New Orleans Rising: Finding New Hope After Katrina
By Janis Turk
It was once said of James Dean that he had an “insufficient hopefulness” — a phrase that comes to mind when people ask what it’s like in New Orleans now, more than a year after the levees broke flooding 80 percent of the city.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” writes W.B. Yeats, and even as the rebuilding process begins in New Orleans, a brown water stain, like a nasty “ring around the collar,” seems to remain not only on the houses but on the hopes of the people.
As a travel writer with an apartment in the French Quarter for the past 12 years, wherever I go, people ask me about New Orleans. By now you’d think I’d have a ready answer, but somehow it always seems to catch me off guard, fumbling for a response. It’s as though someone has died and a well-meaning stranger at the grocery asks how I’m holding up.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
My answers, like the city, are mercurial. And even if I were somehow to find a way to take the exact pulse of New Orleans at a particular moment and accurately articulate it, my response is not likely be one that nice people in nice places want to hear.
Usually I give an ambiguous, Dickens-esque “best of times/worst of times” answer so as to encourage tourism in the French Quarter yet remind that everything is still not OK. All the while I’m really muttering under my breath that New Orleans is like Humpty Dumpty, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t seem to put Humpty back together again.
Up and Running
People do need to be reminded that the French Quarter, where most visitors go, really is back up and running, and it’s still breathtakingly beautiful. Touirsts can still get a muffuletta at Napoleon House, beignets at Café Du Monde, a carriage ride down Chartres Street, and a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s. You can visit the Garden District, the zoo and Jackson Square, browse the shops on Royal Street and sip wine at an outdoor café in Pirate’s Alley.
Almost all your favorite hotels and restaurants are open, and budget-friendly opportunities abound. Visitors will enjoy the fabulous fall weather and amazing architecture, and we bid you to come back to New Orleans. You’ll never find another city in America more appreciative of its tourists than New Orleans is today.
But if you want to know about the underlying feelings of the locals there, besides those of sincere gratitude for all that remains, and you ask me how I think they’re doing, this is what I’d tell you today: An insufficient hopefulness still hangs like wreckage caught in high branches of trees.
A Vision in Emerald Green
But that’s not how it seemed last spring, though, when a second line of hope cut a parade route through the city.
The first Mardi Gras post Katrina was eerily reminiscent of a classic scene in Gone with the Wind — the famous one where Scarlett O’Hara takes the green velvet curtains of Tara (the family plantation) and turns them into a dress. She needs to look good when she goes after Rhett Butler, for she hopes to entice him into giving her money for back taxes on Tara, which has fallen into ruin since the Civil War.
Scarlett crafts an elaborate frock and hat from the musty drapes and trots off after the money. Of course her calloused, “cotton-picking” hands give her away, and Rhett isn’t fooled. Still, she is a vision in emerald green.
The Mardi Gras Mask
Six months to the day after hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the South and left its gulf shore cities looking like a war zone, New Orleans picked itself up from its swampy squalor, just like the desperate Katie Scarlett, and draped itself in green, purple and gold for Mardi Gras.
Spiffing itself up with the brightest bon vivance it could muster, New Orleans donned her Mardi Gras mask and put on a gay front for the Rhetts of the world in hopes that tourists might come back with money to spend.
Hungry for crawfish etouffee, beignets and jambalaya, and eager to put Anderson Cooper’s tiresome, soggy news reports behind them, the tourists poured in like the lakes over the levees, wearing beads and drinking from plastic “go” cups, bringing with them the hope that the South will rise again. Some of them even stopped to take bus tours of the Ninth Ward, snapped pictures and went home.
Heaps of Rubble
Mardi Gras was a good plan, and it worked — just don’t look behind the curtain. Venture a block or two off the parade route, and you’ll see the open wounds of a suffering city where Carnival isn’t king. Yet, for one Fat and happy Tuesday, “the city that care forgot” sought to forget its cares and allowed splendid parades to sweep us into a colorful caravan of hope.
