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After the flood: New Orleans in limbo

“In ten years New Orleans will be a city full of white women,” says prominent artist and city engineer, Robert Tannen.

Tannen, which is what everyone calls him, turns out to be a long-lost relative and my wife and I are in his home, a mini-mansion in elegant decay on the outskirts of Treme. The inside of his house is little different from the outside. It is clean, well constructed and inviting but cluttered with his own works of art – chairs reupholstered in old rags, rusty sculptures, carved blocks of wood, a page torn from a magazine and folded just so. Tannen and his wife, Jean Nathan, a community leader herself who founded the New Orleans Museum of Contemporary Art, sit across from me snacking on cheese and drinking wine from mason jars. The spread is placed between the various knickknacks and sculptures that take up most of the table. They are speaking of the dark vein of voodoo and fatalism that permeates throughout this city that has struggled to come back since America’s worst natural disaster.

Iconic statue in Jackson Square

Iconic statue in Jackson Square

“Everyone here knows we are stuck in a bathtub below sea level that won’t exist in a hundred years,” says Tannen, peering out at me from under his bushy eyebrows and shock of white hair. He looks as though he has been caught in blizzard.

Despite this, the couple do not seem resigned. Tannen, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, came to New Orleans after hurricane Camille in 1969 to help rebuild and never left. Today he seems to believe in the spirit of the city as much as ever. Recently, he even purchased a ruined home in the Lower Ninth Ward, which he has renovated and turned into a de facto art gallery and sometimes “country home.”

“It’s right along the levy,” he says, “It’s five minutes away and it feels like we are in the middle of nowhere it’s so quiet.”

The quiet of course is a product of a neighborhood largely abandoned, but Tannen is no gentrifier. “I don’t think I could even live in a white neighborhood,” he says. “I’ve been in Treme every since I came to New Orleans and I’ve never felt threatened.” What about the high crime and murder rate that the city has become notorious for? “That’s a product of the drug culture,” he says. “Like every other city, if you’re not involved in that element you’re not really a target. Mostly, it’s just media hype.”

Currently, he and Jean are trying to fight a high-density condo project slated to go up in the Lower Ninth that would change the neighborhood dramatically. He does know that if New Orleans is going to fully rebuild itself it is likely to be in the manner happening in cities all over America. That is to say, young white professionals moving back. Tannen tells me that a lot of the, “newbies,” as he calls them, came here to help and just like him, fell in love with the city. It’s already happening east of the French Quarter in Bywater where hipster friendly coffee shops and galleries are taking shape along the Mississippi.

I part ways with Tannen, promising to meet him later at his country home and set out to explore New Orleans as it is now, eight years after Katrina.

Rescue squad markings still visible

My wife and I have booked a room in ‘New Orleans most haunted hotel,’ The Bourbon Orleans. Apart from a debate we have going about the strange laughter we hear at three in the morning on our first night (drunks or ghosts?) we did not feel too ‘haunted.’ It is a perfect place to stay in the French Quarter, on a quiet side street but within bottle-throwing distance of debauchery.

Everything you have heard about the French Quarter is and remains true. It is both a tourist trap and an amazing, unique American experience. There is of course Bourbon Street, which by late afternoon on any given day is already starting to buzz with drunken excitement. By nightfall it is all out self-indulgence. You absolutely have to see it and then you absolutely have to take a shower and go elsewhere. I head over to Café Du Monde. Though the place is mobbed with tourist the service is surprisingly quick and friendly. The coffee is hit or miss but the beignets are worth the hype. After, we stroll along taking in the unique architecture and listening to a few talented street musicians. Mostly though we look for a good bar.

Tujagues on Decatur Street is populated by just one customer who is showing the woman behind the bar some perfume she has bought.

“Smells great,” says the bartender.

“Thanks, mom,” replies the customer.

