Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Going to New

From Frommer's :

Tourist Areas in New Orleans Rebound While Other Parts Remain Far Behind
By Mary Herczog
February 14, 2006

At the end of January, one of my co-NOLA-home-owners and I went to New Orleans -- the short version is we came, we saw, we got a roofer. But nothing is easy any more in the so-called "Big Easy," which never really was all that easy to begin with. Certainly a few days there cannot be summed up in one pithy line. It is hard to do justice to this beautiful, broken place, as it is at once the same and utterly changed, in high spirits and deeply depressed, moving forward and stuck in late August.

Nettie, who drove around a bit in hard hit areas like Lakeview and the 9th Ward, and I made a point our last two mornings to go to the Lower 9th Ward, the most devastated portion of the city. We started in a relatively visually intact section; while the buildings there were damaged, to the naked eye they looked salvageable. Many had "Do Not Bulldoze" signs on them, and you could see why residents want to fight to save their homes, assuming said homes are structurally sound, which is a big assumption. But then we got oriented and headed towards the North and everything changed.

House after house after house was reduced to a rubbish heap of piles of random lumber, unrecognizable as anything much less someone's home. Other houses were pushed into each other; three homes that once lined up in a row now smashed at various angles into each other. We passed by many large vacant lots before realizing they were anything but; two, three, four homes were literally blown away. Sometimes, concrete cylinder pilings were left behind, making the lot look like a cemetery, which it is in a sense: a graveyard of hopes and a certain way of life.

Sometimes just the steps were left, leading to nowhere, which is a metaphor that doesn't bear explication. Drive down any regular block and houses line up with more or less geometric precision; here, when the houses remained, they were no longer in a straight line but a zigzag, as if a kid had been playing with a toy set and then kicked it around. Cars are tilted up on their ends or up over fences. A giant truck is perched on a house. Houses push into other houses, breaking down walls, and sometimes, incredibly, are sitting on top of other houses. We saw a deck chair dangling from a telephone wire, and a roof that had landed in someone else's backyard, and yet there was no roofless house within sight.

And finally, there was this; the front wall of a house completely gone, exposing not just the house itself, but also the interior of a closet, with a line of neat men's suits hanging tidily from hangers, all in a row on the rod, all ready to go, except for the film of brown filth coating each one.

Our own section, Mid-City, "got clobbered," as the owner of Parkway Bakery said, though not as dramatically as the worst hit areas of town -- which is why, you don't hear about it as much. As a result, much of it remains depressingly dark and silent. Many stretches of flooded areas look like small economically floundering small towns these days rather than part of a major city, with dark boarded up or smashed glass storefronts and empty interiors, abandoned, dusty and sad. In some cases, owners are waiting for poky insurance companies -- insurance woes are a constant theme, with tales of elusive agents and roofers replacing discussions of mold reduction -- but in some cases, occupants have given up. The area is holding its breath; it touches all the dry, unflooded areas of town, and so has a chance at civic revival, but conflicting proposed plans leave its fate unresolved.

The exception is our particular neighborhood, Bayou St. John. Up and down our streets and those nearby are signs of a busy, active 'hood. Sodden interiors have been ripped out and thrown into piles, which are picked up with semi-regularity by cleanup crews. Renovation is constant; parking is hard to come by, thanks to all the trucks. Restaurants are back, so is the local Italian market, with another bigger name getting ready to open a brand new market.

Nearly every house appears to be occupied or is on its way. Buildings along our main thoroughfare look like regular picturesque New Orleans; coming after the Lower 9th, it reminds us of how lucky we were. Meanwhile, the Quarter and the Garden District and the portion of Uptown just above it look more or less like they always did, absent a few details (like the St. Charles streetcars, sidelined indefinitely due to lack of funds to repair them). Some stores have closed -- our local bakery has shut down, and we saw a few shops on Magazine that have given up -- but many more are back in business. Restaurants are booming and more than one business has said they had their best December and January ever. Everyone is hurting for lack of staff; nearly every business has a "help wanted" sign up.

One of the most discouraging details from our late September visit was the vegetation; tropical, verdant NOLA was painted in shades of brown and gray, having spent weeks and months drowning underwater. There hasn't been much rain -- just as well, considering the roofing problem -- but enough to make the neutral grounds (that's the meridian to you) green again and to start to encourage more plant life elsewhere, like droplets of clover flowers in our yard. The hard hit oak trees seem to be regaining their footing, even though most look like they got pruned by a drunk. Best of all, many of the streets looked oddly clean; back in September, every street was covered in various forms of trash, blown there by storm or placed there by flood or flung there by an owner trying to clean up. It seems there are a number of volunteer groups, who meet once or twice a week, take over a stretch of road and clear it. I hope they get the very best throws on Mardi Gras and are bought many, many drinks, these quiet heroes.

But still, electricity remains out in parts of the city, and phones remain out all over. We heard from one of our neighbors that the phone company is predicting December for the return of phone service. There is no mail delivery in many parts of the city, including ours. Trash pickup is erratic and strange. Looting is happening in the devastated areas, adding injury to injury. And on it goes.

And yet, while everyone we talk to acknowledges all that, their eyes also burn with a passion about the possibility and hope for the future of their city. When they say that in the end, there will be not just a New Orleans, but a better New Orleans, we tend to believe them.

There has been much debate lately about tourism in New Orleans. Some point out that airfares are absurdly cheap, and there should be the same kind of push to bring back tourism as there was with regards to New York City post-9/11.Others claim the city should be written off as a destination until 2007.

Here's what I think; if you are looking for a total, relaxing, getaway trip, that's fine; right now, right this minute, New Orleans isn't that place. That's not saying it won't be again in a few months, but for now, book your spa trip elsewhere. But, if you valued New Orleans for the food, for the music, for the spirit, then it remains as New Orleans as ever, and you should go there, now, during this time like no other. The entire stretch of New Orleans best known to tourists sustained little damage visible to the naked eye. I had dinner in Galatoire's just two weeks ago; same full classic Creole menu, same green wallpaper, same most beloved waiter, John, who has been at his post for 35 years, same Uptown crowd dressed to the nines in suits and fancy dresses. Favorite bands are playing again -- you can find Kermit Ruffins, the Wild Magnolias, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers -- in their usual locales several nights a week. Bars are hopping. Restaurants are doing some of their finest work ever, even those with more limited menus than usual. If you wanted, you could have the same New Orleans time you ever did, albeit with perhaps slightly slower service in your hotel and at those restaurants, thanks to staffing shortages all over the city.

And so you can go, and you should go, because this is the way to help now, by stimulating the economy of a city that relies on tourism for its survival, a city that is not just a national treasure, but a world heritage site, a city that for centuries gave for everyone's pleasure, and now needs something given back to it in order to keep on. Go, because John from Galatoire's lost his Chalmette home, and yet he drives hours every night to stand and serve again at his waiter job, and that deserves to be honored.

But if you do go, consider leaving the bubble, and driving and walking the streets of Lakeview, of East New Orleans, of the Lower 9th Ward. Get the oily mud on your shoes, and look at the rubble of these neighborhoods, those once-homes and that row of orderly, dusty suits.

Remember that you are looking at a major American city. I don't really understand what we saw when we did this, and I certainly don't claim to know what to do, but I do know there is a great deal to be done, and we must bear witness.

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