Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

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.




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