A City Divided

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my family and I visited New Orleans. I had been there once before, about eleven years ago. Everyone else in my family has been since Katrina hit, and I had heard my dad talk about what the city was like on his many trips there to volunteer after the storm, so I was really curious to see what had changed. I have many vivid memories of that previous trip, even though we were only there for two days. I fell in love with the city then, and always said that if I had the opportunity to move there, I would (funny how those things come back to you). Since that visit, I’ve always read everything I could about the city, especially any story set there in any time period. I was afraid that the trip this past weekend would completely overshadow my memories of how the city was.

We did visit the French Quarter, which is fascinating to me. The buildings are so beautiful, and I love the wrought iron balconies. For someone much more familiar with the DFW area, it’s like a foreign country down there. The narrow, crowded streets and the buildings crammed together make me a touch claustrophobic. Jackson Square was interesting, with all the “psychics” sitting around offering to tell your future, and musicians playing everywhere. Café du Monde was great (and very crowded). Wonderful beignets and coffee. We drove through the Garden District and looked at the beautiful, wonderful houses. In short, we did most of the tourist things.

But…you drive through these huge neighborhoods full of big houses, and you realize that only two or three houses on a street are occupied now. There are still “blue roofs” everywhere, the damage from the storm covered by bright blue tarps stretched so tightly they look like you could bounce a quarter off of them. You can see the holes in some of the roofs where people escaped the rising water. And everywhere, everywhere are the spray-painted Xs on the houses with the number of dead bodies found there and the date and crew who searched them. It’s been over two years, and still parts of the city look like a ghost town. I think the creepiest thing for me was going past the now-deserted Six Flags theme park. It’s just past Lake Pontchartrain, in the middle of an expanse of weeds, brush, and broken trees. The empty rollercoasters rise up out of that mess like giants, and they stand there all by themselves, like sentinels for the lost.

My dad took us to the Lower Ninth Ward. Having heard so many stories about what a bad neighborhood that is, I was more than a little nervous. (Oak Cliff in Dallas doesn’t even make me nervous.) So much of the neighborhood is empty now. I know it used to be row upon row of shotgun houses crammed together, but we drove past empty, overgrown lots, and then suddenly, in the middle of nothing, there would be a house, standing crooked and abandoned. Or sometimes a brand-new rebuilt house. Deserted cars in now-empty lots. Street after street of empty lots and occasional houses. The farther away from the levee you get, the more houses there are, although many of them are still empty. Up close to the new levee, there are really no houses. I think I saw one ramshackle house that somehow managed to stay standing when everything around it didn’t, and one half-crumbled brick church. The levees aren’t what I expected either, just a mound of dirt with a wall on top of it. I know people live in the Lower Ninth, but the only signs of life we saw were a cop sitting in his patrol car in an empty parking lot, and a man walking through what my dad told me was a hippie commune called Common Ground. Quite sad, actually.

But the people we met were friendly. I love to listen to them talk, their words have such a musical rhythm, sort of flowing along. And they say “sugar” and “darlin’,” and “all right” (which comes out sounding like “aw ‘ight”). I love it. Already an idea is niggling the back of my mind to set a story there. Definitely. And the research will be great!

Also posted to A Figment of My Imagination.


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