Sunday, March 25, 2007

Downtime in the Big Easy

I returned to Seattle yesterday morning at an ungodly hour, after spending five days in New Orleans. I’d ventured down south to celebrate my birthday in one of America’s most captivating and distinctive towns. Although this was my third trip to the Crescent City, it was the first time I had been there when there wasn’t some kind of festival going on. (I had previously visited during Mardi Gras and the French Quarter Festival.)

After blogging at length two years ago about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, and George W. Bush’s feeble, too-little-too-late response to one of the worst natural disasters in American history, I was concerned that this once proud and fun-loving burg would now appear withered and defeated. That’s the reason I stayed away for as long as I did, and I’ll wager, why so many of my countrymen who’ve enjoyed New Orleans in the past have likewise hesitated to visit since the fall of 2005: we fear having our hearts broken by what we’ll see of the city in Katrina’s wake.

Fortunately, my worries seem to have been overblown. Although the first official post-Katrina population census estimates that the greater New Orleans area has lost something like 300,000 people (a 22 percent change) since 2000--raising fears about how this shrinking of the state’s most Democratic district might affect Louisiana’s future voting tendencies--and crime has surged in some inner neighborhoods, the city doesn’t give off the air of defeat. Rather, there seems hopefulness in every thoroughfare and public square, often tinged with humor. (T-shirts reading “Make Levees Not War” are big sellers on Decatur Street.) Yes, inside pages of The Times-Picayune--a daily paper that bravely continued to turn out stories (albeit online), even in the thick of Katrina’s violence--are rife with ads for service personnel at hotels and restaurants, confirming the post-hurricane population exodus; and the French Quarter, which is so tourism-dependent, has had a harder time than some other parts of town recovering since the Big Blow. But most of the eateries in that 100-block, wrought-iron-filled historic district look to be in operation again, including the landmark Café du Monde, renowned for its café au laits and plates of hot beignets, heaped with powdered sugar (a genuine hazard in any sort of wind), and K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, where during this trip I savored what may be the best Shrimp Étouffée I’ve had in my life. Musical groups still draw crowds of travelers at street corners; I blissfully exhausted much of one afternoon listening to a lively jazz combo called Loose Marbles (shown at right) play its heart out on Royal Street, in the Quarter. And tours of the town--some of which will take you north of the Quarter to the 17th Street Canal Levee, which was breached after Katrina and flooded adjacent neighborhoods--are in high demand, as visitors check out for themselves what they’ve only previously seen on their TV screens: houses in dire disrepair, streaked with thick yellow lines showing how high the sewage-infested floodwaters climbed, right next to others being gutted by young volunteers and repaired for future occupancy.

I flew out of New Orleans with faith that, despite the ravages of nature, the hollow promises of an incompetent president, and the reluctance of mealy mouthed insurers to actually pay for residential and other property damage they said they’d cover, this city at the southern mouth of the Mississippi River is well on its road to recovery. Maybe sometime soon I can visit again, to take in the other major festival I still haven’t attended: the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Be still, my unbroken heart.

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