Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Broadmoor Lives

The Broadmoor neighborhood has clearly decided that one of the keys to recovery is proper signage. Every yard has at least three signs, it seems, among them "Emergency Contracting Services," "No Dumping," "Hold the Corps Accountable," "Broadmoor Lives." This last, the neighborhood slogan, appears on bumper stickers as well as yard signs and is omnipresent; a simple statement of fact, it's as well a statement of defiance of fact, or at least of odds. For Broadmoor, we must admit, is deep in the bowl. In fact, it's right around where that flowery decoration would be, the one that turned out to be the "surprise" my aunt promised I'd find if I finished my bowl of gumbo. (Few promised surprises have been more disappointing since.) It's not hard to see why urban planners called in for the Mayor's BNOB Commission would have envisioned a park replacing this neighborhood.

But contrary to odds and what may seem reason, Broadmoor is most certainly alive. In fact, because the neighborhood was built with nuisance flooding in mind, many of the fancier places here were already raised well above the floodline, the ground floor demoted to basement service. So, these people and their signs are back. For the most part. The evidence of return is ubiquitous: flatbed trailers filled with house guts, FEMA trailers in front or side yards, lights newly strung across front porches. It's as though the word had spread from house to house, "look busy."

Taunted by my wife for proposing to take the bus, I decided to ride my bike up from the Marigny, crossing nervously (and perhaps illegally) across the Broad St. overpass and travelling up to Napoleon Ave. that way. What seemed on the map like a day's journey turned out to take less than an hour. I always forget how small this place really is.

After pedalling around a bit, I found what I thought would be the perfect pair of photos to illustrate my impressions of the place. First, the photo above, illustrating the "Broadmoor Lives" spirit in all its tenacity: the hostas freshly planted to replace the landscaping surely wrecked by the salt water, a fresh coat of paint disguising but not completely effacing the first-responders' X, and of course the requisite sign. The other was to be a photo of the house across the street: still apparently abandoned, darkened jumble of patio furniture on the enclosed front porch, yellowed grass along the sidewalks. But as I held up my phone to take the photo, I heard a voice behind me, "You gonna buy it?" I turned to see a middle-aged man, his mop-headed dog on leash beside him.
I felt guilty; suddenly I was the interloper, the disaster tourist. I made a weak attempt at a joke, "Well, it looks like someone needs to buy it." But that seemed to trouble the man even more.
"I knew the old guy who lived here. He was meticulous about this place, always keeping the grass and plants neat, always . . ." he looked away. "I'm pretty sure he would come back."
I wasn't sure what to say. It seemed so implausible to this man that his neighbor wouldn't be coming back. "Well, you know," I managed, "maybe he's just waiting on insurance money or something before he can come home."
"If that's the case, I sure do pity him."
As he and his dog walked away, I asked him where I could find the nearest bar. He told me a place, explaining, "But it's just a hole in the wall."
"Sounds perfect."
I left, forgetting to take the photo. I also managed to forget my bike lock somewhere, so I had to take a rain check on that drink. I want to go back there anyway. Something was there that I couldn't capture, couldn't make sense of without more talk and more time.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Anniversary Night

Tuesday night was 007 at the reopened Saturn Bar. Now, as long as I've known it, the Saturn bar has barely had room for customers, much less a band. It's one of the world's great dive bars, but of late, the broken jukeboxes and air conditioners had started to accumulate (apparently O'Neil was a handy guy who couldn't say no when friends asked for repairs, hence the appliance graveyard); also, the cats had become less than finicky about what constituted a litter box. So, it became almost a chore for me to show my friends from out of town the great Saturn Bar.

O'Neil made it through the storm but passed away in December. I thought at first perhaps the Saturn Bar had run its course; whether closed forever or given a new incarnation, the Saturn Bar was gone. It stayed closed for months, becoming the cause of much Marigny speculation. Finally, at a benefit reading to promote a lovely little anthology of New Orleans writing a few months ago, we had a sneak preview: gone was the jukebox graveyard, the cats, the jumble that had taken over the back half of the bar; booths and pool table were suddenly visible in the back, the path to the bathroom unobstructed. And somehow the new owner, O'Neil's great nephew Neil Broyard, had managed to clear the place out without losing any of the eclectic charm. It was still the Saturn Bar, but there was more of it now (well, more bar, less stuff).

