Twenty-eight days. That’s how long it’s been since I fled New Orleans. I left the day after the levees broke, which of course was the event that changed a really bad situation into a completely catastrophe. Before I fled, I managed to drive around Uptown. It was hard to manuever because trees were down everywhere. I thought then it would be a long time before the city got back on its feet. But I really couldn’t know for sure because I hadn’t seen the rest of the city.
Since then I’ve seen the shocking TV pictures of the flood waters that engulfed thousands of homes. I’ve had time to think and time to reflect on what this means for my city. And I’ve spent time reorienting my life. My kids are in Greenwich, Connecticut and Houston, Texas. I’m now in Baton Rouge, living in a large apartment complex filled with a broad array of interesting people. Some residents stroll about with guns on their hips and seem to have a military purpose. Other people shuffle around in flip-flops talking on cellphones with soft voices and furtive glances. Cars get stolen from the parking lot with some frequency, or they get jacked up so people can steal the tires. There are lots of cats hanging around the two trash dumpsters, which are overflowing with beer bottles and cardboard boxes. On the bright side there is also a swimming pool. I’m not complaining, mind you; just pointing out that it’s vastly different than my former life in New Orleans.
Speaking of my former life, last Sunday (after suffering through the media frenzy induced by Hurricane Rita) I went back to New Orleans with some friends. First I drove through Jefferson Parish, which was marginally operational. A lot of businesses there are closed with no sign of reopening anytime soon. You’d think that gas stations would mostly all be open, but that’s not the case. There were a few businesses open, and many others that are eager to get going. For example, small signs have been planted around all the major intersections advertising the availability of food, booze, and refrigerators. You aren’t likely to be able to book an appointment at a Spa anytime soon, but it looks like Hair U.S.A. is ready help those who need to be well-coiffed. At the other end of the spectrum, Barnes & Noble and Borders are both firmly closed, so it appears the literary movement will be slow to recover.
One thing impeding the regeneration of new business is the fact employers are finding it hard to communicate with their employees. Spray painted messages seem to be the best mode of getting out important business communiques. But, despite many significant difficulties, Jefferson seems to have somehow cranked the pilot light on its economy. How quickly it will ramp up to full force is hard to say, but I’m guessing it will be three to five years. New Orleans is another story.
After surveying Jefferson I headed into New Orleans. Getting into the city was tricky because they weren’t letting ‘mere residents’ in. They were only letting in business owners, and then only if they had a special pass. I had a general purpose pass. An NBC camera crew was interviewing people as they approached the access point and told us that they weren’t letting in residents. Obviously we’d have to come up with a ‘business reason,’ so when it was my turn I told the NOPD officer that I was going to visit my law firm to get some files. He asked me where the office was and I told him downtown. Wrong answer. Downtown was closed. But we had other stories to peddle and we harangued him with our ‘refugee plight.’ Eventually we gained some shred of sympathy and, in response to our claim that we needed to retrieve a car from the levee near Bisso Marine he asked if we ‘worked at Bisso Marine.’ My friend said ‘no.’ Again, wrong answer. He looked at me and asked again emphasizing each word of his question as he looked right in my eye. I took the obvious hint and I said ‘yes we work there.’ He immediately waived us through.
Driving down River Road was eerie because that was the exact escape route I had taken out of the city. Somehow when I was leaving I hadn’t noticed the big tree that crushed Mat & Naddie’s restaurant. That was sad. But driving down the rest of Magazine St. was even sadder. In Jefferson Parish spray painting was used to communicate with employees, but in New Orleans spray painting was used by troops to mark homes and buildings that had been checked out for various reasons.
My dad’s condo at 123 Walnut had been marked twice. Fortunately there were no ‘death markings’. Building owners also used spray painting to communicate, some to say to public officials that their building shouldn’t be condemned even though it was damaged, and others to communicate with potential looters.
All along Magazine St. I examined wonderful shops, restaurants and bars that had once been packed with throngs of electic people who cackled loudly and jostled each other as they moved about. Now the streets were devoid of both sound and movement. Oh sure, there was the occassional passing car and some tree-cutting crews. But those were sporadic sounds. New Orleans is now mostly a ghost town. Make that a well-guarded ghost town.
On the way out we drove along Tchoupitoulas and turned of at Duffosat Street to check on a friend’s house, which it turns out was fine. The one next to it, however, was not in good shape. Dos Jefes Bar (my former official neighborhood bar) was in good shape, although the sign was down. On the next block there was a yard sign advertising a house for sale. Perhaps the real estate market will surge again soon in New Orleans, especially in Uptown. But, somehow, I don’t think that yard signs are the best way to advertise your property.
I hope that the economy starts to regenerate soon in New Orleans, and I hope the streets become noisy again with college students, cagey artistic types and frenetic shoppers. That’s what I hope. What I expect is something else entirely.
As we drove out of town my friends and I all agreed that, even though we knew that the situation in New Orleans was bad, we had no way of really grasping the full implications without seeing it first hand. We now realized that it would be a long, long time before it gets back to even a minimal level of operation. How will that happen exactly? By letting business owners in first? Or by letting residents in? The problem of regenerating the New Orleans economy is the ‘old chicken and egg’ problem. It may be old problem, but it’s still one without a comprehensible solution. And that makes me sad.
Just now I received an email from my friend Billy Shroeder. The Friday before Katrina hit we had been having drinks, enjoying ourselves on the porch of the Columns Hotel on St. Charles Ave. A few years ago Billy moved back from San Francisco with the dream of making his beloved hometown a better place. He got a cool job here and then a few months ago he bought a cool house. One month ago Billy and his fiancee were eager to show off their newly fixed up house in the Uptown area. Today, it appears that they are going to relocate to Austin. In his email Billy writes that he hopes to:
“finish my masters while I do some consulting and Bonnie is hoping to find another job. I am hoping to enroll at UT for my Ph.D in Counseling Psychology for Fall of ’06.”
We all have hopes, and we all have dreams. Some people have to be practical and pursue those hopes and dreams in other cities. I completely understand. But I hope there aren’t too many people that feel like that. New Orleans is in an extremely fragile state and the only thing that will revive it are people’s hopes and dreams. And those will have to be created by people who live in the city.