It is my first cocktail in New Orleans and it seems fitting that it should be a Sazerac. At first the bartender seems slightly annoyed and I’m not sure if it is because of my clichéd request or because she just does not feel like it. None-the-less I watch her craft the drink with all of the expertise and none of the pretension that you would get at a bar with a ‘mixologist,’ even tossing the glass into the air to coat it with Herbsaint, the local substitute for absinthe. I compliment her on a well-made drink and she starts to warm up, even inviting us back for Monday’s free red beans and rice.

Bourbon Street: still buzzin

At night we go to Frenchman Street, three blocks jammed with jazz clubs that give you a sense of what it must have been like here when that scene first exploded. The music coming from the bar I choose is pure 1940s era New Orleans; there are horns, drums and the unmistakable voice of a young female jazz singer in the mold of Billie Holiday. I itch with excitement, outside of the French Quarter now, about to experience ‘real’ New Orleans. Upon entering I notice that the woman performing looks more like Joanna Newsome than Josephine Baker. The same could be said of the audience as well.

The next day my wife and I head further east past the balconied houses and mansions of The Marigny on into the scrappier neighborhood of Bywater. Anytime I start to wonder if we have gone too far, a few hipsters in tight jeans ride by on bicycles. There are tougher parts of Bywater to be sure, but along the banks of the Mississippi you’ll find a similar landscape as you would in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Though there are signs of life, things do feel emptied out. There is a quietness to the city, a lack of traffic and busyness. It is both enchanting and disconcerting.

We end up stopping by Elizabeth’s Restaurant on Chartres Street. The place has been around since 1996, but has seen a huge jump in business since Katrina. Having had a large breakfast in the Quarter at the wonderful Old Coffee Pot, we wanted only to try the praline bacon that Elizabeth’s has become famous for. The waitress seemed nonplussed at our tiny order but even her attitude could not ruin the experience of having my two favorite things combined – Candy Bacon!

Heading back down Chartres, with houses to our right and the infamous levy on the left, we came upon a strange compound of sorts decorated in folk art that seemed equally inviting and scary. The name on the side of the fence said Dr. Bob and we recognized both the aesthetic and the name from artwork we had seen around New Orleans restaurants and stores. We walk through the fence and down a gravel driveway past old streetcars, stacks of doors and various piles of debris. Stepping nervously into the vast warehouse where Doctor Bob kept his work, we are greeted by a fast approaching, snarling dog. I freeze and the dog’s charge comes to a halt just inches away. He looks up and begins wagging his tail. My experience with Dr. Bob is similar. The artist came down a flight of stairs from his workshop and growled something indecipherable. When I told him we were just there to look around he growled again and walked away. My wife breaks the ice by asking if he knows Robert Tannen. “Indeed,” he says. In fact Tannen had given him his first job as an artist in New Orleans. That got him talking and by the time we leave we have purchased three pieces of art and only paid for two.

Flood plain dwellings

The next day, after another evening on Frenchmen Street watching jazz music with white people, we hear of a Second Line. It was going right through the Garden District which we had not yet visited, thus killing two birds. We began the day exploring the eerie beauty of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1; a plot of aboveground tombs that like everything else was in various states of decay. While walking through the narrow pathways between the graves the sky began to darken, leaves began to blow and suddenly the humid June afternoon begins to feel like Halloween.

We exit the cemetery in search of two famous houses, Anne Rice’s and Nine Inch Nails mastermind, Trent Reznor’s; two more people who do not live in New Orleans anymore. Upon finding Reznor’s I was heartened by a passerby who tells us that it is now the home of John Goodman. As I am a much bigger fan of The Big Lebowski than The Downward Spiral, this is welcome news.

As we made our way toward St. Charles Avenue the skies turn even more threatening. A jarring thunderclap crackles. We are painfully aware of how far away we are from any shelter here amongst the mansions. In an instant the sky opens up and the streets becomes a river. We run south for Magazine Street, the nearest commercial strip, until finding an awning attached to a closed down deli to duck beneath. We could be more soaked if we had jumped into our hotel swimming pool with our clothes on. Neither of us can imagine sloshing around the next few hours in our saturated sneakers and denim to watch the Second Line. We catch the first bus headed back to the Quarter to put on something dry.

