A desperate sense of optimism

Joseph Boyden goes back to New Orleans and finds desolation — and hope — among the ruins

It’s easy sitting here on my stoop on Magazine Street between Louisiana and Napoleon Avenues to imagine that Katrina never visited New Orleans. My anal neighbour across the street has decided to paint the front of his home yet again, and the traffic buzzes by steadily, almost as busy as it used to be. But if you look at the smaller details — the oaks missing limbs, fridges and stoves sitting dumbly by the road, waiting to be picked up, the utter lack of life on the side streets — you begin to sense that something terribly wrong happened here.

A strip of New Orleans is indeed alive. The higher ground. It winds along the Mississippi, stretching from Audubon Park in Uptown, bound between Tchoupitoulas and St. Charles, through the Garden District to the Warehouse District to the Central Business District and ending on the far side of the French Quarter. It has a newly coined nickname among my friends. The Island. And some of my friends who’ve watched with disgust and fear as our local government battles the big government have taken to calling it The Isle of Denial.

Part of the disgust has to do with a certain Garden District crowd, old money wealth who even at the best of times never seemed to care for much outside of their mansions and oak-lined avenues. A number of these people have even spoken out in the past couple of months, publicly, that the new socio-racial shift in New Orleans is a gift and a godsend. Far fewer people of a certain race now in town, which equals less crime. Fewer headaches. In part as a response to these people, my friends have created a website,, to explore, often with humour, the fiction and the reality of life in the city post-Katrina.

A city where only an estimated 100,000 out of a population of close to 500,000 have returned is a place that will not be able to support its past grandeur for long. Who will wash these well-to-do people’s Lexuses and clean their houses and serve their food at restaurants desperately in need of workers? I saw a sign at a local Burger King recently offering a $6,000 bonus to people willing to come to work there for a year. This certainly isn’t the New Orleans I left a few months back.

A desperate sense of optimism permeates The Island. Blaring radio ads about how New Orleans is rebuilding and reinventing itself. The chancellor of my university has one such ad in high rotation on the city’s most popular station. “This year, back to school means more than new hightops and laptops,” he says in his best where y’at Nawlins drawl, upbeat jazz playing in the background. “In New Orleans it means things are getting back to normal. . . . Hurricanes come and go, but an education is forever.” The chancellor urges New Orleans citizens to register for spring semester, which begins on Jan. 30. He makes no mention that our campus is still closed down by the Environmental Protection Agency and that much of our infrastructure was damaged. But he can’t. The University of New Orleans draws the vast majority of its students from the metro population, and if current returnee numbers hold, we won’t have much of a university to speak of next year.

Talk circulates of our city turning into a “boutique town,” a place of fancy clothing stores, fine eating establishments and trendy spas, not much bigger than Uptown and the central business district and the French Quarter. A clean version of the old New Orleans, a place where rents will double and the real estate market will prosper. Who needs the Ninth Ward and the Bywater?

But New Orleans, to many of those outside of the Garden District, is a city with soul created by a majority black population, culturally rich and fed by music and art and food of the African-American, the Caribbean and the Creole. It is this blithe indifference, this refusal on the part of so many of the wealthy, that infuriates some of my friends.

Yet this new optimism doesn’t come out of nowhere. After Katrina and the ensuing evacuation of the city, crime has dropped to an all-time low. Only a handful of murders in the past months, when before a handful of murders was a regular weekend occurrence. Pre-Katrina, New Orleans faced a monstrous problem of blighted housing. Now, the city will be forced to do something about it. The Island has become a buzzing hive of activity: outside labourers have poured in, many of them Latino, working long days to repair the houses of those who can afford it. In fact, so many Latin American workers have come to town in the past few months that supermarkets have begun stocking a variety of Mexican and Central American foods. Home Depot has now added Spanish translations underneath English signs in the store. A tent village of migrant labourers has sprung up in City Park, and the park charges a $300-a-month tent fee, and $5 a shot for a shower.

Indeed, the demographics of this city have changed drastically. Far fewer blacks, far more Latinos, a white population that is clearly a far higher percentage overall, far fewer women than men. But the strangest change is the lack of children. It used to be that when 3 p.m. came on a weekday, our streets filled with the shouts and laughter of students walking home in their uniforms. Now it’s as if they’ve been banished. We’ve become an island of adults, trying desperately to put on our best face, all of us secretly wondering what will become of this place, if this place is even going to make it in the end.

The National Guard presence is dwindling, and more police seem to be out again. Mayor Ray Nagin declared our street, Magazine Street, the new hub of industry in New Orleans. The coffee shops and restaurants and clothing stores and Harry’s Ace Hardware all seem to be doing pretty well. Not as well as during other holiday seasons, for sure, though they’ve got customers walking up and down Magazine. But as soon as dinnertime rolls around and the shoppers have gone home and the labourers have headed out of the city and back to Metairie and beyond, the quiet settles in, even in the new economic hub. The odd car drives down my street. The odd stranger strolls by. Night settles, and life retreats behind drawn shades.

