Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 12

Dear Folks,

I know, I know, I haven’t written for ages...Merry Christmas, by the way, and Happy New Year!

I said I’d give you a run-down on how the various neighborhoods are doing, based on our drives around with Bret Littlehales, when he was down here taking photographs. It was a sobering, exhilarating, beautiful, reassuring, and also deeply harrowing week. Here’s what we learned:

ALGIERS really is New Orleans’ best kept secret. A gem-like community at the bend of the Mississippi opposite the Central Business District, Algiers Point has beautiful, intact old Creole cottages and gorgeous double-shotguns painted every bright color of the rainbow. There are narrow, winding streets, a magnificent old court-house with a carillon (when we were there it was playing "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer"), a bright sparkling ferry terminal, and a truly unparalleled view of the city. You can stand at the river’s edge and look across to the French Quarter, St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo and the Presbytere, and then up along the city’s sky-scrapers and the (slightly battered) bulk of Harrah’s Casino all the way to the Irish Channel and Uptown. It’s like being able to see modern Manhattan and Peter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam at the same time. Algiers sprawls beyond the point itself to a wider neighborhood of modern brick ranch houses and neat front lawns, and there’s a lot of blue roofs here...the hurricane made landfall very close...but renovation’s going on and since this area didn’t flood, real estate prices are apparently booming. We visited the "Seven Sisters" Voodoo Shop and made an offering to Oya, the goddess of the winds, to spare Algiers in the future, and celebrated the fact that this extraordinary small-town section of the city is still here.

THE FRENCH QUARTER is, as I’ve already said, basically fine. There was very little flooding, and since the Mayor lifted the last vestigial 2 AM curfew, the night life is back and rocking. Most of the stores are back in business, from T-shirt shops to high-end antiques, and Hove’s Perfume, Crescent City Books, the Napoleon House and Donna’s Bar are all thriving (you can tell from this very partial list what all MY important landmarks are!) No, it’s not the same: there’s a truly disconcerting lack of qualified bartenders around (in New Orleans this is a SIN) and in some of the restaurants the wait-staff are snappish and surly (don’t go into the Clover Grill with an attitude, or the drag-queen waitress there will tear you a new one). But this may just mean they’ve had too many FEMA-worker patrons and not enough decent housing. Rents have gone through the roof, and a lot of the homes there do in fact have roof damage, although it’s being fixed. Bottom line: the French Quarter’s survived a lot worse than Katrina, and it will survive fact it already has.

THE GARDEN DISTRICT and UPTOWN are both, as I’ve mentioned, pretty embarrassingly okay. Well alright, not entirely. The area from St. Charles Avenue up in the direction of the lake took on some serious water, and some of that neighborhood is still deserted, although most of the houses look salvageable. Likewise CARROLLTON, which follows Carrollton Avenue up from St. Charles, gets worse and worse as you go up it. The river-side portion of both these neighborhoods, though, is blooming: Maple Street Books is okay, as is the Maple Leaf Bar (do you notice a trend again in the things I’m most concerned about?) Tipitina’s on Napoleon Avenue is fine, Magazine Street is back and busier than ever, and most of the IRISH CHANNEL is intact, although there was some roof and tree damage, as there was in the LOWER GARDEN DISTRICT.

Essentially, what’s being called "the sliver by the river" is pretty much back to normal...that whole long spread along the Mississippi where the city was settled first. Coliseum Square in the LOWER GARDEN DISTRICT is still a green gem set about with fine old double-galleried houses. The IRISH CHANNEL (the area between the river and Magazine Street that parallels the Upper and Lower Garden Districts) is cleaning up, dragging old sofas to the curb and repainting porches and roof trim. St. Mary’s Assumption Church appears intact, its over-the-top full-size plaster saints untouched by wind or rain...although St. Alphonsus’s across the street lost a big stone cross from the roof, which flew up over the neighboring church and buried itself in the garden. It’s now a local landmark.

