Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 11

December 21, 2005

Dear Folks,

I’m sorry I haven’t written for a while. I’ve certainly been busy, and I want to tell you all about it. Bill and I have hooked up with an organization that used to be called Relocate New Orleans, a clearing house for information for people contemplating a move down to NOLA...and yes, they’re planning on changing the name to something like 'Come Home To New Orleans" or "Relocate TO New Orleans", so it doesn’t sound like we want to move the entire city to Little Rock!

In any event, we went around all last week with our friend, photographer Bret Littlehales, and documented the various neighborhoods. Our mandate is both to reassure residents (and future residents) of the city’s viability, and to document what has and hasn’t been done so far. And my God, what a fascinating journey it was. I want to write a series of postings here regarding what we saw, but here are some general thoughts first:

The main thing that keeps hitting me is how very, very complex this whole situation is. New Orleans is poised on a knife’s edge right now. Some whole neighborhoods are coming back, or already are back. In some cases, it’s a block by block, house by house there are Christmas tree lights, there an American flag is being raised. The Vietnamese Church out in Lakeview is rebuilding despite being ravaged by 6+ feet of water and severe wind damage. People are digging out their houses in Gentilly and Lakeside, despite almost unimaginable devastation. A whole raft of public schools are set to reopen in January, and every day new businesses are coming back. But at the same time, yes, Mid-City and the Lower Ninth Ward and East New Orleans and most of the area by the Lake are ghost towns...and the parts of the city closest to where the levees burst have an eerie, surreal deadness about them that’s truly worse than anything you can imagine.

So it’s a real quandary. Do we beg the rest of the country for help, screaming in pain and saying please, this is the worst natural (and man-made) disaster to ever hit the country, and even the luckiest of us are living with Hiroshima in our backyards? Or do we put a brave face on it, and risk paragons of sympathy and altruism like Rush Limbaugh proclaiming that "everything’s fine down there"?

I don’t know. I think it’s like a child who’s gravely ill. That child, if he feels secure and loved, will complain and cry, in the certainty he’ll be taken care of and comforted by his parents. If he thinks his parents don’t give a damn about him, he may, like a wounded animal, refuse to admit any weakness, since he’ll see it as simply an excuse to be further ridiculed or ignored, or worse, culled from the pack.

This appears to be our position viz-a-viz the rest of the country and in particular viz-a-viz Washington. We have no parent who truly cares for us. This is something I’ve sadly come to believe (please, please prove me wrong by voting in different people starting next November, which already feels like a long time away) . The rest of the country cares about Iraq (three years late and a dollar short) and cares about how much gasoline prices rise or fall (and screw one of their major supplying states...Louisiana) and that’s about it. Okay, again, prove me wrong. Because my heart is currently breaking to realize how something as unique and important as an entire city can be condemned with a flick of the channel or a stroke of the word-processor. Columnists in The New York Times and the Washington Post have both recently referred to New Orleans as dying or dead (the Post used the charming phrase "circling the drain")...and yes, I know, they were using the city as a stick to beat President Bush with. And yes, I know (gasp!) that the media can lie. USA Today yesterday printed a number of out-and-out falsehoods: 100,000 homes destroyed (the reality is only about 400 homes are a total loss, though many more need repair) and only 70,000 people back (the reality is 100,000-plus, with another 100,000 expected in January). But hey, would "McPaper" sell as many copies if it substituted nuanced journalism for scare tactics?

So I know, some of the hype is just hype, and in fact ambiguity may be our best friend right now. Banging on Washington’s door is a daunting process, but damn it, our mayor and our governor banged and pleaded and endured ridicule and got $29 billion out of them. So maybe the twin messages that we’re okay and we’re not okay are actually working. We’ve got a few conventions booked for next year, and Mardi Gras should bring in some tourists despite the puritans carping that we ought to be wearing sackcloth. So maybe this whole thing of walking on the knife-edge of pleading and boosterism is the best thing for us after all.

At the same time, though, I really feel like the rest of the country would like nothing better than to forget all about us. We’ve become like somebody’s smelly old uncle in a nursing home, someone who probably drank too much and smoked too much and ate too much and got the clap a few times in his day, and who’s a total bummer now...even though he’s living in a wheelchair in his own filth. Especially because he’s living in a wheelchair in his own filth. We know we should visit him. We feel we probably ought to be concerned about his care, that his bills are being paid and he’s getting the right medicines. We know (although we block out the fact) that it could be us in his place if a terrorist or a tsunami or an earthquake or a tornado hit us. But c’mon, it’s the holidays. We have our families to think about. We have to get that new Xbox. We sent a check, after all. We watched TV for a while. We felt sympathetic for a whole week or two. Surely that’s enough.

So what do we do with the old geezer? Do we show people his suffering? Do we say here’s someone who just requires a little help to get back on his feet, and if you do he’ll soon be walking down the boulevard again with a top hat and a cane? He’s a bon vivant, after all, a man about town. He’s full of great stories and he can cook up a pot of gumbo to die for. He plays blues and jazz and hip-hop and the music of Gottschaulk like an angel. He’s three hundred years old and he remembers what it was like when Louis and Buddy Bolden and General Beauregard and Josie Arlington were around. He’s truly amazing. Surely we can deal with the fact that he’s had a bad break, a run of bad luck, and can sympathize. Surely we’re not going to be put off by the fact that his humanity threatens ours. Or are we going to look at his bed-sores and turn our faces away in disgust?