Tuesday night's show at the Saturn was therefore a great milestone. It has been, I believe, a full decade since live music was seen at the Saturn Bar. The place was crushing-full, and both Egg Yolk Jubilee and 007 had the crowd jumping. All my favorite Marignians and Bywaterites were on the dance-floor or bellied up to the bar. The odor of hipness had replaced the stench of cat piss.

I stepped outside for air and saw a National Guard humvee parked on the neutral ground. The Guardsmen had come across the street to ask about the bar and were now flirting with a girl with a full-on brassy yat accent. For a second, I thought about curfew, wondered if they were enforcing it. Then I remembered, we come a long way dawlin.


I said I wasn't going to do it. I said I would, at all costs, avoid the nostalgia, the forced and fabricated gestures of rejuvenation, the scylla and charybdis that shadow the survivor's path: the stone way of infinite regret or the rapids of pollyannism. Instead, I was going to keep to myself, spend the evening with my evacuation mates, and promptly forget the significance of this date.

And yet, and yet. Of course I should have known that New Orleans wouldn't let me walk away quite so easily. Ask any of the numberless people who came here once, just for a visit, that was then extended into a vacation, that became a sublet, that became the past twelve years. So, my wife and I were just going to head down to Decatur in the French Quarter for lunch at Stanley's (which is the informal side of upscale restaurant Stella). Before we'd even made it out of the Marigny, though, we heard the siren call of the second-line: da dat DAAA daaa. To which, we responded, as though by no will of our own, "HEY!" And we were in. She ran off to snap some photos, and I chained our bikes to a stop sign and caught up. This was the activists' second line, beginning at the Industrial Canal (border between the Lower Ninth Ward and what has become, by default, the Upper Ninth Ward, where I live. Before all the national attention on the L9, the Upper Ninth was just the Ninth Ward.). The mix was about 60%-40%, I'd say, between locals and out-of-town activists and organizers. Lots of anti-Bush stuff, lots of stuff about the horrors of OPP. There were anarchists and communists and National Black United Front members. Oh, and a brass band. And some Zulu stilt walkers in blackface. This is New Orleans, afterall. And yes it was angry and righteous, but it was also clownish and fun.

I passed on the nostalgia special at Stanley's; it was a burger or bocaburger with salad and chips served on a paper plate, the same menu they served as one of the pioneer restaurants reopening just weeks after the storm. Instead, we had oyster po-boys. Whoever had the idea of putting the sweet cole slaw in the po-boy . . . sheer genius!

From there we rode our bikes down to the Convention Center for the official event, complete with Mayor Nagin. I was busy watching the Black Men of Labor and Treme Brass Band (both groups featured in the Spike Lee movie) warm up, milling around in the press of the Press (there were undoubtedly more cameras than second-liners on hand), when I heard a short burst of applause behind me. I turned around just in time to see General Honore march by. A woman held a sign nearby, "General Honore, You are my Hero." Nagin received no such welcome.

The band played hymns as we waited, "Oh What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "Glory Land," and "Amazing Grace," in which the lyrics soon faded into a simple repetition of two words, "Praise God, Praise God, Praise God, Praise God." Hands joined and raised all around, and in the last lines the words shifted again: "I'm back, I'm back, I'm back." For a moment, I could forget about all of the cameras.

We finally got the media show on the road. I figured I'd make it down Convention Center Blvd to Harrah's and then peel off. But, as I've said, these things have a way of drawing you into them. The farther we walked, the closer we came to the Super Dome, marching from one icon of post-Katrina misery to the other, the less it felt like a staged event and the more it felt like a genuine expression of the people there. Anderson Cooper stood in the neutral grounds shaking hands as though he was running for office. I felt like thanking him for keeping the light on for us, but I didn't want to miss a beat.