Likewise, down river from the French Quarter, the MARIGNY and nearer parts of the BYWATER are both pretty much back and rebuilding. The MARIGNY (the area closest to the Quarter) suffered relatively little damage, and is in many respects its old self. Frenchman Street has most of its marvelous clubs back, and on any given night you can see everything from cool jazz to Don Vappie’s Creole Serenaders playing at a tea-dance at the Café Brazil. The Praline Connection is back and cooking up a storm, and more restaurants are opening up every day.

BYWATER, the area that follows the river down from the Marigny to the Industrial Canal, was of course harder hit, and when you get close to that now-infamous waterway, the scene is very grim indeed. This was (and I hope it will remain) the thriving bohemian heart of the city, where rents were cheap enough to encourage artists and musicians and lunatics to live there. A lot of the neighborhood is still fine...and there are lots of people around, digging out their houses, painting over the National Guard’s grim tags, bicycling through the streets in their feathers and shredded finery, taking photographs, painting pictures, and soldiering on as those who have been marginalized by our mainstream culture have always done. God bless them. St. Roch’s cemetery took on about three feet of water but its wonderful sanctuary of dismembered stone hands, feet, crutches and polio braces (from those who have been cured there) is still in place. Sallie Ann Glassman’s botanica is still in business, and as far as I know she’s still holding voudou services in the peristyle around the corner. There were lots of Christmas decorations evident, including (of course) the inevitable abandoned refrigerators, now painted red and green and decked with lights. So yes, if I had to go out on a limb, I’d say Bywater is probably going to do just fine.

The strangest neighborhoods are the ones that are still almost completely empty. The NINTH WARD, which stretches all the way from the river to the lake, is a blasted moon-scape. We drove up to the Vietnamese church near the UNO campus and saw how the receding water had painted the stone there in stripes of diminishing brown, from chocolate to tan to beige. Actually, the shrine to the Virgin there is being restored, and the Vietnamese population of the city isn’t waiting for any help from anyone: they’ve pitched tents in their own driveways and, eschewing FEMA, are reclaiming their houses one by one. Gee, do you think they distrust the United States government? LAKEVIEW, the modern area of large, generally prosperous homes by Lake Pontchartrain, is a ghost-town of abandoned front lawns, gaping roofs, the occasional trailer, and a mammoth pile of dead tree limbs all along the neutral ground on West End Boulevard, where the city’s taken all of its wood debris and is doggedly grinding it up into pulp (this looks like it could take months). Lakeview got slammed from both ends, by the 17th Street Canal from one side and the London Avenue Canal on the other, and what were modest or, in some cases, lavish ranch homes have been nearly submerged in silt. Bret described it perfectly when he said there was absolutely no color there. He might as well have been shooting in black-and-white. I can’t tell you how desolate it all was, driving from street to street, block to block, and rarely encountering a living soul save, at the London Avenue breach, some Army Corps of Engineer workers, who were very polite and seemed a little overwhelmed themselves. They were engaged in sawing a tree down that stood in someone’s ruined front yard. This seemed a little like picking up a set of fallen cocktail napkins on the deck of the Titanic.

MID-CITY is much the same...and oh, it’s hard to go on and on about this. Suffice it to say that the Rock ‘N Bowl is still in business, although it sits alone in a ruined strip mall...but then, that’s pretty much where it always stood. Most of Mid-City is empty, and GENTILLY (the area adjoining Lakeview, stretching up from the Fairgrounds) is a mixed bag. Dillard University is closed and guarded, its lovely columns and wide front lawn brown and silent, and we were chased away when we tried to take photographs there because apparently they’ve had some problems with white supremacist groups (who presumably post pictures on the Internet and gloat). But we saw a flap of color and Bret photographed an old black woman coming out on her porch across the street to put up an American flag. We drove over and talked to her, and learned she was in her eighties, had lived opposite Dillard for forty-eight years, was the widow of a World War II naval veteran, and wasn’t going anywhere. God almighty. God almighty. God almighty.

So that’s a thumbnail sketch. I haven’t the faintest idea what it all amounts to. People here, as elsewhere, say what do you think will happen next and I tell them honestly I haven’t got a clue.

I just know I’d rather be here at this moment than anywhere else on earth.

More later,




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