Recent articles and reports in the daily New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper have detailed ongoing home demolition efforts in various still-devastated parts of the city. Yes, now 29 months after the calamity of Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent collapse of the federal levees and resulting floodwaters, there are still hundreds if not thousands of devastated and dilapidated homes, unoccupied and abandoned yet still standing as ghostly reminders that New Orleans is far from whole.
Other newspaper articles detailed the coming legions of good folks, many on Spring Break from school, who are on their way to New Orleans to further stoke the ongoing volunteer recovery efforts, including home building. Yes… 29 months later this place remains in recovery at a snails pace.
Driving through various neighborhoods, notably the Ninth Ward, Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Ponchartrain Park areas, one is struck by their ghost town quality. As Suzan Jenkins and many others have remarked, you can drive down those streets and sure you see homeowners who have persevered and determined to remake their abodes, but one cannot get beyond the fact that basic services are minimal (schools, hospitals, grocery stores, etc.) and the ongoing blight of abandoned structures tilting on their sides in various states of complete disrepair represent ongoing health and safety hazards even to those laudable post-Katrina pioneers. So what must the quality of life be like on what one writer described as those "gap-toothed" streets?
Two young friends recently visited the city on holiday for the NBA All-Star game festivities. That was a splendid weekend in the city, full of parties and various hilarity, and the presence of a galaxy of "stars". The spotlight shone brightly on New Orleans during NBA All-Star weekend and the city came through like the champion host it has always been. Numerous visitors, pretty much confined to the Central Business District (CBD) and the adjacent French Quarter, couldn’t help but leave satiated, impressed, and feeling the city was back together, made whole… it’s all good! The total picture of New Orleans is quite a bit less than whole, as our friends were fortunate enough to experience. We afforded them opportunities to contrast the real deal with the gloss of NBA All-Star game weekend festivities.
In consideration of the fact that New Orleans is gearing up for the seven glorious days of it’s second biggest annual tourism period, the peerless event known as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (last weekend of April/first weekend of May), I asked one young lady, Adrienne Winston a budding ABC television producer, to reflect on her experiences that weekend and those glaring contrasts; thus offering a kind of preview for the thousands of impending Jazz Fest visitors.
Willard Jenkins: Had you ever previously visited New Orleans, and what were your past impressions of the city?
Adrienne Winston: I had never been to New Orleans but of course had heard wonderful things from people who had visited and friends who went to school there (pre-Katrina).
WJ: What was your sense of the city on foot; in the vicinity of your hotel in the CBD, the French Quarter, your NBA All-Star Game experience, etc.?
AW: Well obviously NBA All-Star weekend is a slightly skewed sample so it was incredibly crowded everywhere on Canal Street, especially in front of the Sheraton and Marriott on Canal, which were just two blocks from our hotel. We stayed in a great location which was just feet from the French Quarter which we did some touring of, on our way to and from different restaurants. Walking around even on the first day I understood why people loved the city so much, it is incredibly charming. Even if you never go into the stores just walking by them and taking in the presentation and the architecture you can feel the history all around you.
I had heard before on the news that the French Quarter sat higher up than other parts of the city and so it hadn’t sustained much [flood] damage which I was really able to appreciate.
WJ: On Saturday of that weekend you got a chance to get out and see more of the city, in particular St. Charles Avenue on a taxi ride to Loyola University, and areas which weren’t as hard hit by Katrina as others. What were your impressions?
AW: Our ride to Loyola and later with Suzan throughout the Garden District was breathtaking, it makes me want to buy property down there. The homes are beautiful and they are all so different, you can see all of the cultural influences the city has absorbed over the centuries.
WJ: On Sunday you were given a small slice of what I refer to as the New Orleans misery tour. What was your impression of the areas in disrepair and recovery that you visited?
AW: What struck me first was that literally just a few blocks from where we had been partying there was a very literal tent city below the highway. [At the corner of Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue, under the I-10 overpass is an ongoing encampment of the homeless, many of who were made homeless by the Storm.] Dozens of people living in tents, homeless. It doesn’t take a genius to know these people are victims of Katrina, which is evident by their mounds of belongings surrounding their tents. As we continued on, the difference between the attitudes of the city became more plain. Damaged structures were becoming more numerous.
We crossed a bridge and were able to get our first glimpse of a neighborhood and it’s shocking proximity to the levees that failed. Dozens and dozens of homes were simply left abandoned and there were piles of debris everywhere. The trip over the second bridge however was by far the worst, presumably because the land sat ever lower. There are no words for what I saw, we all started crying. As you came over the [St. Claude] Bridge, even hundreds of feet away you could see the barren trees and homes with no roofs. There were literally blocks and blocks of decimated houses.
Homes that sat directly in front of the levees had been swept off their foundations. It seemed as though only brick homes had been able to withstand the force of the water. We did see some homes that had been rebuilt but that was one in every few dozen; there was no neighborhood left. You couldn’t even call it a neighborhood because the area was so big; it was [more like] a city. A city that had been allowed to wash away and was left to fend for itself. We actually passed a home that looked like it had been stepped on; honestly the house had been squished like an accordion. I presume that it had been picked up by the flood water and dropped.
You can’t help but feel a hopelessness. [as though] the town has been completely abandoned, and it doesn’t look as though the government has any intention of putting it back together. Among the blocks we drove you never saw any construction equipment, no sign that something was being done.
WJ: Give me your overall impression of New Orleans, considering both sides that you experienced.
AW: Overall the trip was a positive one. We got to experience the spirit of New Orleans and enjoy her excellent food. Even though the trip to the lower wards was very painful it had a positive impact on me. It made me angry in the best way and I feel as though if more people were able to get one-on-one time with the destruction they would be just as outraged as the people who live there.
Yes indeed, the Yin & Yang of New Orleans! Here’s one place music lovers in particular are encouraged to assist in the recovery of the very real human needs of New Orleanians:
Sweet Home New Orleans
1201 Saint Phillip Street
New Orleans, LA 70116-2931
504/596-3924 or toll free 877/933-8466