Part I: Katrina
For the first time since Katrina, I visited New Orleans recently. As a jazz aficionado, I was thrilled to go there in 1968 when an Ohio friend wanted company on a sixteen-hour drive to look over Tulane University, where he was thinking of attending graduate school.
We left snow behind, were driving through rain in Kentucky Bluegrass country a half day later, and soon were sitting in the sun under a palm tree at a flea-bag, big easy motel, then eating shrimp creole and drinking Sazeracs at The Court of the Two Sisters. Like generations before me, I was taken by the city’s raffish, bohemian, decaying, lively, damaged charm.
I was next there two decades later to witness the 1988 Republican Convention during which George H.W Bush chugged up on a steamboat to announce his vice-presidential choice, Dan Quayle, who bounded out of the crowd like a puppy on uppers. I was lucky enough to visit several more times between the mid-1990’s and 2003, but after Katrina I was frankly afraid to return for fear that this unique American place would be damaged beyond recognition or repair.
But no, against all odds, The City that Care Forgot (and that the corrupt state and feckless federal governments, hapless Corps of Engineers and greedy oil companies neglected) endures. Before Katrina, in 2000 the metro population was 1,377,700. Several hundred thousand fled and many did not return, but today, eleven years later, the metro in only 13 percent smaller. Many emigres eventually found their way home, along with some new blood.
Several hard-hit historically black neighborhoods like Treme and the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards are checkered by vacant lots and dilapidated reminders of the destruction, but much new building is in evidence. It’s still a poor, racially divided city with infrastructure, education, economic, and crime problems. But the place has heart, character, both joie de vivre and the blues, and depths of history.
The palimpsest of New Orleans is made up of French, Spanish, Acadian, Caribbean, carpetbagger and Dixie, enslaved and free people of color layers, a cuisine concocted from all the above, the jazz music that delighted the world, the Mardi Gras that attracts the tourists, a zoo, an aquarium, a superdome. And these days it has the National World War II Museum that has grown since my first visit, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, an appropriate gumbo of the primitive, wacky, and beautiful well worth a visit.
A ride on the St Charles line thought the Garden District is either charming or a trip on a streetcar named haywire. On any given day, a cheerful motorman may enliven the trip by calling out the sights, an unscheduled breakdown may leave you calling Uber, a ragged odoriferous, saxophone toting beggar may be found riding next to weary domestics heading home and boisterous tourists heading for the bars of the Vieux Carre where music still rolls out of the doors and drinks flow freely, probably too freely.
On one trolley trip, a ranting schizophrenic off his meds harangued his fellow riders with a conspiracy theory. “They” were responsible for the fact that the CBD (Central Business District), Garden District and French Quarter largely survived Katrina while the poorer, blacker parts of town were swept away. He wasn’t wrong, except they weren’t organized enough to conspire. “They” was simply everybody looking out for themselves and no one looking out for the city. Polluting oil companies put the bottom line first. So did the government, since it was easy to ignore the needs of the largely powerless, largely minority population. And everyone worried more about today than the future.
The old Presbytere next to the St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, is now the Louisiana State Museum. Its first floor contains a moving, informative, damning display that chronicles the tick-tock of the Katrina catastrophe and provides informative explanations by a Civil Engineer and an Environmental Scientists of the decades-long accumulation of missteps and corner-cutting by industry and government that made New Orleans far more vulnerable to flood than it needed to be. It should be required viewing for all visitors to the city.
Following that, you can take a bus tour or follow an itinerary available online from “Free Tours by Foot”. It allowed us to take a two-hour drive to visit the places where the waters that rose and surged broke through – the 17th Street Canal Breach, the London Avenue Canal Breach, and the Industrial Canal Levee Breach. Seeing the actual topography live and in person brings home the full extent of the horror in a city where neighborhoods lie well below water level and separated from flood by ten feet and a fragile dike.
The tour also allows you to drive past emblems of recovery like the raised solar homes designed by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, the Musicians Village started by Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr. and others to help house homeless musicians, and even Circle Foods, an iconic grocery that served poor, black neighborhoods beginning in 1938, sank below the waves and that finally reopened only in 2014.
Also still alive and kicking is perhaps the most remarkable, complex, enduring, passionately-beloved food scene in America. An infusion of new hipster, Asian and Latin influenced restaurants have arrived, but many of the old standbys carry on. Tune in next time for our three-day sprint through several thousand calories.