New Orleans, January 2008

So the last time we were in New Orleans was March 2005, on our honeymoon. Five months later, Katrina struck, and devastated not only NOLA, but vast stretches of the Gulf coast. Like so many other people, we watched the news (and later Spike Lee's breathtaking documentary When the Levees Broke) with a mixture of anguish and anger. Volunteering with evacuees housed at the Austin Convention Center added even more personal stories, but we hadn't been back since that honeymoon.

The One and Only lived in New Orleans for several years, mostly bartending in the Quarter, so it's a city he knows well. In our time in Austin, we made that nine-hour drive a number of times, and I got to know the city, seeing it through TOAO's eyes and memories as well as mine. But since Katrina, we hadn't been back. That was partly because we both had dissertations to finish and job markets to enter, but it was also partly because we didn't have the courage to face what, in the face of Katrina and massive post-Katrina neglect, might have become of New Orleans.

So when we returned there this January, it was with a sense of trepidation. We spent our first few days primarily in the French Quarter, which is largely rebuilt - that, after all, is the touristic heart of the city, and given how much money comes in through the tourist trade, the Quarter's continued existence was a priority for any number of people. In many ways, the Quarter seemed unchanged, particularly in the area around Bourbon Street. Drunk idiots careening through the streets? Check. Tons of shops selling Mardi Gras beads and t-shirts with slogans like "I got bourbon-faced on Shit Street"? Check. Tourists walking around wearing those beads and shirts? Check. Dozens of bars selling margaritas, daquiris, and - of course - hurricanes? Check. We were relieved at how "normal" the French Quarter seemed. Even Charleston, the bar cat at TOAO's old bar, was there, almost the same as ever - though the cat bed on the bar was new.

Charleston, the bar cat Charleston, serene atop a cigarette vending machine.

Of course, there are also plenty of clues that this is still not quite business as usual. Some places are still boarded up, especially as you get further from Bourbon, and some businesses we remember aren't there any more. The streets are emptier than usual, as are the bars and restaurants. Bars that never used to close now do. The House of Blues doesn't have concerts on every night. And the t-shirt slogans now include a lot of Katrina references.

One of the other new things was Katrina tourism. There were advertisements for "Katrina Tours!" in a number of tourist offices, and I'd read articles or blogs by residents decrying the busloads of tourists driving by, taking pictures of other peoples' tragedies. We didn't want to be gawkers like that, but we also did want to see not just what Katrina had done to the city, but how the city was recovering. Pictures of the devastation in New Orleans abounded in the weeks and months following the hurricane, but it was much harder to get pictures of how it looked now. How much recovery and renovation had been done? How many neighborhoods had rebounded? And finally, it seemed very wrong to be in New Orleans and not somehow pay homage to what the city's residents had been through, so we decided to take a walk through the Ninth Ward.

Now, I should preface all of the following with this caveat: We wandered around fairly randomly, with no specific goal in mind. That means what we saw may or may not be representative of the neighborhoods we were in.

That said, we were surprised by what we found in the Ninth Ward. Yes, it was evident that the place had been hit, and hit hard, by the hurricane. But it was equally evident that people were moving back, putting time and money into rebuilding their homes. For every home that looked like this:

House in the Marigny




...there was another that looked like this:

House in the Merigny

This house is directly across the street from the house pictured above.

We caught the smell of new wood a number of times, and there was a lot of construction and renovation activity. Many of the homes also testified to a strong sense of neighborhood and place, both pre- and post-Katrina.

Sign on door saying "We're coming home" "We're coming home!"
Home sweet home The painting on the window reads, "Home sweet home."

About half the houses still had the FEMA tags on them - those red X's that showed the home had been checked by search and rescue crews. Some of those X's seemed to have been deliberately painted around, left on otherwise repainted houses like a badge of honor.

Vaughn's Vaughan's, a Lower Ninth institution where we heard Kermit Ruffins play, on our very first trip together. Vaughan's took a beating, but has reopened. Ruffins - an amazing musician - still plays there on Thursdays, I hear; hopefully he also still serves up red beans and rice, cooked to his mother's recipe.
Foundation with no home  
Street scene  

We'd been braced for the worst, and by and large the Ninth Ward did not look nearly as bad as we had expected, and we were relieved.

And that relief was what made walking through the Seventh Ward - the Tremé - so shocking.

House in the Treme  

Basically, the Tremé looks like what we expected the Ninth Ward to look like. It is devastated, and most of the houses have not been renovated. There are vacant lots where homes have been knocked down and not rebuilt, and there are many more homes that have probably not been entered since the rescue crews came through.

Street in the Treme  

We were walking there as the kids were getting out of school, and there was a lot of activity - obviously, people have moved back. But now, in January 2008, some areas of the Tremé look just like the pictures that came out of New Orleans in September 2005, up to and including the dilapidated billboard announcing that the new school term was starting up August 8, 2005.

Center for Adult Education, shut since Aug 2005  
Destroyed house  
"We can do it!"  

To be sure, there was some rebuilding and renovation going on. But unlike the Ninth Ward, which seemed to have turned a corner where the majority of most blocks had been at least worked on, if not quite yet rebuilt, the Tremé was still dominated by houses falling apart under the weight of hurricane damage.

Renovated, but still with a FEMA tarp.

Like the Ninth Ward, the Seventh is home to a largely poor and African American population. It's where Louis Armstrong was born, which is why it is now home to the Louis Armstrong park, which was closed when we were there.

Louis Armstrong park gate  

The Seventh Ward has not had much media attention; we went walking there because TOAO knew it must have been hit hard, not because of anything we'd read. Because so much of the coverage focused on the damage to the Ninth Ward, we were unprepared for how bad the Seventh looked.

So the rebuilding is underway, but it is far from complete. It is far from even halfway complete, and it needs everyone's support, and I don't know exactly how to end this post. Since I suspect part of what made the difference between the Ninth and Seventh Wards might have been media attention, though, I will end this with a plea for all of you - all of us - to do something to help. Go to the folks at for ideas on what we all can do to help support all New Orleans neighborhoods, and let's keep our eyes on New Orleans.







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28. January 2008

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