Outside the Super Dome, everyone stopped and the band started up their hit, "Gimme my Money Back," changing the words to "House Back, House Back" and "City Back, City Back." And then the two hundred or so remaining paraders passed under a covered drive, singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow." I learned the words from singing at St. Aug's. Today, I taught them to a woman in from LA: "I sing because I'm happy. I sing because I'm free. His eye is on the sparrow. I know He watches me." A very, very good walk, my friends.

Monday, August 28, 2006

I will not be neutered, either (too late for my dog, though)

GWB hath arriven! Let us rejoice and be glad. For with GWB will surely arrive the news that our progress is great, that our work is hard, that he is duly impressed with our love of freedom, or something.

And all this good news couldn't have come at a better time. This Advent, if you will, coincides with a darkish time in a swampish land. For today was a day when a generous soul and a fine good-natured Ohioan (sharing his state of residence with the memory of our great mystic American Poet Hart Crane, btw) who has been coming down here all year long helping to rebuild houses (this is, I believe his 5th trip; he stays with us when he's in town) injured himself working on the finishing touches of a Gentilly rebuild and was given for his trouble a tour of our troubled city as he searched for an open hospital, a functioning clinic, a paramedic (which, by the way, he is). He was finally able to find a doctor to stitch up his ankle (cut to the bone, I hear) at the Operation Blessing clinic. The volunteer doc there sees 100 patients a day, and today he was so overwhelmed that the office manager had to glove up and dive in to assist the stitching.

But if only my friend had injured himself tomorrow, after the benedictions of GWB have been poured on our burning heads, surely, surely, an army of paramedics would have descended on the scene, ported him off on angelic wings to one of the 6 (rather than 2.5) operating hospitals in the area.

Someone call me when tomorrow is over. Until then, I'll just keep looking for the sunflowers in the rubble.

'Cause that's the kind of guy I am.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Broadmoor Dead Ahead

By the way, I've figured out my method for selecting the sites of my weekly forays.

  • First, check out the GNOCDC's map of New Orleans Neighborhoods.
  • Then make a list of the 73 neighborhoods represented, in alphabetical order.
  • Next select a random neighborhood each week using the Random Integer Generator
  • Finally, go to the neighborhood-specific map on the GNOCDC site and find a spot at approximately the center of the map for the chosen neighborhood.
So, the first spin of the Crescent City wheel of misfortune turned up: Broadmoor, in particular the corner of S. Rocheblave and Napolean. This one will probably entail a bus ride (I'm a downtown boy, afterall), and I may need to wait until the weekend. But I'll do my damndest to keep to Wednesday: what's life without dedication to a set of arbitrary, self-imposed, and meaningless rules?

Elks Place Pt. II

So, when last we left off, I was standing in front of the newly reopened Walgreen's, looking at the boarded windows of the commercial buildings across the way and waiting for the light to change so I could check out the library, epicenter of my visit to the CBD. Here's a shot of the still-boarded windows to get you in the mood.
With me now? Okay, good.

Among the many questions concerning the hurricane that have echoed endlessly during the past year (why didn't the levees hold? why didn't everyone evacuate? does George Bush really not like black people?), none has been more prominent than the sometimes desperate, sometimes angry strains of "Where was FEMA?" Well, apparently this is one question we can stop asking. FEMA is alive and well and working at the library, along with the mysteriously delinquent Small Business Administration. The library, of course! That's just where I used to hang out in high school when I didn't feel like working. I'd sequester myself somewhere in the stacks and skim through giant volumes on world geography. I also managed to learn hypnosis, juggling, and and the basics of internal combustion engines. I hope that FEMA and the SBA have found their time in the library as enlightening.

But it was good, after all, to see something happening at the library. The main branch now has wi-fi, and it's starting to extend its hours. They're also offering a disaster relief smorgasbord: along with FEMA and SBA, they have an IRS office, the Blue Roof program (bit late for that, eh?), Vets Affairs, Medicaid, insurance mitigation, and coping assistance (there's a bar in the library, too? man, they thought of everything).

