Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

Between RV jaunts, I traveled to New Orleans (NOLA) for a national conference for sign language interpreters. You might think this would be a quiet event, but not so. I may tell you about that someday in another post. This is about transition and change.

My first visit to NOLA was in 1995, also in August for the same interpreter conference. August is peak hurricane season, and that year a hurricane was flirting with New Orleans. The hotel manager came to our business meeting to tell us about hurricane procedures, which amounted to moving off the first two floors and preparing for a “traditional hurricane party where the bar is always open!” Then the hurricane veered off towards Mobile and we were all naïve enough to be somewhat bummed about missing the event. I fell in love with the city, and my first husband and I made many trips there over the years. We talked about moving there at one point. Then he became ill in 2002, and died in March 2004. In August 2005, NOLA nearly died. My first post-storm visit was in 2007, and the vibrant nature of the city was much diminished. I knew how NOLA felt; it’s devastating to lose a significant part of yourself. We were both pretty depressed. I had no desire to go back after that, and wouldn’t have if the conference (and a tax write-off) hadn’t presented itself. This trip happened to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. Friends had told me that the city was in the midst of a comeback, so I was curious to see it myself. The week I was there I encountered some of the hottest summer temperatures I’d experienced there. Heat indices were around 107°, which really put a damper on walking out during the heat of the day.

Most casual visitors wander onto Bourbon Street and say they’ve “done New Orleans” when that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are so many neighborhoods to explore and unique experiences that have nothing to do with the Bourbon Street holy trinity of fruity booze, cheap beads and house bands. The city is still trying to recover from having its working class neighborhoods wiped out. Those displaced were the people who drove cabs, cooked food, tended bars, played music busked streets and made the city what it was. They are coming home, and there is also an influx of new people who are part of the rebuild who bring juice bars, self-conscious coffee shops, bike lanes, industrial chic apartment buildings and chain stores masquerading as unique boutiques (think Urban Outfitters) into the lots Katrina cleared and absentee owners abandoned. There is a tension between the natives and the newcomers that is palpable. For example:

I went to lunch at the kind of place unheard of a few years ago; salads, tofu, wraps and herbal drinks, nary a po’boy or muffuletta in sight. The guy making my wrap asked the standard questions. “Where are you from? Why are you here? Been here before? Having a good time?” I answered all the questions, and he told me that I’d chosen the perfect time to come because it’s ‘much safer and cleaner here now than it was before Katrina.’ I took my meal and sat down. A few seconds later, a woman about my age came to my table and sat down. This is as close to verbatim of what she said as I can remember. Her voice shook as she spoke:

“I heard what that boy said to you, and I want you to know he doesn’t know anything about what this city was like, and what WE are about. It was NOT a horrible place to be. People lost everything or died in that storm and all we’ve been doing is trying to come home and rebuild our lives. He does not represent my city.” Then she left.

I get that. There are parts of the city that appear to be as they were, but there is much that has been lost. I read a story about how the Times Picayune (newspaper) has been helping recreate recipes for people who had lost generations of cook books and handwritten copies of great-great grandmama’s etouffee and icebox cake recipes. When I was walking around the Quarter, I went into the artists co-op, and was thrilled to find hat maker Tracy Thomson was still making her hats. I’d bought one 20 years ago, and wore it out. I looked for her in 2007 and couldn’t find her work. I assumed that like many, she’d been displaced or not survived. Tracy was there in the store. I was so excited to meet her, and of course I bought a hat. You should buy one too, they are on sale right now and they are fabulous. I ran across a few other local merchants here and there who had finally come back home. Another long-time favorite, Oscar was back in his original pre-storm booth space in the French Market. There’s a place for all the new stuff too, but there’s a danger that NOLA will become a homogenized version of itself.  I hope they manage to strike a balance between the old and the new. I’d hate to see Rampart street turned into a series of Nike, Disney and Crate and Barrel stores.

I didn’t get to see as much of the city as I hoped this time around. NOLA is a place you either love or hate, and most residents will tell you that they too have an on-again-off-again relationship with the city. It’s medieval and modern, funky and sophisticated, seedy and elegant. Going through great tragedy always changes you and makes things different forever after. Different, troubling and wonderful at the same time. I did get the itch to go back though, which I will. I miss New Orleans.

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