New Orleans is back. New Orleans is flat on its back. New Orleans is normal again. Except for the parts that will never be the same again.
New Orleans has always been a complex city, and despite its most common nickname (one never used by locals, who know better), it's never been easy. Never has its ingrained dichotomy been more evident than now, the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina. On one hand, there is the French Quarter, brightly lit up and noisy, night after night. On the other hand, there is Claiborne Avenue, and most of New Orleans East, and most distressingly, the Lower Ninth Ward, from which comes so much of what made this city vital and unique, street after street after street of bare concrete slabs, of ruined houses that landed on other ruined houses, of cars tossed every which way, and at night, all of it plunged into darkness.
"Negative capability" is a literary term roughly defined as the ability to hold two conflicting thoughts simultaneously. Right now, that's New Orleans. Many restaurants have reopened, and the food is as good as ever. Music fills Tipitina's again, and beloved musicians are out there nightly, singing and rejoicing, because they are back, and they are still here.
But that's all within a small area. Now walk down Elysian Fields, once the center of a lively neighborhood, populated by families who have lived there for generations. Here, Maw maws used to cook too much food on the weekends and have their neighbors over for impromptu feasts. Here, people feared the gangs and the drug dealers. Here, people sat on the stoops and passed the time. Now, there are perhaps six intrepid families, dug in and wondering what next. Now, the crime is gone, washed away by flood. Before Katrina, the crime rate was again the subject of alarm, as New Orleans regained its title of murder capital of the US. But now, it's perhaps the safest big city in America, if you can call a place that has shrunk to its 1784 boundaries "big." There has been precisely one murder since the disaster. There is no crime where there are no people.
And yet, there are people, anywhere from 20,000 to 75,000 full time residents, and the same yet again in day workers, in a city that once numbered 500,000. They are hauling out garbage, endless piles of it, trying to salvage homes and possessions, and then they are pounding nails, repairing roofs, putting up drywall, reinstalling appliances, fixing electrical wires. In parts of the city, things are so bustling it looks like nothing ever happened. In many others, it remains a wasteland of buckled and fallen houses. The spooky parts are areas like Lakeview, near the 17th Street canal breach. These homes appear fine from the outside, albeit ringed with litter and leaves, nothing more than one would expect after a big storm. But inside, furniture lies out of place in careless heaps, like the contents of a snow globe shaken by a giant, the consequence of floating in 10 feet or more of water for weeks on end. And everything, from stuffed toys to pianos to pictures on the walls, is covered in thick, fuzzy mold. Family homes, rotten to the core.
For every triumph, there is an on-going failure, and vice versa. Some return home only to make a grim discovery of a forgotten body in the rubble. The streetcars are down, for want of $30 million for restoration of the cars and the lines. The public schools are closed until next September. Entergy, the power company, has filed for bankruptcy protection, and restoring power is a slow, on-going process, with great swaths of the city still dark. Many restaurants have reopened, from ever-popular Irene's to Arnaud's, the first of the classic old four stalwarts, but these only in the largely undamaged French Quarter and Uptown areas. Meanwhile, neighbahood [SIC] traditions like Liuzza's, Mandina's and Angelo Brocatto's, all in the hard-hit Mid-City area, ponder their future. Each seems committed to returning, but four to six feet of water damage means likely a year's worth of restoration work, and overwhelming discouragement is always close to the surface. The Audubon Zoo reopened, and there were children again, a demographic in short supply, thanks to the limited number of open schools, and they were playing like it was any other sunshiny day.
Damaged or no, the local dedication to joie de vivre remains, and just the other day, there was a second line, down Claiborne Avenue and up to and past the Mother-in-Law Lounge, to welcome everyone back. The officials at Jazz Fest formally announced that it will take place on the usual last weekend in April and first weekend in May, at the racetrack, just like always, even though they don't know much more about its shape than that. Mardi Gras will go on, though arguments persist about the length of the celebration, with most Krewes demanding their parade time now more than ever, and the city, short on funds thanks to limited tax base, fretting that it can't provide enough security to cover the event. Some worry that demonstrating that New Orleans is still a place for a party will prevent the outside world from understanding just how deeply the city is still hurting. If that's so, then perhaps that outside world needs a lesson in negative capability.
The locals do not. Some return to town, grimly remove what they can, and leave, vowing to never come back. Others rent new apartments and begin the endless arguing with insurance companies, determined to make a stand. Some look around at the barrenness, at the palette of gray and brown where there once was so much green, and they want to turn their backs on the place forever. And then in the next moment, they sniff the river wind, and feel it caress their skin, and think, "I cannot imagine living anywhere else." With such conflicts, no wonder everyone in town is going a little bit crazy, even by typical New Orleans sanity standards. (NPR reports that mental health professionals estimate that well over half the residents need some kind of treatment for anything from PTSD to severe depression.) It's an upside down time, when your friends rejoice as their house falls down, because that means that they will be fully covered by insurance. When your town has been stomped, when you have to put a price on your photo albums and stuffed animals, when you cheer because your home has collapsed, it's hard to stay sane. So go join a second line, and loft an umbrella and something to drink, and shout a whole bunch. Then get back to work.
Contradictions. That's always been New Orleans. That's still New Orleans.
Editor's note: For listings of music clubs, restaurants, hotels and other places that have reopened, please visit www.neworleansonline.com and (for restaurants, specifically) www.nomenu.com/RestaurantsOpen.html. No one site is completely comprehensive, but each of these is a good starting place.
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