New Orleans' public libraries, running on a shoestring before the storm, were on the verge of extinction afterward. They've received some amazing nationwide support (they had to stop accepting book donations after they found they couldn't keep up with the cataloguing). Also, the American Library Association had its annual meeting here--the first major convention to come back after the storm, as far as I know, so take that you lilly-livered surgeons!. Oh, and according to several reliable French Quarter bartenders, the librarians tear it up like nobody's business--voted wildest of the conventioneers, and that's quite a feat. And apparently librarians are very generous, as well. My local branch reopened this summer, thanks in part to their efforts. Fearless boozers who love New Orleans and get to hang around with books all day, definitely my kind of people.

While I was scribbling down the various services available at the main branch, the security guard came over and glowered at me through the glass doors, so I figured it was time to move along. Since I was so close to Poydras, I decided to meet the wife and a good pal for dinner and to complete the final portion of my task at a nearby restaurant. Dinner was sushi, drink was Sapporo. Oh, and this is what happens when Komei Horimoto gets playful, the Rocking Dragon.
And it tastes even better than that, really. Actually, it's a bit of a crime to order rolls in that place; I feel that every piece of fish there should come with a resume, or at least a brief bio.

From the restaurant, we went to the Circle Bar to hear McMurray perform. He was in a foul mood at the start, which made for a brilliant show. He did cheer up enough that he managed not to wrap his guitar around the neck of the dude who requested "She Talks to Angels." Shame, that. Oh, and McMurray has a new song about post-K N.O.: "You gotta be crazy." Not my favorite of his, but far and away the best Katrina-related song I've heard to far. Ay-yi-yi, what miserable maudlin pap it all be, my dear temporizing triumverate. WWOZ has been relentless with the stuff over the past few days. And the anniversary is bearing down: NYT has a new page 1 on it every day, and now that silly paper with all the color graphics is joining in with stories about the important work of football running backs in the recovery effort, and everyone in the national media was just salivating at the thought that Ernesto, that headless puta, would help us mark the anniversary with a little reenactment. Christ. I think I'll reenact instead one of my favorite scenes from Walker Percy and crawl up in a tower overlooking a forest somewhwere, a bottle of Bourbon tucked in my jacket pocket. There may need to be a priest on hand, if this is to be truly faithful to Dr. Percy. Yeah, I think that's how I'll spend the anniversary. To hell with Thanatos.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Can this be right? New Orleans is number 24 of the country's 35 most drunken cities? Astounding, but according to, Milwaukee stands (sways? leans?) atop the heap of alcohopolises, while New Orleans is barely a burp on the boozy radar:

Curiously, several towns with a reputation for partying and drinking didn't rank very high on the list. You might be able to score a free cocktail in any Las Vegas casino, but overall, the city comes in at only No. 14. New Orleans is home to Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, but it only ranked in 24th place. And spring-break party spot Miami placed all the way down at No. 33 of 35.

Ah, but these are pre-K numbers, back in those days of yore when tourists swilling Hurricanes and Handgrenades really did account for the largest portion of the alcohol flowing through this town. Back in 2004, when the CDC study Forbes uses was conducted, imbibing was for most New Orleanians largely celebratory, and where celebratory drinking ends, bitter drinking is just getting started. Let 'em run the numbers now, and I'd bet we could all go put our giant foam hands on.

Elks Place (Where Are We Now 1)

I set out Wednesday evening with my brain set on record. My goal was simply to report objectively on the state of affairs around the corner of Tulane Ave. and Elks Place. I imagined a grim task, but as always, N.O. managed a surprise.

I started taking notes at Armstrong Park, and my route would take me down Basin St., past St. Louis Cemetery #1, past the Iberville projects (one of the first public housing developments to reopen post-K), across Canal St., and into the medical center "corridor" of the Central Business District. This was a walk through what was once Storyville, "back of town," the infamous redlight district where jazz spent much of its infancy. As tourists who take this path often find to their disappointment, there is hardly a remnant of the Storyville period remaining. After dark, the cemetery is unsafe (every guidebook warns of this now), and unless you have an interest in the fate of public housing in New Orleans, there isn't much to draw you here. And I should probably admit that I had second thoughts about walking this route as I saw the sun getting lower in the sky. I quickened my step a bit as I rounded the corner at Armstrong Park, but a little boy dancing on the sidewalk stopped me cold.

