Spring Forward, Fall Back


I am sitting at Sound Cafe in the Marigny in New Orleans.  I have a full disposable digital camera in my free conference bag that contains two very depressing photos of the partially demolished St. Bernard housing projects in Gentilly.  I am drinking iced tea and enjoying the 60-ish degree breeze coming through the open door on my last evening in NOLA.

This post is dedicated to Professor Zero, who recently meme’d me for my “excellent coverage of New Orleans.”  After being gone for six months, I have been out of the loop here, and her shout out and this recent trip are signals of my renewed involvement in recovery through ’08.

This visit I was in the Marriott on Canal on the edge of the French Quarter.  I have stayed in the Quarter once before, but at a smaller Holiday Inn on the northern (?) / upriver edge of the neighborhood, not quite in the heart of things.  Until I rented a car today, I did not leave the FQ/Central Business District/Warehouse District areas, taking dinner the last two nights in upscale spots like Luke and Herbsaint, and spending yesterday afternoon walking around the Quarter, dropping in and out of clothing boutiques. 

As you might imagine, the trip started to feel like a vacation, not only because of my own activities, but because the streets and Jackson Square and restaurants and my hotel lobby were crowded with tourists.  On this trip I particularly feel the loss of never having visited the city before the storm, because these neighborhoods’ weekend vibrance left me wondering if this was what this area was like prior to Katrina.  I’ll never know.  All I know is that wandering around yesterday, I felt better about my post-professional relationship with the city, meaning that I could see myself returning here just for pleasure after my work here ends.  Disaster recovery work is so emotionally draining that I was not sure I’d ever find peace with the city.  Yesterday I found myself thinking how fortunate I was that I knew well many of New Orleans’s neighborhoods, so that if I did come back for a vacation, I would not be confined to the charming yet touristy FQ.

This morning a colleague picked me up and took me out to the airport to pick up my rental car.  3 minutes up river from my FQ hotel is a multi-block tent city of homeless folks living beneath the highway.  And I was back in the New Orleans I’ve come to know through my work.  My 24 hour vacation was over.

I spent the next 3 hours driving around all the familiar neighborhoods: Uptown, Treme, Gentilly, the Upper and Lower 9th, Central City, and past the four targeted-for-renovation housing projects: Lafitte, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, and St. Bernard.  The latter three are all in various phases of demolition.  It’s eerie; it looks like first the buildings are hollowed out, then knocked down.  Remaining personal belongings, including easily noticeable items like matresses, are piled up and/or strewn at the base and in the yards of the buildings.  The windows and doors are gone, and plastic sometimes waves in the breeze in their place.  But even from behind the wheel, I could see through the buildings, to the open space on the other side.  Just like the remaining house foundations in the Lower 9th upriver of Claiborne look like oversized graves, the gutted projects are akin to skeletons.  Demolition was in progress as I drove past C.J. Peete.

At B.W. Cooper, the demolition looks less advanced.  Not only that, but several of the older buildings are occupied; there were kids playing in one of the fenced in areas between three or so buildings.  I know I should be happy that not everyone has been displaced, but it seems odd that after HUD’s insistence that these buildings were such an unsafe travesty for low-income families – especially post-Katrina, they’d feel comfortable re-populating a handful while they bulldozed the majority around them.  I hope this is phased re-development??

St. Bernard is by far the worst.  A sizeable chunk of the buildings have been reduced to rubble.  It looked like a small crew was there today working around one building that was in process of being taken down amidst the huge piles of decimated buildings around it.  I finally pulled over and took some photos, which I’ll add here when I get the film developed.  (I’ll also look around the web for others’ photos, and link to them.)  Meanwhile, it looks like demolition has not begun at Lafitte, and that the buildings may even have new windows.  I have no idea what’s going on up there, but this is the redevelopment that’s supposed to be the model for the other three, with its promises of one-to-one unit replacement, community planning, and supportive social services included.  There is a fence around the property now, which may have been up for awhile, but I don’t recall from my past visits.

While Treme is not in great shape, the immediate area around Lafitte – i.e., the shops and houses across the street from the large site – are in fairly good shape compared to B.W. Cooper’s immediate surroundings, and even C.J. Peete.  (St. Bernard is not as dense across St. Bernard Avenue.)  I’m curious how much of the adjacent land around these sites will also be redeveloped.

Generally speaking, I noticed incremental positive change in my drive today.  From a local friend I hear that Gentilly’s commercial activity is slowly returning, but the neighborhoods looked to me like the usual sprinkle of activity among stretches of still lifeless homes.  There may be more activity; I can’t honestly tell since my last trip, but I’m assuming there is.

I didn’t spend much time in the Lower 9th – I hate participating in the particularly obvious tourist drives around the devastated parts down there, but I drove through quickly.  There was more cruising activity than usual, and several large groups parked and gathered – I’m wondering if they are volunteers of some kind.  The area upriver of Claiborne where I believe Brad Pitt’s project is happening has a few restored and viable houses spread out across the multiple blocks of wild grass and surviving foundations.  I wonder what it’s like to live there at night, how dark and quiet it must be.  Headed downriver towards St. Claude I know from past visits there are more signs of life, but on the few streets I drove today some blocks are still nothing but empty homes. 

Central City is a mix of remaining devastation and revitalization.  On Freret Street, in the blocks where the Freret St. Festival happens every year, there are several new storefronts. It’s good to see, even though to my eye it’s jarring to see them and then see a half crushed house some blocks down the road.

Because two and a half years have passed, and I can glimpse – and am familiar with – the range of re-development activity happening in this city (from faith-based house-by-house restorations to Trump), I know New Orleans is eeking out a recovery. (Two white men in Uptown today were theorizing it’ll be 2012 before the city “comes back.”)  And I wonder – again – what the city, and these struggling neighborhoods – looked like before the storm.  Growing up in the Northeast, my images of urban poverty are challenged when I visit other places, such as Memphis, Houston and now New Orleans.  Because places like Central City and Treme remained relatively dry during the post-hurricane flood that wiped out so much of New Orleans, it’s hard to tell what damage was here prior to August 29, 2005. 

But I’m not sure it matters.  As activists have repeatedly pointed out, Katrina exposed and exacerbated pre-storm problems of poverty and inequality.  Now, especially in year three of disaster recovery, as we dig in for the long haul, any difference between trying to amend pre-storm inequities versus tackle post-storm realities seems nominal.  (With the exception of bringing people home, of course.)


2 Responses to “Spring Forward, Fall Back”

  1. 1 Z
    March 9, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Great post, of course. Ahhhh … the weird N.O. pre and post. But I *love* the Sound Cafe.

  2. March 9, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    Wow, that was like real-time communication via the blogs!

    I like this place too, and the internet is no longer as skittish as it was in the darker days of ’06!

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