New Orleans Revisited

5 Mar

Katrina coffin memorial at Rampart visitor center.

We round the corner of Louis Armstrong Park and meander up St. Philip, turning our backs on the traditional tourist mecca of the French Quarter and heading into the quieter Treme. I would say this marks my transcendent rejection of the tourist mentality, but since this itself is a tour, well, you know.

It must count for something, though, that my tour guide, a former anthropology major named Hope, focuses less on what’s in Louis Armstrong Park – the statues paying tribute to the birth of jazz at Congo Park, the big chief Mardi Gras culture, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson – as what’s not here.

Meaning the hidden costs of urban renewal. Meaning the former residents, mostly African-American, who were moved to housing projects without compensation to make the park possible. Or the once thriving black businesses along Basin Street, wiped away by Interstate 10.

Or, of course, those lost to Hurricane Katrina.

We’re passing a series of small old wooden homes – unremarkable in that my tour guides don’t bother remarking on them – when I see something that makes me bring the entire tour to a stop.

I’m their only customer, so I have that kind of power.

FEMA-marked window on St. Philip.

What I see is the familiar spray painted X on the window of a small brick home, with figures written in each wedge. I’ve seen those X’s, part of the FEMA making system for damaged structures, up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; disaster workers left them all over my hometown after the April 27, 2011 a tornado mowed a six-mile long path through the city, killing 52 people. It was a system born here, amid the aftermath of Katrina, which left 1,464 confirmed dead in Louisiana – and far more unaccounted for.

I’ll only learn later that the 3-505 to the left signifies the inspector – in this case the Alpha Company, Parachute Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne – and that the NE on the right means No Entry. We do feel sure about the bottom symbols – “0 D” translates, my guides say, to “zero dead.”

Meanwhile, the top symbols – time and date of the inspection – are inscrutable, but we’re talking more than six years, regardless.

In all this time, no one had replaced the window; instead, a tenant or tenants chose to see the world through this grim scrawl of a reminder.

Conscious statement? Weary resignation? Poverty plain and simple?

Or just an abandoned building?

Tuba Fats Square, site of Treme neighborhood music celebration, with I-10 in background.

Deciding the latter, I raise my camera and press the button – only to have the barred door beside the window swing open. A black man, athletic and attired in nice sports wear, emerges; as he walks to his car; he could be anybody. Reflexively I lower the camera, but it’s too late. I feel like a looter – even if all I’m stealing today are images, along with, just maybe, some inspiration.

This moment – both my intrusion and the FEMA-provided grid through which this young man must stare – brings me back to questions that have been swirling in my mind the last few days.

Do the people in New Orleans feel overly defined by Hurricane Katrina? Are they tired of questions from strangers with no deeper investment in the city, even if those strangers come here to help? If so, will the people up in Tuscaloosa come to feel the same way in years ahead?

No one person can offer a definitive answer to this question, and, as it happens, my tour guides – about half my age – did not grow up here. But they do come at my questions from a deeply analytical perspective – Hope, my official guide, brings the full force of her anthropology major to detailed mini-lectures on 200 years worth of multiracial culture in New Orleans, and her friend, a history major who created this tour, lived through Katrina and its aftermath. Amid their detailed series of lectures on the rich African-American culture of the neighborhood, they are quick to note the negatives – the mixed results of gentrification, for instance, particularly when new residents who swooped in on post-Katrina bargains then come into conflict with the neighborhood’s sometimes spontaneous parades.

Hope, my official tour guide, in the brightly colorful and up-scale Cafe Treme.

Since it’s just the three of us talking – and, since it’s their own tour, there’s no civic party line they have to toe – I believe it when they say the long-time residents still seem more appreciative than annoyed by the attention.

Similarly, I believe my guides when they say that they’ve heard few complaints about the HBO television series Treme – the inspiration for this tour. Created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, the series is a thorough and realistic portrayal of how a wide range of people­ – musicians and cops, bar owners and chefs – grapple with the vexed questions and staggering challenges of recovery. Hope says the series has brought more jobs to New Orleans – which already attracts more than its share of filmmakers – and has raised the national profile of local mainstays such as John Boutté, who sings the series’ theme song.

In addition, the show’s painstaking approach to the subject matter has surely sensitized visitors to the subtler aspects of post-Katrina life in these parts. This seems to be suggested in the minor nature of the objections my guides have heard about the series. What they perceive as glitches in the fiction only reinforce the grimness of the facts. For instance, my guides didn’t doubt the realism of a character being beaten by frustrated and exhausted police; however, they did question the idea that the victim would have gotten treatment afterward in a “brick and mortar hospital.” One of my guides had a tetanus shot administered on a sidewalk; the other’s boyfriend got his glasses at the zoo.

