Friday, April 04, 2008

Latter Day New Orleans

Reid sent a recent story from the NYT with this headline: Big Plans Are Slow to Bear Fruit in New Orleans. He asks, "Knowing the history of the city, is this surprising?"

I quipped in reply, "No, nothing ever moved quickly in New Orleans except money from the pockets of tourists." And that's still true, from what I can see.

I spent three days last week at the Sheraton New Orleans, which is way down Canal Street by the revamped Harrah's Casino (ok, the casino did come back quickly), about a block from the French Quarter and the bank of the Mississippi.

I was there for the CASE Editor's Forum, a well-organized annual conference serving the university periodical community's editors, writers and designers. I'm a newcomer to this field; and after three days in the company of several hundred career professionals, I've decided I'm also a latecomer. (Evidently you can get degrees and certifications in this stuff. I wish now I had some.)

But in one area of expertise, I shined. I was one of few conventioneers of local origin; I think there were two of us, total. At an evening mixer, I met a couple guys, both editors of East Coast school alumni mags, and I found myself explaining the city to them. This is not a liberty any native New Orleanian would allow a guy from Baton Rouge to take, but as there was no native present to contest my version of events, I held the floor.

My schpiel goes something like this: the city is changed. Vast sections of its heart are scraped bare and no one knows who or what or if anything will replace them. Before the storm, the French Quarter was just one attraction, always entertaining but tiny. Outside the Quarter were dozens of distinct communities, each with its own charm, danger, magic and tragedy. You could live in New Orleans and never know it all, except by reputation; yet you could know many varied parts of the whole and could skip across their intersections to sample them.

New Orleans was always foreboding, but always welcoming. If you accepted a measure of risk, you could expect a reward that well outsized that risk, spilling over you riches of food and drink and strange, alluring people. I am not a native of the city, but I know and have known it well enough to drink that much in.

Now, what is the case? Now New Orleans may be recovering, in a way. But if it is, its recovery will be one that will for years be characterized by a kind of predictability that is alien to the old city. It will be more familiar to its tourists and less familiar to its own citizens, who as poet Andrei Codrescu says, are now tourists in the city themselves.

Codrescu delivered the closing address at the CASE conference. I spoke to him at a campus coffee shop earlier in the week, asking when he would be heading down. I mention that to drop a name, of course. But also to say it's possible to make small talk with him here, as his celebrity does not precede him. Professor Codrescu is a quiet, very gracious presence on campus. His persona is much larger than himself.

Codrescu read from his latest collection of essays, New Orleans, Mon Amour, containing twenty years of his stories about the city, all of them good. He sounds just like himself on NPR---the CASE audience obviously loved that. But without a local history of their own with which to hear Codrescu speak of New Orleans, I wonder if listeners heard the strain of his delivery? Codrescu is a victim of his city as much as its lover. Like many, or most, of its familiars, he was wounded by her flooding and her abandonment, and by her willingness to accept the attentions of national media and aid.

"I hate tourists," he said in reply to one question after his address. "But I know we need the money." Codrescu's own frank depression and repeated mention of mental illness in New Orleans was not shocking to me. It would not shock anyone listening who lives in or near this city where suicide and murder compete as chief causes of death. No one around here has really recovered.

But one woman, I forget where she's from, stood up to say that though she had never been to New Orleans, in just three days at the conference she had "fallen in love with the city." I wonder if she found Codrescu's dour take on things alarming. I wonder how he found hers.


Chas S. Clifton said...

CASE ... that was a flashback. I was a member once, for about a year, when I worked for (the) Colorado College.

As for New Orleans: How can it come back all the way? Geography requires a port city there, and that means some level of population.

But anyone who has stood at street level behind a levee watching the superstructures of ships pass by above his head should be forgiven for wondering if such a city is sustainable in the long term (cf. Phoenix, Arizona).

Matt Mullenix said...

Hi Chas,

Logic and the evidence of your own eyes don't play much a part in it. You can see the same ships pass above the levees by my house in Baton Rouge.

In New Orleans, much of what went under in Katrina was also under water after Betsey, and before that, the 1927(?) flood, and before: numerous floods plus yellow fever. There is currently a mass of water snaking down our way from the midwest...

The will of people to fill open space seems endless. Our ability to see 2-3 dry days in a row as an opportunity for building is maybe crazy but is in evidence everywhere you look. Another local example: About 4 miles from here, there are whole neighborhoods (all new) in Ward's Creek basin that flooded completely and stayed wet for weeks after tropical storm Allison. I was here then and would have told you no one in his right mind would ever build there. They did, and they're building in the basin still.

Your point about Arizona is interesting. Civilization will vanish there too, but will return to the coyotes instead of the otters. :-)

Phillip Grayson said...

Very interesting stuff.
Any idea why Katrina has done so much more damage (or so it seems to ignorant me) than Betsy and others?
Was it the political response? Something else?

Chas S. Clifton said...

Only the insurance companies can control who builds where, really, I often think.

Matt Mullenix said...

Philip I don't think there was nearly the same response to Betsy. No FEMA trailers, no nada. The flooding was not as deep, but from the aerial photos I've seen, it was almost as extensive. Many of the same neighborhoods flooded; in fact a friend purchased his home after the flood and refurbished it. The same house was destroyed completely by Katrina.

So the New Orleans I knew was a "recovered" New Orleans. There could be and probably will be another. But it won't be the same one.

Peter said...

It is rather ironic that the New York Times would criticize the slow pace of rebuilding in New Orleans, given that after six and a half years Ground Zero is basically still a hole in the ground.