Photos of many of the places mentioned below are on my flickr site.
New Orleans is open, still hurting, but determined and eager for business. I wouldn’t have visited if not for my friend John, who invited me to visit his friend Camille with him over Memorial Day weekend and a few days beyond. Our home base was Camille’s gorgeous Garden District apartment, which had high ceilings, spare but warm decoration, and a view of a former America’s Next Top Model contestant through tall French windows looking into the neighboring house. But before I even saw the place, we made sure to try a drive-thru daquiri stand. It would have been a good idea if the daquiris were even remotely good. Oh well.
Our stay was split in half — the city and the countryside. Both halves are split in thirds: Mostly Recovered, Still Suffering, and Done ‘n’ Gone. I now have a visual image of Katrina, thanks to folk artist Alvin Batiste, who painted the hurricane as a huge, scary woman hovering over New Orleans with a powerful, female destructiveness matched in my mind only by images of the fierce Indian goddess Kali.
The Hindu goddess Kali, from Heroes graphic novel Chapter 1.
I now also have a more textured understanding of what Katrina did to New Orleans, its surrounding countryside, and some of the people who live there. Most of this is available to anyone who followed the media coverage, but of course there is nothing like being there.
Driving to the Delta
John, Camille, and I drove south along Route 23 to Venice, the southernmost point in Louisiana. Which turns out to be an anticlimactic dead end with loose gravel, rusting metal structures, trash, and a gas plant in plain view through the swamp grasses. In this part of Louisiana, you don’t follow the Mississippi River, and you don’t follow the canals; you follow the levees and never see water unless you try. So we tried, driving over a levee into a fishing marina, just in time to meet a small shipment of freshly caught oysters. The fishermen shucked open a couple and offered them with a casual smile. I am not an oyster lover, and these were huge, but I ate two and I enjoyed them.
Camille showed us the Emergency Communities encampment under the roof of a former YMCA which had its walls blown away by the hurricane. There were washing machines, a huge library, an Internet cafe, a dining area, a pool table and a little playground in the shelter of this huge metal skeleton. Two years after the storm, this place is still a hub for residents of this fishing village, which is sandwiched between two oil towns. There were suggestions that recovery has been slowed in this village, to encourage people to give up and let the town go to the oil industry. While I have no idea as to why things are moving slowly, my takeaway from that visit was that some people are feeling neglected. From what I saw, they are justified.
We stopped in Fort Jackson, which was a cross between a ghost town and an abandoned amusement park.
What was most disturbing about our tour of Route 23 were the destroyed and abandoned post offices and other government buildings. Nothing says ‘you’re on your own, folks’ like post offices left to rot.
Back to the Mostly Recovered
That night we returned to New Orleans and ate at the lovely La Crepe Nanou, which cheered us up considerably. The next day, we did the requisite French Quarter stroll. Cafe du Monde was dirty and crowded, so we worked our way westward into quieter, more residential areas, though I must note the fantastic UAL clothing boutique. A lot of places were closed on Sundays, Mondays, and even Tuesdays. In some cases, this was due to lack of business, in others, I’m not quite sure. Worth calling ahead. So we didn’t get to see much of the galleries in the Warehouse District, and we didn’t get to dine at Dante’s Kitchen or Brigsten’s near the universities.
Camille drove us around the Ninth Ward, which was terrifyingly ill-repaired. We saw overturned houses, empty foundations, and the levee, rebuilt to the same height as before, in the background. But you don’t need to be in the Ninth Ward to see a city Still Suffering: we took the long way to the airport and saw plenty of houses with National Guard spray paint markings still on the front, and FEMA trailers parked in the driveways.
I got a taste of why music remains the force that keeps many people going. Armed with insider knowledge supplied by a friend of a friend (who was also socially adventurous enough to join us), we went to The Maple Leaf, a perfect little venue in the Uptown neighborhood with wood floors, a tin roof, a courtyard, and excellent acoustics. Rebirth Brass Band played till 2am on a Tuesday night. While they played and played, an artist named Frenchy danced and painted the band in bright oils with the aid of a head lamp. While I danced, I thought, “Everyone needs a brass band once in a while.” — you forget everything else and just feel good.
To the Bayous
The countryside half of our visit simply broadened my appreciation of that region’s specialness. We drove along the much-hyped River Road heading west out of town. As with Route 23, levees, oil refineries, and chemical plants were the major sights. When I needed a rest room and the Shell station claimed it didn’t have one (how un-American!), a guy in a golf cart with his miniature dog, a beer, and a silent-type friend pointed us to the local bar before driving away. John and I had a delicious gumbo and boiled crawfish from the Mini Hui Mart in LaPlace.
With the help of some ladies at the tourism office in Gramercy, we toured a Creole plantation and landed at The Victorian on the Avenue in Donaldsonville, where Donna Schexnaydre was our gracious hostess. Her husband, Kent, had moved the house a few years ago, had fallen in love with it, bought it, renovated it, and made it a gorgeous, comfortable bed and breakfast. That was only a few months before Katrina arrived, however. Now, the bed and breakfast gets a few business travelers… and we were only the second tourists to stay in the past two weeks. All of Donaldsonville’s restaurants were closed during the hours we were there, so we ate at a Chinese restaurant in the nearby strip mall.
The highlight, among many, of our stay was our bayou tour with Ginger Rushing of Attakapas Adventures. Ten miles of country roads out from Napoleonville’s center, we had a a couple of morning beers generously gifted to us by Bruce, the owner of the local tavern. There I tried my best Cajun French with the lively old Mr. Paul, whose parents didn’t speak English. Ginger grew up in these bayous, and watches them with love and concern. Lumber companies own them, which does not bode well for the second- and third- growth cypress trying in vain to grow the way their virgin ancestors did. But to our untrained eyes, the swamps were enchanting, full of herons and dragonflies, gar fish and many, many alligators. The cabins that lined the bigger waterways all looked like they might tumble into the water at any moment. Ginger showed us the bayous through a lens that everyone should have, with equal measures of sensitivity to the nature and to the people who live there. I hope the trickle of travelers Ginger has greeted since Katrina becomes a flood (the good kind) once again.
Reflecting Over Breakfast
On the last morning of our trip, we celebrated John’s birthday at the Columns Hotel, where our waitress begged us to tell our friends about her daily breakfast service. She, like everyone we spoke with, agreed that while the astonishing slowness of reconstruction must be covered by the media, that same coverage has discouraged people from visiting and contributing to the local economy.
Five days in southern Louisiana turned out to be far more affecting than I expected. Northerners always hear how nice Southerners are, but with nice I admit I also heard “fake”. Not at all: The people we met were open, engaging, helpful, interesting, and interested. I have passed much more time in other places and not felt such a connection so quickly and so easily. I now understand how different and how special New Orleans and its region are. These impressions do not come out of disaster, but rather out of what was there before and what is there now. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I came away feeling proud that my country has such a place.