I first visited New Orleans in 1977. I was not impressed. To me, New Orleans was dirty, scary, and incomprehensible. I went back in 1993; my wife and I left downtown to eat at Austin Leslie’s wonderful restaurant, Chez Helene, and ventured out to Lake Ponchartrain, and took the St. Charles line out to lunch at the Camellia Grill. Hence, we saw that there was a New Orleans beyond the French Quarter.
I returned in August 2005, days before Katrina even had a name. I was there for a few short days while attending a conference. I spent most of my time in the Central Business District and the French Quarter. Even though my love for the city and its culture was growing exponentially, my understanding of the whole was limited.
And then came Katrina. I joined millions of Americans in viewing the destruction and subsequent dissing of a great American city. Its people left to fend for themselves; wading through fetid water welcomed only by disinterest and neglect. As a nation watched, they were the ones at fault: the stubborn, ignorant people who did not leave; the ones who raided store shelves to stay alive; and the ones who believed that their country’s social compact would protect them from the devastating effects of a predictable and preventable flood.
The locus was the Lower Ninth Ward, a place I had never heard of before Katrina. It was a vast neighborhood, a dozen or more feet below sea level, that housed generations of hard working, mostly African-American residents. Before Katrina, its residents helped make the corrupt and unwieldy city of New Orleans work. They provided the day labor, staffed the restaurants, ran the small businesses, and created the energy that populated brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian Tribes that helped to define the neighborhood and city, at large.
When I returned in March 2006, a few months after Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward had just been reopened to residents and gawkers alike. I certainly was not one of the former and I hope I wasn’t one of the latter. I walked the muddy streets, twice washed by the breech of the Industrial Canal and the tidal surge that came up from St. Bernard Parish. Closer to the breech in the levee, I saw foundations, bereft of houses. Further away, houses lay on cars; the detritus of an entire community lay exposed for as far as the eye could see. It was overwhelming, but in a way that was almost incomprehensible. I do not want to detract from the horrors of post-war Japan, but it struck me as more akin to the aftermath of Hiroshima or Nagasaki than something we would expect to find in the United States.
Fast forward to 2007: I visited the Lower Ninth twice with two different groups of students. For the most part, rubble had been replaced by weed covered plots of land. Cement slabs and steps served as cemetery markers for places where families once sat on stoops, visited with neighbors, and held barbecues. Each slab represented a family, and each block represented an interconnected community, and the whole was a neighborhood of generations-old relationships. All gone. Relocated to Baton Rouge, or Houston, or Atlanta, or Little Rock. Safe, hopefully self-sustaining, but bereft of the community of which they had been apart.
I remember sitting on a forlorn set of steps at the corner of Galvez and Tennessee. The rubble had been cleared, but nothing else had happened. The students were walking the neighborhood, horrified at the devastation that they saw. I could see it no longer; the quiet, sanitized landscape represented, to me, the ultimate symbol of neglect, of ethnic cleansing on a grand scale. I sat there with hot, uncontrollable tears welling in my eyes. To this day, I’m not sure whether they stemmed from anger or sadness, or both, but they were there. I took a small tile from one of the stoops on that day, but the pain of that moment is still a more tangible souvenir.
This year, I look forward to returning to the Lower Ninth. Not to cry, not to gawk, but to see progress. I read that Brad Pitt’s organization is focusing on building houses near that same intersection — Galvez and Tennessee. And while some critics make fun of the pink tents that represent future homes, I will not see that as a visual affront. It is a step forward. it represents a house, a home, a block, and a community that needs to come back to make New Orleans whole again. While symbolic, it is progress.