He was holding a shoebox and dancing his own interpretation of the "Cabbage Patch": his hip jutting out to one side for a bit, he'd shake it and swing his butt back to the other side. And he was singing a song: "I got new shoes. I got new shoes." I don't think he could've been more than three years old. He held the box up for my inspection, and I nodded appreciatively at the white sneakers inside. "They give out shoes here," he said. "These are gonna make me jump high, high!" And he pantomimed jumping without leaving the ground. His younger sister had her own shoebox, containing a pair of pink and violet flowered sneakers. But she was absorbed by staring at the playground equipment inside the fence. They were standing behind Covenant House, a center for homeless youth and, apparently, a distribution point of clothing for kids who need it. I asked new-shoe boy his name and if I could take his picture with my camera phone. Edgar.

Already this wasn't the sort of reportage (it's French, bitch) I was expecting, but as I left Edgar and headed down Basin past the cemetery, I saw in the distance the flashing lights of at least four police cars, all parked outside the Iberville project. "Grim," I thought. But figuring my self-imposed task demanded that I get the story, I continued down the street. A block or so closer, and I could make out horses standing behind the sheriff's cars, cropping grass from the neutral ground. Another block, and I could see that the men on horseback were wearing fezzes. Yes, fezzes.

I stood in the neutral ground staring at them for a bit, looking from the befezzed horsemen to the Iberville residents milling about in front of their apartment block. And then I looked down the street, past the sheriff's cars and realized that this was not the scene of some new and bizarre crime, but a parade lining up, waiting to head down Canal St. Clowns of various sizes wandered up and down Basin St., performing with puppets for the children who had gathered. In addition to the horses and cars bearing beauty queens, there were golf carts and dune buggies, and anyone without a clown wig seemed to be wearing a fez. And everyone in the parade, in fact everyone on the street, was black. A black Shriner's parade--I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it. I mean, I'd never heard of black Masons before, but here they were, black Shriners in full regalia. And they were from around the country: New Jersey black Shriners and Washington, D.C. black Shriners. Their home cities were enblazoned on the backs of their shirts, along with the requisite Mason signs and symbols.

I finally asked one of the clowns, and he confirmed that it was the annual Shriner's convention for Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Last year, apparently, 8,000 of them had come down. This year, only 4,000. "You know," he said, behind his giant glasses, "it's a little smaller this year. Some people didn't come back." I told him I understood how that felt and welcomed them to town. I shook his gloved hand and headed up Basin St.

Can anyone still wonder why I love this place?

I worked my way through the Shriner's parade and up to Elks place, looking for the corner at Tulane Ave. Signs of rebirth: Walgreen's drugstore had reopened. On the other hand, several businesses remained closed. A pile of trash remained outside the darkened Smoothie King and PJ's Coffee. Plywood shuttered the buildings across the way.

At the focal point of my journey, on the corner of Elks and Tulane, is the main branch of the public library. Ah, but this post is long enough. I'll tell about the library in part 2.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Where are we now?

The Anniversary. It's just around the corner, and frankly, I'm just not ready. I thought I had toughened up a bit over the post-K year, thought I would be ready to face the barrage of images, the swell of remembrances. But then I read an online diary, one person's experience losing a parent following the storm, and I nearly lost it. Then I hear Chris Rose on NPR, reading a piece I've already read, the "New Orleans Girl" essay from One Dead in Attic, and he starts to choke up at the end, and his interviewer starts to choke up at the end, and then I do lose it. Right there in my car, somewhere just past the 6-10 split. This is not a good sign.