My wife, Amanda, and I drive out to the Parkview Tavern in Mid-City on Monday night to meet with a few of our graduate students who’ve returned. It’s 9 p.m., but it might as well be 2 in the morning as soon as we pass St. Charles, heading down Washington Avenue. St. Charles is pretty much the shoreline of The Island as you head toward Lake Ponchartrain. Soon as you cross, no more streetlights. You have entered the sea of destruction that is the rest of New Orleans. Dark houses list, their foundations shifted after sitting in eight feet of water for days and days. Wreckage is strewn across lawns and sidewalks. The odd boat still appears in our headlights, propped up on a fence now that the water’s receded. The black avenue stretches out before us. Like driving into the beginning of a nightmare. Not a soul on the once busy street. A few houses completely demolished, so that it’s difficult to imagine just what happened to them. This used to be a dicey area, always a little discomforting to drive down at night, but now, with no humans around, it is far scarier.

At the corner of Louisiana and Claiborne, a once thriving bus stop sits empty. No power has been restored here, and so instead of stoplights, temporary stop signs have been erected. It used to be a traffic-choked crossroad. Now even the stop signs don’t seem necessary. We are the only ones out here tonight, and curfew is still five hours away.

We make a right on Jefferson Davis and head toward Bayou Saint John. Mid-City. Black road. The stars peek through the stripped oak limbs. This road was still full of water when we tried to drive down it two weeks after the hurricane. I wonder where all the people who used to live here have gone.

The Parkview is bustling, though, and has, it seems, become a watering hole for quite a few of the new labourers in town. Here, we’re close to the tent village in City Park. Men stare at Amanda and me as we walk in to order a drink. Actually, they stare at the tall, pretty Amanda. The male-to-female ratio in town often feels about 10-to-1, especially in this place tonight.

Monday night at the Parkview is a tradition with our students and us, something Amanda and I actually helped start years ago when we were graduate students. A number of us sit at the picnic tables out front, even when the temperature drops as it does tonight, sipping on beer or the margarita specials, discussing writing and politics and music. Not too many of us tonight. The mood is a touch depressed.

Our student Chrys, who, when he evacuated months ago to Denver and felt like a raisin in a bowl of milk, looks a little haggard. He’s been evicted from his apartment because the landlady realized she can charge far more now that housing is in such short supply. And he wrecked his car a few days before while returning to the city. Arin, who also sits with us, was forced to take a job as a bartender at a local strip club to pay for her dog’s chemo. The dog died anyway.

We talk about the approaching spring semester, how it’s starting two weeks later than normal. Some of us are leaving for the holidays. Some of us are staying. Across what was once a busy Carrollton Avenue, we watch two raccoons chase each other up and down a palm tree. To lighten the mood, I cross the road, not even worrying to check for oncoming traffic(there is none), and herd one of the raccoons back to our table, where it scrambles up an oak tree beside my students. Arin isn’t impressed. She thinks it was a cruel thing to do to a poor raccoon. On a pre-Katrina night, I’m sure I would have gotten laughs. Not tonight.

The next day, Amanda and I take another drive through the wrecked city. Most of it looks just as we’d left it two weeks after Katrina. A few more workers are trying to restore power or driving around. But block after block is grey and leaning. Deserted. Destroyed. Side streets are especially sad. Fluorescent orange Xs marking doors like something from a Biblical Moses story. Miles and miles of dead neighbourhoods, freezers in the limbs of trees, cars up on porches, everything covered in a dry soap scum, so that it’s easy to see how impossibly high the water rose. Where have all these people gone?

My friend, a photographer named Ruth Caffery, invites me down to the St. Bernard projects to meet a special man. His name is Bruce Davenport, and he’s the pastor of St. John’s #5 Faith Church. It used to be St. John’s #5 Baptist Church, but Pastor Bruce began handing out condoms to youth in the neighbourhood in an attempt to battle an alarmingly high rate of teen pregnancy and HIV infection, and the Baptists didn’t take kindly to that. I want to meet him.

We drive down Claiborne, underneath the I-10 overpass. The median ground underneath this overpass is one long car graveyard. Dead automobile after dead automobile lined up, hundreds and hundreds of them, all of them with the distinctive grey film up past their windows.

We turn down one more ruined street and Ruth points the way to a church mostly standing, the brow-brick empty tenements of the St. Bernard housing project directly across from it. No one on the street. Not even any animals — all the strays have disappeared in the city, too. We knock on Pastor Bruce’s door beside the church and then knock again. Finally his door opens. He’s living on the second floor of what used to be his substance abuse centre. The first floor took in many feet of water. All of the four houses he and his flock purchased on this block years ago before they were slated to be torn down by the city took in a lot of water.