Today, however, it seems the parade has passed us by.
Ray Nagin was re-elected. Blue roof tarps flap in the wind. FEMA trailers line the highways. Houses still lie in heaps of rubble. Abandoned boats and cars rot in vacant lots. Streetcars don’t run uptown.
Rents for French Quarter apartments and Mid City “camel-backs” have doubled, so waiters and coffee shop workers are either playing musical chairs with their lodgings, or worse, leaving town, while carpetbaggers make high-dollar condos out of Slave Quarter apartments and rebuild the casinos.
A Little Slice of Heaven
And then there are the houses we’re not rebuilding or even tearing down yet in other parts of town. Oprah Winfrey just helped build a whole new neighborhood she called “Angel Lane” for families whose homes were destroyed — only she built this little slice of heaven in Houston. So much for “ReNew Orleans.”
Such tales should come as no surprise, for most of the good, well-meaning people of this nation just don’t “get” New Orleans any more than they “get” poverty, so you can’t fault them for not understanding what has happened here and what needs to happen next.
“How can you people dance in the streets during a funeral procession? How dare you celebrate Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence in the face of this horrific tragedy? Why shouldn’t the New Orleans Saints move to San Antonio? Why should we rebuild a city below sea level?” Those who ask such questions don’t have a clue what it means to miss New Orleans, so it’s foolish to expect them to help bring it back.
Our Graceful Past
That’s OK; Rhett Butler didn’t give Scarlett the money, but she found a way to keep Tara anyway. New Orleans didn’t “put on the drapes” for Mardi Gras just because we needed tourists, although we do, and I doubt even Scarlet put on the green dress just for Rhett. We did it for ourselves.
We needed to cloak ourselves in the beauty of our graceful past, to bring back a time and place that, in a way, really is “gone with the wind,” even though New Orleans, like Tara, is still (more or less) standing. Carnival is an integral part of New Orleans’ culture and its hope. It is also a way of saying we will live through this.
And we will.
It Was All They Had
One thing that has helped New Orleanians stay afloat is that they understand the importance of their history and their tradition — a veritable gumbo of food, faith, fate, magic, music, art, words and wonder.
Like those who clambered to their attics and axed their way toward the sky as furniture floated to the rafters in the rising floodwaters, after the deluge New Orleans writers, musicians, photographers, painters and people of faith used the only tools they had to break through the ceiling of despair that threatened to entrap them. They used their art, words, music and prayers — humble and ill-suited instruments, to be sure, for the survival of a tempest of this magnitude — but it was all they had.
An unlikely muse, the ferocious, fickle Katrina, brought a thousand broken things to the surface — things ugly and terrible (like poverty and racism) things beautiful and precious (like art and poetry) — but all of these are real and true and must be brought into the light, no matter how appalling.
And it is on these truths, however terrible, that we are carried, as if on a drifting mattress, to a place of buoyancy and belief, however makeshift and tentative.
The South’s own Flannery O’Connor, who believed in staring unblinkingly at reality, no matter how grotesque, made famous this line from a French philosopher: “Everything that rises must converge.”
And so it is. Rising together through a blood-dimmed tide of grief, converging through our art, our voices, we tell our stories to remember who we are and what’s at stake.
“Attention Must Be Paid”
Only time will tell if it is going to be sufficient; but, however scant, there’s still a measure of hopefulness alive in the creativity of those who continue to sift through the debris, the detritus of their dreams, in their own way, with their own expression and their own experience.
As Arthur Miller writes in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid!” That’s what we’re asking the world to do as New Orleans artists document their anguish, expose our nation’s shame and process it all through their art.
So as long as there are saxophone players outside Café Du Monde, jug bands in front of the A&P, jazz clubs on Frenchman and paintings hanging on the fence behind the St. Louis Cathedral, there is hope for us yet.
Yes, I’ll be surprised when it gets here — that’s true enough — but surely the second coming of New Orleans is at hand. And when it comes, I want to be in that number.
That is my hope. For now, it will have to suffice.