Thursday, May 1, 2008

Walking Through New Orleans

Last night, at the conclusion of our excellent meal at The Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans' Garden district, we had a conversation with JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurant's proprietor about the city.

"New Orleans these days is like an eight bedroom house undergoing renovations," she said. "Three of the rooms still need major, major work. But the other five rooms are more beautiful than ever and are ready to be enjoyed."

This is my fifth or sixth visit to New Orleans, but my first since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in 2005. And I'd have to say that Clevenger's assessment is pretty accurate.

If you look around, there are signs everywhere that this is a city finally getting back on its feet. Yesterday's two-mile ride on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar took us past all kinds of renovation and construction projects underway – including a major Borders book store in the heart of the Garden District. The five bedrooms are indeed ready for guests.

As for the other three bedrooms, we drove around the almost completely decimated Ninth Ward, formerly the city's poorest and most densely populated neighborhood. What was once an area teeming with people has been reduced to acres and acres of overgrown fields with the occasional badly damaged house – or, more hopefully, a newly constructed residence erected by groups such as Habitat for Humanity. Like I Am Legend (2007), you can keep on waiting for a lioness and her cubs to appear in this wasteland.

Even outside of the Ninth Ward, on every other block in residential neighborhoods, there is at least one house with a pile of flood-related debris still sitting on the sidewalk. On some of these houses, as well as others, you can still even see the lines to which the floodwaters rose.

Most Americans still have the image of flooding and a destroyed city in their head when it comes to New Orleans. And that is a big part of the problem for an area trying to get back on its feet.

With New Orleans' population dropping to 200,000 from what had been about 500,000 prior to the flood, the city is more reliant than ever on the tourist trade to support its businesses. And those tourists just aren't visiting at anywhere close to pre-Katrina levels.

On Tuesday night, after my wife and I arrived from Detroit, we walked through the French Quarter. Granted, it was the middle of the week, but less than a mile away, the New Orleans Hornets had just closed out their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks. We figured the Quarter would be crowded with celebrating fans.

No way. Almost all the streets were empty. Bourbon Street was more active, but nowhere near the levels I've seen in the past. All around the Quarter, which was mostly spared from the flooding, you hear of business owners barely scraping by. Or having trouble hiring busboys, dishwashers and other unskilled help because the city's poorest residents have been all but exiled to places such as Houston, Atlanta and Nashville.

Another sign of the city's struggles: We are staying on the 29th floor of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside in a beautiful room overlooking the Mississippi River. The waterway, prior to the hurricane, was almost always like a crowded interstate. These day, you're lucky to see more than one boat on the river at a time.

It's quite sad. In many ways, New Orleans is more beautiful than ever. But not enough people are around to enjoy it. Not the tourists. And certainly not the former residents who may never be able to come home again. I really am crossing my fingers for this beautiful city, but it may take more than houses and flood prevention efforts to cure its ills. (Speaking of which, the headline in today's New Orleans Times-Piscayune focused on the inadequacy of two of the supposedly improved floodwalls)

On a happier note, I'm about to go out to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival today, where I hope to watch Randy Newman perform. Newman is actually a Louisiana native, as you can hear in this autobiographical song from his 1988 album, Land of Dreams. I've also included an mp3 from one of my favorite New Orleans bands, Cowboy Mouth, which I hope to make the subject of a longer post at a future date.

Play "Dixie Flyer" by Randy Newman

Play "Hurricane Party" by Cowboy Mouth

1 comment:

Dave said...

Thank you for your excellent blog and your focus on New Orleans with this post. As a New Orleanian who has been displaced these past 2 and a half years, I'm always heartened when someone remembers her to others. I will disagree with Joanne's assesment though. If New Orleans is an 8 bedroom house, I'd say 3 bedrooms have been fixed up, 2 are livable but not great and three are completely f***ed. The real toll on the city has been on the psyche of the residents. Heroin use amongst the middle class is at an all-time high and suicides are still a part of the post-Katrina fabric of the city. Still, there are a lot of great things to be thankful for.

Again, thanks for the spotlight, and have a great safe time in the Big Easy. Try a burger at Port o'Call on Esplanade if you haven't had one before.