Pastor Bruce is a bear of a man. I soon realize he’s the gentle kind. He takes me door to door, to the academic enhancement house that provides literacy programs to the youth of these projects, to the counselling house next door that deals with HIV/AIDS and pregnancy prevention, to the cultural and social centre, to the computer technology centre, and to the substance abuse building. All of them destroyed, black mould crawling up walls and furniture overturned, beds reeking of mildew and computers lying dead on the ground. I can see what all of this once was. And yet Pastor Bruce is upbeat, saying to me, “Thank you, thank you, I sure do appreciate you coming here,” enough that I feel like a special ambassador bearing many gifts. He’s got a vision of rebuilding. He says the people will come back. I look around as he walks me to his church. We’re the only ones on the street as far down the road as we can see.

“How many families lived in St. Bernard before Katrina?” I ask.

“Officially, 1,300 to 1,500 families. Unofficially, far more than that. Thousands of people. Thousands.”

“How many have returned?” We look around. A question not worth answering.

He takes me up the steps to his church on the second floor. It, too, is ruined. The roof leaked badly and we can see daylight through the ceiling. An organ and a pulpit sit on the stage up front. “People ask me if there’s life after death,” Pastor Bruce says as we look around. “Yeah. Of course there is. I been to New Orleans!” His eyes sparkle, and for the moment, I believe he will rebuild.

The noise of a few trucks outside sends us to the door to see who it is. “Well, look at that!” Pastor Bruce says. “The Red Cross.” This is only the second time he’s seen them since the hurricane hit in August. “This surely is turning into a blessed day.”

We flag the trucks down and they stop, a couple of young women and a couple of older men climbing out. We exchange pleasantries, and Ruth, Bruce and I help them unload a few coolers full of bottled water, mops, handles, bleach and brooms and carry them up to the church. This offering seems insubstantial and sad as I look around at the deserted project under a sombre sky, but I remind myself: it’s a start.

Before Ruth and I leave, we look at a few photos on the wall. Immediately, I spot a former English student of mine, Charlene, smiling down at me. “Pastor Bruce!” I say. “I know her! She was one of my best students!”

“She runs our educational services,” Pastor Bruce tells me. “She grew up here. This is her home. She’ll be back.”

As we are about to drive off, two white men in a white van pull up. “Hey!” Pastor Bruce says. “This is more action than I’ve seen in months!” It turns out the men are volunteers with a non-religious organization called Common Ground Collective. They are helping the pastor get wireless Internet and other communications set up. “This surely has turned into a blessed day,” Pastor Bruce says.

The sun comes out just as Ruth and I drive back onto The Island, into the French Quarter. We walk around for a while and note that the Quarter looks cleaner, and more empty, than we’ve seen it. We have lunch at the famous Napoleon House, back among the white people, the haves of this city. We’ve crossed into the other world of New Orleans again, the comfortable world.

“Leave your guns, dogs, and troubles at home,” the flyer for the Original Prince of Wales 77th Second Line Parade announces. This Sunday afternoon is turning into a pretty New Orleans December day. Rebirth, our city’s most famous brass band, leads a swelling wake of smiling, dancing people down Tchoupitoulas Avenue from Tipitina’s. Mostly a black crowd, but there are plenty of white people, too, all of them shuffling and dancing and laughing as they follow the second line: the men in their brilliant white suits and bouncing umbrellas who follow the musicians with their trumpets, saxophones and sousaphone. The second line pauses at different bars along the route, the Rock Bottom Lounge, Purple Rain, and Charley Wright’s Watering Hole. It’s the kind of rambling party you don’t want to end. The second line winds in and out of streets around my neighbourhood, hundreds following it, and I realize something: it pays no attention to the borders of The Island, crossing from inhabited area to blighted area and back again, weaving these blocks together as if there is no invisible border.

Second lines sprung up decades ago from social aid and pleasure clubs in the city, groups of people, almost solely African-American, with the shared purpose of bettering their communities, of helping one another. As the afternoon grows longer, I think of Pastor Bruce Davenport, the lone preacher left in a deserted and ruined housing project a few miles away from here.

The day Ruth and I visited Pastor Bruce, I asked him just before we left what it took to join a congregation like his. “We ain’t like the others,” he said. “If you believe and you want to take part, you’re in.”

Without thinking, I blurted, “I believe.”

“Well, raise your right hand, then,” he said. I did. And just like that, I’m now an honorary member of New Orleans’ St. John’s #5 Faith Church. Whoa. I guess now I’ve got to do something.

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