Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Where I Got Them Shoes: Desire Area Edition

Neighborhood: Desire Area
Flood Depth: 4-10 ft.
Bar: none
Drink: none

Before the Industrial Canal breached on the Lower 9th side, unleashing the explosive power that levelled block after block of that neighborhood and introduced "the Lower Nine" to a national audience, it breached on the upriver side, shredding the houses and apartment blocks of this neighborhood. The Desire project itself, in the process of being rebuilt before the storm, was shaken apart and soaked through, neither the new nor the old sections left intact. This was a neighborhood that was barely livable before the storm. Not only did it face the interlocking web of problems that gather around poverty, but it contained a Superfund site that activists claim is connected to the unusually high cancer rate in residents. Ringing the residential areas is an industrial corridor that contributes to the feeling of being out on the edge of things here, when really you're only three miles from the French Quarter. For a good introduction to the neighborhood, its residents, and its fate, you might want to check out this article.

Despite seeing the L9, Lakeview, and St. Bernard (both the parish and the housing project), I was ill-prepared for the devastation here. I guess I figured that, having seen the worst, nothing could surprise me now. I crossed the railroad overpass on Almonaster and headed up to Higgins, which would take me to the heart of the neighborhood. An electric transfer station hummed ominously; all else was still. There at the corner of Almonaster I had my first taste of the wreckage, a house completely caved in, a plastic chair in an upper room the only
immediately recognizable effect of the former inhabitants.

And it continued like this, for block after block after block. The only sign of repair seemed to be the occasional blue-tarped roof, long past its interim period of usefulness. The Desire project itself was deserted, save a single FEMA trailer. An entire exterior wall had been shorn away from a two-story apartment building. A statue of the Virgin Mary still stood before one of the apartments, abandoned and neck-deep in weeds. The only activity resembling recovery: a maintenance man running a weed wacker between sidewalk and street, cigarette dangling from his mouth, behind him, the school dark and deserted. As I passed by, he stopped his trimmer so that I wouldn't be blasted by severed weed tops, and he mumbled an apology. A heady whiff of pot smoke told me that that wasn't a cigarette in his mouth. Didn't seem like a bad idea, given the situation.

So far, these weekly treks haven't exactly been uplifting experiences. The luck of the draw has sent me to or through some of the worst-suffering neighborhoods in the city. Now, that either says something about the extent of the damage and the lack of progress or it says something about my luck. The former is definitely true, but I'm staying away from casinos just in case.

For the most part, Desire lacked even the smiles and waves I had seen from FEMA trailer residents in the St. Bernard area. It even lacked the FEMA trailers. But then, at the end of a block, I happened upon a cluster of six houses, all either repaired or undergoing repairs, four of them with FEMA trailers in the yard. I stopped to chat with one of the residents who was waxing his pristine red pickup. "Oh, we're coming back." He assured me. And he ticked off the names of each of his neighbors who was back, pointing out that nearly every house on his block had already been gutted. "They're just waiting on the money, you know. It's slow, but they're coming. By this time next year, I think we'll all be back."

There were three houses on the block too damaged to be repaired. Those, he assured me, would be torn down and rebuilt. Beside the row of repaired houses across the street was one still abandoned. On the plywood that still covered the front window, someone had spray painted, beside and partially covering the black search-team markings: "Do Not Bulldos Mr. Presiden." Apparently they ran out of space, but we get the message.

I headed up Almonaster to look for a seafood restaurant I'd found in the open restaurant listings. On the way, I passed a makeshift RV campground that had taken over a wide, curved section of the neutral ground. Three battered Winnebagos sat beside two truck campers, the kind usually attached over the bed of trucks, but here resting on cinder blocks. The campers were a rough looking bunch--mountain man beards and beer guts, relaxing in lawn chairs around a hibachi pit--and I figured they were a group of the storm chasers who've been amassing here, laborers and roustabouts who came looking for work from employers in need who may not ask too many questions.

The restaurant, "St. Roch Kitchen #2" (which, I assume, is owned by the same Vietnamese family that ran the seafood market and creole/asian plate lunch restaurant in the historic St. Roch Market near my house--either that or somebody is courting a lawsuit), was closed. Toddlers played inside while their older brothers mopped up and put the food away. I took a few turns around the Gentilly edge of the neighborhood but could find neither food nor drink at 7 p.m. So, glumly, I headed home.

Down on St. Claude, I decided to lift my spirits by enjoying one of the undeniable benefits Katrina's wake has brought us: the taco trucks. If you live in the Southwest, you're already privy to the wonders of the taco truck, but they are a new emergence on the culinary scene of New Orleans, arriving with the waves of hispanic workers who are doing the lion's share of the gutting and roofing and sheetrocking around town. These rolling restaurants, portable taquerias in delivery trucks, have set up shop on the parking lots of gas stations and building material suppliers. Like a spicy version of the ice cream man. My nearest truck is Taqueria Las Cazuelas. I was mentally practicing to order in Spanish until the grandmotherly proprietor greeted me with "How are you tonight?" Watching her prepare my tacos, I was struck by the unmistakeable care she showed: lime wedges cut on the spot, shredded lettuce artfully arranged, sauce and salt containers set in counterbalance to the two lime wedges, the plate carefully wrapped in aluminum foil. It was the antithesis of the distracted, rushed, slightly annoyed manner of the typical fast-food worker. The tacos were first rate, and the sauce--an edgy burn around the lips lent character and nuance by cilantro and tomatoes chopped infintely fine--is calling me back as I write this.

O Madonna of the Cazeulas, our Lady of the Double Tortilla:
wield your saute pan of mercy and dispense the balm of your chopped cilantro.
Fortify your faithful that they may vanquish the night of the blue roof.
And intercede for us with your Patron, who has granted us your vision as a sign of our renewal.


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