Paying respects and paying attention in New Orleans
Death is not usually a taboo topic in New Orleans. French Quarter funeral processions saunter through the streets, cemetery crypts are ornate...
Special to The Seattle Times
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve : French Quarter Visitor Center, 419 Decatur St., New Orleans. www.nps.gov/jela/ or 504-589-2636. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daily historical tours 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.; limited to 25 people, first come, first served.
Death is not usually a taboo topic in New Orleans. French Quarter funeral processions saunter through the streets, cemetery crypts are ornate and elevated; festivals feature zombies while voodoo permeates local lore. In normal times, death is a lively subject in the city.
But during a recent vacation in New Orleans, we approached the city gingerly, uncertain whether wounds both physical and psychological had yet to heal. Less than two years since levies crumbled in Katrina's wake, the subject of death took on a whole different life.
Like most tourists, we headed first to the French Quarter. The district's hundred-or-so square blocks are New Orleans' historic heart precisely because the earliest European settlers — and the Native Americans before them — set up shop on the city's highest ground. Strolling the streets, it was clear that post-Katrina flooding had largely spared the Quarter; faded stucco and fractured sidewalks seemed no more weathered than usual.
Glancing up, however, we were struck by strings of signs suspended beneath the ubiquitous cast-iron balconies: rooms for rent, condos for sale, retail space for lease. Several cafés and shops were shuttered; tables at restaurants were noticeably unoccupied. The French Quarter was open for business, but business was not booming.
Before Katrina, it was tempting to view the Big Easy as a sort of adult Disneyland (although infinitely more interesting than the real Disneyland's sanitized New Orleans Square.) But laissez les bons temps rouler ("let the good times roll") doesn't begin to describe the city's rich history. As it turns out, Katrina's devastation (it struck on Aug. 29, 2005) practically forces visitors to explore a side of New Orleans that most usually overlook.
Our guide was Danny Forbis, a National Park Service ranger stationed at the French Quarter Visitor Center of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. The tour is free, but worth a great deal. Forbis led us to the sweeping crescent bend of the Mississippi River to explain how natural levees, centuries in the making, are usually vastly superior to the man-made variety. The river's solid northern banks have always attracted waves of immigrants — French, Spanish, African, Italian, Irish, Vietnamese, and, most recently, Hispanic. Each contributed new spice to the city's famous gumbo of music, dance, art and culture.
In most cases, however, each immigrant influx also created a new persecuted underclass. Forbis offered a refreshingly unvarnished history of New Orleans' social, military, religious and political intrigue, conflicts that often were entwined with attempts to control access to the mighty Mississippi River and its nearby cousin, Lake Pontchartrain. On more than one occasion, natural disaster or armed conflict nearly brought the city to its knees. But frequent reports of the city's demise were, in Mark Twain's words, exaggerated.
Eventually, Forbis raised the question that no one in our group dared ask aloud: Why should American taxpayers continue to foot the bill to keep this below-sea-level city dry if not high? The ranger reminded us of New Orleans' strategic location, controlling the mouth of one of the world's greatest rivers, draining — and transporting goods for — a huge hunk of the American heartland. How could such an important city be neglected? Yet there was a nagging feeling that the nation's ambivalence toward replacing the levies might be different if the people of New Orleans were mainly white and wealthy instead of black and generally struggling.
It was then we knew that we had to visit the Lower Ninth Ward.
Among the most horrific images during Katrina's aftermath were people stranded on rooftops, wide-eyed and desperate as floodwaters rose to the eaves and beyond in the neighborhood. Tragically, others were trapped in attics, sweltering tombs where many would die. Although much of the Ninth Ward is on New Orleans' higher ground, the levy unexpectedly — some say suspiciously — failed, filling the predominantly black neighborhood like a bathtub.
We are white — middle-aged and middle class — and were driving a rented PT Cruiser. As we crossed the bridge over the Industrial Canal, it occurred to us that Ninth Ward residents had likely long ago grown tired of tourists and other gawkers. We turned onto Forstall Street, determined to drive cautiously and behave respectfully.
What we saw was not what we expected.
For a brief block or two, homes were standing and several were occupied; a few FEMA trailers still squatted in driveways. Each of our nods, waves or smiles were returned in kind, without a hint of resentment.
But as we continued north, the scene changed. Suddenly, just two or three structures remained on each block, all of them abandoned, each of them spray-painted with numbers and a large X to indicated when and by whom they had been inspected, and how many dead bodies — if any — had been discovered inside. A block or two beyond, everything was gone.
Not everything, exactly. Concrete pads baked in the sun where kids once bounced balls. Stout oaks stood in rows, shading broken asphalt where family porches had once stood. Unmowed lawns had morphed into fields of wildflowers; a flock of white ibises stalked frogs where seeping water pipes nurtured reeds and grasses. Except for the rumble of an occasional dumptruck, it was quiet, and we were alone.
It felt like death. It had the aura of a bloodied battlefield, long overgrown. In an aching, heart-wrenching way, it felt like hallowed ground.
We came to New Orleans to pay attention, and ended up paying our respects. The city is still grieving, even if the rest of the nation is not. It was an unexpectedly poignant and powerful time to visit.
Tourists will return, but the old Ninth Ward never will. Without better levies, those who return to the neighborhood risk losing everything to the next killer storm. Yet, if billions are spent building state-of-the-art levies, high-priced homes and condos will surely spread like mushrooms, and the working poor will never come back.
It felt good to spend some of our vacation dollars in New Orleans — not a normal reaction when we travel. We're already paying more attention to news stories from the city, including a report by the University of New Orleans that one-third of the city's residents say they'd like to leave town for good.
We, however, will be back. Any reports of New Orleans' imminent death will, we assume, be once again exaggerated. At least we hope so.
Jack Hamann is a Seattle writer.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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