I'm not stable enough for the rehash yet, thank you. I'm still working on the hash. And it ain't going down easy, pal. I'm furious daily for no reason--well, for every reason, I imagine, but my fury is usually disproportionate to the proximate cause. And because of this anger, I liked the Spike Lee Katrina documentary more than I expected: it resonated with the anger that people here have been feeling for a year now, anger and helplessness and more anger. And it also made clear that this was not a natural disaster. Without the engineering failure that was and is our levee system, New Orleans would have experienced a lot of "wet ankle syndrome." (I heard an engineer not in uniform use that term on t.v., and I had to repeat it.) Bottom line, we didn't get the worst of the storm itself (look east, dear reader, for the true force of nature; Mississippi was levelled). No, what we got was a forty-year-long political, bureaucratic, administrative, and technical failure courtesy of the wonderful folks at the Corps of Engineers, the New Orleans Levee Board, and assorted politicians at local, state, and federal levels. And that doesn't even begin to touch on the failed response after the gingerbread-house levees melted away.

So, I'm angry, and I got to share that with Spike Lee, the Rev. Al Sharpton, C-Murder (how'd he get the ankle bracelet off?), and 6,000 of my fellow citizens in the New Orleans Arena last week. And then there were the things I didn't like so much about that movie--like the floated claim that the levees were intentionally demolished during Katrina and Betsy as they were in the flood of 1927. Bollocks, that. How many independent studies of the levee failure have taken place so far? Spike should know, he interviewed members of two of the three studies. So, why didn't he ask them why their multi-million-dollar studies failed to find any evidence of sabotage? Oh, and the Trump-like "land grab" for the Lower 9th Ward we hear about, a claim that goes as essentially unchallenged as the dynamite story? The property values were just skyrocketing in the L9 before the storm, I'm sure. Why, just look at all those high-priced sales recorded there in the past year. Oh, what's that you say? Well, then, of course there have already been massive buyouts in the L9 since the storm, huge developers buying up acres and acres for pennies, right? It's all there in the real estate transactions of the Times Picayune, isn't it? Well, I guess we don't really need evidence for such claims in the end, because after all these are the things the white establishment would do, so why can't we assume that they did do them? The film succumbed to Michael Moore syndrome, wherein valuable and salient points are muddied and undermined by more specious claims.

Did I mention I'm angry yet? Yeah, better double that. I'm angry that nothing--nothing--is happening in the devastated parts of town. That nothing--nothing--seems to have been gained by the much-touted chance at a new beginning. I'm angry that my favorite bar was robbed Saturday night. I'm angry that we need National Guard patrols in my city. I'm angry that without those patrols the murder rate had leapt up to the pre-K rate, which means the per capita rate would have doubled from the bloodbath we'd already become accustomed to. And I'm tired, tired to death of being a victim. The Corps didn't meet its own standards; it lied to the city about the protection it was afforded. But is waiting for the federal bail-out and bitching some more the very best that this great and infinitely creative city can do?

At any rate, I've decided to start a new feature here as a way of
  1. Getting this blog restarted.
  2. Sublimating some of my anger.
  3. Making some headway toward answering for myself the question for which there is no good answer: So, how are things down there?
This is the plan: I pick a spot in New Orleans--each week a new spot and, say, 4 square blocks around it--and I see what's going on there, what has opened and what's still closed, what needs to be done, what the feel of that little postage stamp of earth is like. And then, my three dear readers, I will report my findings back to you here.

Work for you?

I'm calling the feature: "Where are we now?" And I've already chosen my first spot. Go to Google Maps and type in "New Orleans, LA." A specific place shows up, the corner of Tulane Ave. and Elks Pl. I'm assuming this is the post office, but I can't quite picture it tonight. So, let's say Wednesday afternoon, I intend to treck over there and to check out the area. I'm thinking I'll start at Armstrong Park and make my way down there. Which reminds me of another arbitrary rule I've set for this experience: I'll only travel sans car. If there is public transportation, I'll take it. Or I'll walk it if necessary. Or, if it's too far to walk and there's no public transport, I'll bike it. That way I'll see more of the city on the way. Promise I'll note anything interesting here, too.

And then the following week I'll need to think of a suitably random way to generate the next pinpoint on the map. If you're out there, my precious trio suffering through my blubbering, send along some ideas for how to randomize. I'd like to divide all of Orleans Parish into a 52-square grid and randomly pick one square per week.

Oh, and last arbitrary rule: if there is a bar within the four-square blocks, I will have a drink there. If shopping and seeing Broadway plays was GWB's recovery plan for September 11, then this will be mine for N.O.