Home sports a mural in Treme.

Ironically, their tour, as under-attended as it is, reminds me that this city has had its share of troubles for centuries – and its ways of transcending them. One way being, of course, through music. After I bid a fond farewell to my guides, I cut back through the French Quarter, grabbing a muffeletta in some dark bar near Bienville, and stay in my hotel room just long enough to make notes and search the internet for a fitting way to end my four nights in New Orleans.

I find what I want, then stride the length of Royal, past all the thriving art galleries and antique stores, and into d.b.a. – the bar where, this very night, one John Boutté would in fact be singing. It turns out to be right next to Snug Harbor, where I’d spent the last two nights, listening to the cutting edge New Creative Collective on the first night, and Ellis Marsalis on the second. Sitting perhaps 10 feet from me the second night was none other than Henry Louis Gates, the distinguished scholar of African-American Studies back up my way, at Harvard.

Whereas Marsalis was an easily justifiable 30 bucks, Boutté is a miraculous 5. Soon I discover why – when they swing open the doors to the performing space, people rush into a mostly furniture-less room. Some locals know just to drag in a barstool; I wind up out of position and simply settle for leaning against a bicycle rack that, for some reason, is near one end of the stage. I point out the bike rack’s advantages to a woman in front of me, and soon I have two new friends, Robin and her husband Tim. They’ve moved down here from Jackson, Mississippi because their oldest is attending Tulane.

Like my tour guides, they’re not natives, but Tim and Robin are warmly and intelligently conversational folks who’ve been living here a while now. So I ask again the question that’s on my mind: Are folks hear feeling overly defined by Katrina? They agree that, if anything,people are glad to share their memories and reflections. Maybe, six years later, it’s actually easier for folks to talk about a trauma that, after all, they’ll never forget. They also suggest that, at the same time, New Orleans is still more defined by the richness of its culture – including the music we’re about to hear.

Proof of that soon arrives on stage. Boutté, slender and unassuming, radiates a powerful stage presence. He sits alongside his musicians for the most part, but that only adds drama when he chooses to stand, learning forward with the microphone as he makes love to the song he’s singing, rendering slow and soulful even such rock ‘n’ roll standards as Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” The set is almost all covers, but he makes them his own – just as New Orleans makes its own almost everything, including the way it will transcend its losses.

During one interlude, he announces he wants to share a story: This very day, he was sitting at home when he heard the Treme brass band playing out on the street. That was all the story there is … but somehow it’s enough. We can fill in the significance around the edges.

Shortly before sliding into his last number – of course, the theme to Treme – Boutté speaks softly to the crowd.

“It’s such a beautiful city,” he says in a heartfelt manner.  “We’ve got our problems … but I’ll still take our problems over other people’s. I’ve been other places, man.”

Boutte snapping fingers to the beat.

Not being from here, I wouldn’t presume to agree, or disagree. But I believe that he believes. After I bid farewell to Tim and Robin – we actually exchange emails before they jump into a cab – I wander a half-block to the corner bookstore, where I ducked in and asked for a book my tour guides had recommended if, they said, I wanted a glimpse into the New Orleans post-Katrina psyche. Chris Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic gets its title from a note that, like the FEMA X earlier today, was spray-painted on the side of a house. In the store, I thumb through the prologue, “Who We Are,” dated 9/6/05, nine days after the storm.

           “When you meet us now and you look into our eyes, you will see the saddest story ever told. Our hearts are broken into a thousand pieces.

            “But don’t pity us. We’re gonna make it. We’re resilient. …

            “And one more thing: In our part of the country, we’re used to have visitors. It’s our way of life.

            “So when all this is over and we move back home, we will repay you the hospitality and generosity of spirit you offer us in this season of our despair.

            “That is our promise. That is our faith.”

Wedging Rose’s story into my jacket pocket, I step out onto the crowded corner where, just the night before, I saw half a dozen young men blowing that distinctive New Orleans brass sound, wild and exultant – while a middle-aged black woman with distinctive high cheeks danced slow in the middle of the intersection, drawing cheers from pedestrians and honks from cabbies.

Clearly, more than six years after Rose’s words, the people of New Orleans are holding up their end of the proposition.

I hope we hold up ours as well.

Church in Treme.

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