It has now been some four months since New Orleans, the city that adopted me, would then drown on national television and self-destruct in a thousand more tragic, intimate ways we have yet to fully know. The details of the storm—the levee breaks, the chaos of looting and breakdown of governance at federal, state, and local levels—are well known by now, even if one disputes the degrees, causes, and effects of the problems. Most of the city’s residents—at least those who are back or plan to go—have moved from mourning the loss of life and the displaced or destroyed culture of the cityscape as we knew it to a mix of hope, apprehension, and frustration about the future.

As a non-native, but one whose commitment to the local cultures of New Orleans and the French Louisiana countryside goes back 30 years, I find myself presiding over an internal debate most days. Should my family return to the Crescent City from our pleasant exile in Cajun and Creole French Lafayette, a three-hour drive west across the Atchafalaya Basin? We’ve set up modest housekeeping here, and with a reduced staff for American Routes we have been creating a thematic music-and-interview series called “After the Storm.”

That sense of not having a direction home—or, for many people, a house or neighborhood left to call home—remains the hardest thing to grasp in the aftermath of the multiple disasters of hurricane, flood, mayhem, and bureaucratic failure. That is one reason I have pressed to consider the cultural implications of the disaster. Native New Orleanians have historically stayed put far more than home folks in most cities. Outsiders who move there become converts, attracted by the melding of cultures at the neighborhood level: the music and second-line parades, Carnival and Creole cooking, fanciful vernacular architecture and street life of “The Big Easy.” Now with three-quarters of the population—mostly black and Afro-Creole—gone, is it New Orleans? Even if the city largely looks the part in the natural higher-ground areas (French Quarter, Central Business District, Garden Distict, and Uptown) along the river?

Although the French Quarter has come back to half-life, many of the offbeat places and people aren’t in the increasingly touristed old-city quadrant even in the best of times. Many of these New Orleanians—the soul of the city—are tucked away downriver in the mostly black 9th Ward, or in the Creole areas of the 7th Ward, including the Tremé neighborhood. This district is just north of the Quarter, home to many musicians and the famous second-line parades for social-aid and pleasure clubs that date back to the late 19th-century beginnings of jazz. In colonial times it was at the site of Congo Square, where slaves gathered on market days and Sundays to dance, drum, and trade with Indians and others. It’s these and other “back-a-town” spots—so named because they were beyond the original city, now the French Quarter, that fronts the Mississippi—that saw sickly dark water rising as high as 12 feet. This is the low ground that was sparsely settled and flooded before the levees began to be constructed in a big way in the 20th century, especially after the famous 1927 flood and the many inundations thereafter.

In recent visits to New Orleans the creative tensions among cultures and classes—so instrumental in the cultural landscape of jazz, the famed architecture and foodways—have shifted. It’s now a small, mostly white place of better-heeled Uptowners, the old Bohemians and hippies in the French Quarter and nearby Faubourg Marigny. New Orleans had its problems before the storm: poor public education, weak governance, limited economic infrastructure, a large underclass with many discontents, and an insular elite that has been unable or unwilling to lead economic expansion and inclusiveness. Now the problems are laid bare without the usual joys of community culture to offer balm or transcendence: in a musical moment, a passing parade, a corner restaurant, vast spirited neighborhoods built in wood or stucco of shotgun houses and Creole cottages in many variations and hues.

On August 28th, Royal Street—usually quiet and calm on a Sunday morning—was filled with a parade of New Orleanians coming from downriver neighborhoods. Black and white, old and young were dragging laundry carts and suitcases and heading somewhat feverishly to a variety of destinations: a car, a bus stop, the Superdome—now billed as a “last resort” for the infirm and those who couldn’t leave. It seemed a slow-motion Pompeii, with citizens facing not fire but water.

Returning home by car to gather the family and tape windows quickly—no time for plywood—we headed out for what we, like most, thought would be two to three days away—taking just enough to stay with friends in the Cajun Louisiana crossroads city of Lafayette, 140 miles west.

Leaving town on the old Airline Highway to avoid traffic on Interstate 10, we had a brief encounter that still haunts me. At a closed gas station where only credit cards could be used, I was approached by two young Afro-Creole women wearing large gold earrings and traditional colorful head scarves called tignons. In their beat up 1983 car sat five children, ages two to eight, all dressed for an outing. The ladies asked to use my credit card, insisted on paying for the tank of gas, and thanked me profusely, backed by a chorus of kids. When I asked in local lingo, “Where ya goin’, dahlins?” They answered excitedly, “The Super Dome!” I have wondered ever since what became of them. How I wish I’d told them to follow me west.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/06

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FEATURE: Exit from the Land of Dreams By Nick Spitzer

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