Worst Service Ever Says:

    [...] was a couple of years ago, when Aurora and I were visiting New Orleans for a friend’s wedding.  With our friends, we went to Lebanon Restaurant for what we thought would be a quick lunch.  [...]

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