One more little story for now. A week ago Monday we were shooting some photographs in the French Quarter and ran into Alan Toussaint. Now for all you musical morons like me, here’s the guy who wrote everything from "Working In A Coal Mine" to "Southern Nights" to "Lady Marmalade". Here’s a guy who helped create (some people would say he did create single-handedly) the sound of the Meters and the Neville Brothers and Dr. John and the Wild Tchoupatoulas. Okay, so he's a cool dude. And here’s a guy who lost his house, who lost untold memories and awards and scores and friends and God knows what. And he’s walking down the street looking like a million bucks. Matching pocket square and necktie. Bespoke suit, Italian shoes. A face that combines a handsomeness that might have been Jimi Hendrix’s had he lived, with the world-weary attractiveness of Morgan Freeman. And we said hi and he said hi, and we talked, and Bill shook his hand and said "Thank you for keeping us sane through all of this." And guys walked by and waved and one said "Still walkin’ the streets, huh?" and he said, "So far." And he was like an elder statesman, and at the same time like a neighbor.

And he was here. Alive. Right now. In New Orleans. Amazing.

So what do we do if someone like THAT gets sick? Do we turn away, or do we help him?

More later,



Friday, December 02, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 10

Dear Folks,

Okay, I drove over into the Lower Ninth Ward yesterday, and yes, it’s very, very, very, very bad.

The Lower Ninth Ward is like a desiccated corpse. For block after block, mile after mile, as far as the eye can see there’s nothing but destruction and silence...dry, leathery, mangled houses, uprooted trees, and empty streets. It’s almost beyond belief that this was part of a thriving city only three months ago. It looks like a lunar landscape--absolutely lifeless--but one made up of familiar sights: front porches, fast food joints, bars and warehouses and churches. For every building that’s demolished, splintered or collapsed, there are a half dozen that are intact, but empty and gray and abandoned like pieces of old furniture. It looks like that, like something thrown out in a dump, but magnified to the size of a city. It looks like a stage set. It looks unreal. It looks like a skeleton: bleached and brittle and very, very dead. I don’t really have enough words to describe it. It’s absolutely the worst place I’ve ever seen.

I drove in almost by accident, not knowing they’d opened up the area for the first time. I was actually looking for Recycle for the Arts, a cooperative in the Bywater where I hoped to recycle our used moving boxes. I drove in along St. Claude Avenue, the main artery leading over from the top of the French Quarter, through the middle of the Ninth Ward, crossing over the Industrial Canal (where the Upper Ninth Ward becomes the Lower) and eventually leading out of the city into St. Bernard Parish. I found the recycling center (where they’re only taking used furniture and building materials right now...God bless them, although I still don’t know what to do with our boxes) and then, not knowing quite what to expect, just kept going.

Okay, background. Let’s face it, this was never exactly a classy neck of the woods. In days gone by, the Ninth Ward was a rough, somewhat dangerous, funky place, blue-collar, insular, mixed racially, and given to picturesque homicides. It was always an area where you locked your car doors if, like me, you felt like a very white outsider. Now, however, it’s as safe as only a dead place can be. You could probably wander there naked and be alright. And, like a necropolis, you could picture people wandering there naked, bereft and ghostly...but in fact when I arrived there (late afternoon) nobody was wandering. There were a few guards: men in blue windbreakers, wearing paper masks, sitting on plastic milk crates and holding stop signs and staring into space. They let me drive around without stopping me or really paying me that much attention. I gather earlier in the day a lot of people had gone in, collected belongings, assessed the damage, and then left again. It’s still not an area where people are allowed to stay overnight, because there’s no electricity and a lot of the structures are far from safe.

I just drove around, listening to Son House and Charlie Patton on the radio sing the eerie, almost unbearably apt blues of the Delta. Music to tour emptiness by. I don’t know how this area will ever come back. More than fifty percent of the city is already rebounding, and another twenty-five percent will probably roll up its sleeves and do likewise once a little money starts rolling in and the utilities get more reliable, but this area? I can’t imagine anything this dead ever coming back to life again. And yet I know if I had a house here (and this area was overwhelmingly owner wasn’t just rented) I’d want to move heaven and earth to reclaim it, to do whatever it takes, to howl at the moon and flat-out deny that it was impossible. I don’t know, maybe it is possible. Maybe six months from now this area will be as alive with buzz-saws and fresh-cut lumber and trash bags and men on ladders as the Garden District and the French Quarter are today. I doubt very much if it’ll simply remain a ruin. It’ll either be rebuilt, or bulldozed and then rebuilt, and something will be here: new housing, slums, an oil refinery? Something. Land in this proximity to a major city is just too valuable, and I doubt if it’ll be allowed to become a swamp again either, although there are those who say it should be. It’s just unimaginable right now that it’ll ever be anything but what it is: a moonscape, a nightmare. It's awful.

I want to find out more about why this happened, and as soon as I do, I’ll write about it. It’s becoming clear that the Army Corps of Engineers (underfinanced and immune from prosecution) was at fault, as were their subcontractors, as were the Levee Boards, and I’m sure there were others. I’m not even sure how much the canal system itself can be blamed, since slicing up the city into pieces to create shipping lanes created weak seams for the water to get into many areas that were in fact far from the lake and the river. I just know that whoever did this deserves to be prosecuted for murder, but they won’t be. Maybe there’s a hell for them like what I saw today.