dilluns, d’agost 20, 2007

Post Card from New Orleans: The Old Grey Mare (English)

Today was my first full day in New Orleans, and I decided to see how the old girl was faring, now nearly two years after Katrina. My orginal plan for the afternoon was to spend it in the cool halls of the New Orleans Museum of Art, since with the deep humidity and 92 degree temperature, a contemplative day felt more appealing to me than sauntering about in the blazing heat.

I was sadly disappointed when I arrived at the museum and discovered that it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I decided to use my new found free time to begin wandering around the city in my hired car, a metallic blue PT Cruiser, complete with very efficient air conditioning. I began my survey of the city in City Park, where the museum is located. A great deal of work has been done along the once beautiful oak allee to bring it back to something like its former glory. Sadly, its former glory now seems lost for ever, since all the of oaks along the allee were destroyed by the flooding the winds. To look at the museum from afar now is odd; it seems stark and cold, even in the deep Southern Louisiana heat. The rest of City Park is still a shambles; the swampy jungle from which it and the rest of the city were carved over the last three centuries is quickly gaining control of sidewalks, roads, parklands, and the city itself is essentially bankrupt, unable to keep on top of rebuilding and maintenance at the same time.

After City Park, I drove through some of neighborhoods along Lake Pontchatrain which were all but bourgeois ghost towns last year. Now it is clear that life is returning to them, albeit slowly. Nothing like the heart of New Orleans, it is reasonable that this area would be slower to recover from the devastation. Still, with blinking traffic lights and many fine, suburban homes still boarded up, you still get the impression of a Frankencity, with some parts alive and well, and other parts being drug along. I still have more of the affected areas to visit, but I decided to drive out into the suburbs themselves and see how life was carrying on there. I drove out into Jefferson Parish to see a place barely affected by the storm. Still, one shouldn't think of Jefferson Parish as a suburb like ones in the northeast. New Orleans is a little but more European and a lot more Carribean than the rest of the US. Its suburbs are a huge mix of affluent, working class and desperately poor; in this sense of the neighborhoods of Jefferson Parish had changed little since the pre-Katrina days. A lot of it is poor and working class, a tell-tale collection of sorry box stores, trailers and ticky-tacky one family homes clinging to the edge of oblivion, essentially mere feet above sea and river level, and sometimes below them.

Upon returning to Orleans Parish, I decided I would drive along St. Charles Avenue down into the French Quarter. Driving along St. Charles, one is reminded of the grand New Orleans that was. It was hardly affected by the storm, and if anything it has become grander in the days since Katrina. Almost everyone of it's grand homes is in excellent repair, most with fresh coats of paint and vibrant flowers in their gardens. However even driving along St. Charles, one is reminded of New Orleans' mixed heritage, and it's colorful past. In the best of times driving along the city's main thoroughfares was something like I imagine driving in Belize City or some other third world nation might be. There are always traffic jams, throngs of humanity clinging to street corners, often walking in front of cars, and invariably something stupid going on. Today, the traffic light one of the primary intersections at St. Charles and Napoleon wasn't working properly, perhaps due to the continued restoration of the St. Charles Streetcar line. Fortunately, New Orleans still has some of her old soul left, and thousands of cars were able to ford the four lanes of traffic on Napoleon and the two on St. Charles without any mishap, at least none that I could see. As I proceeded down the avenue, another light was out as well, but this was a less traversed intersesction.

As I approached Lee Cirlce, I was impressed to see that now only had the neighborhood managed to survive, it was thriving. Many new resturants and shops were open, all freshly painted and apparently doing well. Clearly, while only 60% (about 265,000 people) of the population has returned to the city, the tourists are back, since at no point could the city's population ever have supported its massive retail and dining infrastructure. Arriving in the Quarter I found the tourists, not in droves, but in sufficient numbers for August, traditionally one of the area's off-seasons. I drove in and out of the Qaurter's narrow streets noticing that, while the place still didn't have all its former verve, by large and far it had recovered.

One of the most notable differences in the city today is how the racial make up has changed. Current Mayor Nagin promised that it would be a chocolate city once more, but in fact it's more cafe au lait, much whiter than it was, less black, and certainky more Hispanic; indeed many of the new businesses near Lee Circle have an Hispanic theme, as do many along Magazine Street. My little auto-tour took a good two hours even so, and there's still more of the city to inspect between my own touristic endeavours.