Classic Louisiana cuisine at Kermits

That evening we go to catch New Orleans’ legend Kermit Ruffins. After the success of appearing on HBO’s Treme, as himself, Ruffins has recently started a club called Kermit’s Speak Easy in the show’s namesake neighborhood. He spends Sunday afternoons cooking soul food for patrons and then the evenings blasting out tunes on his trumpet. We walk through Louis Armstrong Park on the way, stopping by Congo Square, the spot where slaves used to gather with African drums and European brass instruments playing them together until they had invented the first American art form, Jazz. There is a drum-circle taking place in the square as we pass and I have to stop myself from romanticizing too much.

Passing through the streets of Treme, you definitely get a sense of the economic situation there versus the other neighborhoods we have explored. The club is easy to find and already filling up by the time we arrive. I end up being seated next to a thirty-something white guy with a beard and overalls. Kermit came out and was as advertised – an extremely talented, charismatic and hypnotic performer and chef to boot. Looking around the club I noticed that once again everyone in there looks kind of like me. I leaned over to the bearded guy and tell him I thought that at least here in Treme the demographic might be different.

“So did they,” he says. Over the music, he proceeds to tell me that he has come from Vermont on a quest of sorts to find the roots of something authentic in America. That it was pretty amazing to be sitting in a place listening to the music that was indigenous to that very neighborhood.

While one half of me wants to roll my eyes at Mr. Overalls, the other half of me had to admit I was doing the same thing. And that perhaps here in New Orleans it was still to be found. In America, where entire cities are becoming virtual Disneylands for young professionals with money to blow, how was this experience that I was having right now not worthy of appreciating for its uniqueness? As Kermit’s trumpet blasted through the club I started thinking that New Orleans, for as battered and broken as it still is, might be the only unique city in America. It is a place with a culture so strong that high school kids are still playing jazz music in the streets. A place where they never stopped making the cocktails that they are now trying to replicate in every other fake “speak easy.” Where they are still serving the same buttery food the same way they always have. Where many people spoke only French well into the 20th Century. Not to mention the architecture. It took a very unique blend of people, circumstances and geography to create what this place has become I hoped dearly that regardless of who moves here – whether the old population makes it back, or if Tannen is correct – that they would respect, preserve and keep building upon this great tradition. An America without New Orleans is a much-diminished country. Kermit finished his set with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Armstrong Park at dusk

On our last morning, Tannen and his wife swing by our hotel. We stop in Bywater for pastries at “the newbie bakery” and drive over the bridge to the Lower Ninth Ward. While many traces of Katrina remain – boarded up homes tilting one direction or another (many still spray painted from when the search teams went in) and some overgrown lots here and there – I am struck with the quiet beauty and by some of the absolutely gorgeous homes that still remain. Tannen’s place is right on the river and before going inside, my wife and I take a walk to the levy. That’s when the word bathtub finally makes sense. It gives one pause to stand next to a river and look at land that is actually lower than the water. I tried not to think of the scenes on television of people trapped on their rooftops. We walked around the neighborhood for a time, past pretty houses and abandoned houses. When we saw a family sitting out on their porch in an otherwise abandoned block I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t there to see Ruin-Porn. I turned the next street and walked back to Tannen’s.

The house is a smaller version of his home in Treme and doubled as a gallery space for local artist shows. We sat sipping coffee and eating the decidedly delicious ‘newbie’ pastries. While Tannen tells us of the struggles they had renovating the house we hear strange, high-pitched sounds coming from the living room. We investigate and discover a bird’s nest has fallen through the chimney and we now have five tiny birds fighting for life on the floor. Not knowing what else to do, we put them in a basket, carry them outside and set them some place high where hopefully their mother will hear them. I sit down in the flood plane some distance away. It is a beautiful day with a pleasant breeze coming off the river. I sit staring up at the nest listening to the cries of the baby birds, feeling helpless. All I can do is hope. Hope like hell that somewhere in the Ninth Ward circling around in the sky their mother hears them. That she will hear them and find them and swoop down and save them.

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