Neutral Ground

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Ten years after the storm

Flickr/ianafotog

By Wayne Curtis

September 3, 2015


 

Well, that was interesting.

Last weekend, New Orleans wrapped up what may be remembered as “Resilience Fest” to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the floodwalls.

While I never heard “resilience” out of the mouth of an actual New Orleanian on an actual street, it was inescapable in official pronouncements. An official resilience report was released, and a “resilience strategy lunch” was held. Mayor Mitch Landrieu published an op-ed in last Saturday’s New Orleans Advocate that used variations of the word “resilience” a dozen times. In his introduction to “New Orleans: A Resilient City,” the mayor noted that “New Orleans is a resilient place with resilient people.” “Resilience” was as unavoidable last week as “blowout preventer” was during the BP oil spill.

Events commemorating the anniversary took place morning, noon, and night in the weeks leading up to the August 29 anniversary. I’d wager you could have strolled into any random ballroom at any random hotel along Canal Street and heard a panel discussion about some aspect of the city and Katrina. These panels chiefly came in two flavors: What We Learned, or What We Still Need to Learn. Beyond the hotels there were wreath-laying ceremonies and politicians pontificating at highly orchestrated events. (This included three presidents—Obama, Bush, Clinton—in three days).

Volunteers spruced up playgrounds, youth were empowered at rallies, and the city could choose from a bountiful harvest of flood-related wellness events, concerts, art exhibits, and readings. Last Saturday on a levee in the Lower Ninth Ward, some of the city’s yoga studios banded together to host “a day of healing through yoga.”

And then there were the second lines—several were staged last Saturday. I’ve written about these traditional parades before here—they’re essentially semi-organized street parties led by social aid and pleasure club members wearing richly flamboyant outfits. The members dance through the street with a sound track provided by a brass band or two. Hundreds of others follow along, also dancing.

These are parades with no spectators. In most cities such a notion would be insufferably sad, but here it’s a triumph. Nobody watches; everybody participates.

The weather Saturday evening was surprisingly temperate for New Orleans in August—in the 80s with reasonable humidity. I followed along behind the Treme Sidewalk Steppers and Sudan social and pleasure clubs, who were accompanied by the TBC, Free Agents, and Stooges brass bands.

The route wound through what amounted to a life-sized recovery scrapbook. The parade assembled at Louis Armstrong Park—for years after the storm, it had been gated off despite then-Mayor Ray Nagin’s repeated insistence it would soon reopen; it thus become a de facto monument to municipal incompetence. (Although the city auditorium here is still a mouldering hulk, the rest of the park has been reopened and serves nicely as grounds for small festivals and concerts)

Everybody danced down the street past the new Bienville Basin apartments, a mixed-income project under construction that will replace the mostly demolished Iberville Housing Project. The closing of the projects generated massive controversy at about the time I moved here in 2006. At one heated community meeting, the African-American leader of the local housing authority bowed his head while for more than an hour one displaced attendee after another excoriated him for being an Uncle Tom.

We crossed Canal Street, where press photographers arriving in the storm’s wake took shots of haggard-looking souls emerging out of the glossy, waist-deep waters bearing plastic bags of clothes, the scene framed by slender, elegant palm trees. Here also are the Saenger and Joy theaters, both of which have been restored since the storm, and the Loews, which has not. For years the Loews marquee continued to advertise the upcoming Lil Wayne show that never happened. (Update: Lil Wayne did perform a few blocks away last Friday night, before a crowd of 10,000. “Ten years later,” he said, “and we’re still here.”)

At the now-closed Charity Hospital, where countless New Orleanians were born and died and tended to in between, The Stooges launched into “Wade in That Water,” a spiritual dating back more than a century. Another second line, led by the Hot 8 and two other brass bands, then converged here, and the redoubled parade danced on, past City Hall, the site of a massive 2007 protest I attended against the city’s escalating violence.

Mayor Nagin sought to speak there but was denied the stage. I watched him furiously texting from the stage’s edge, wondering who might be the one to pull the strings to get him the microphone he sought. (In court, years later, it emerged that he was actually texting about deals for his stone countertop side business and kickback scheme, for which he was eventually sentenced to 10 years.)

We danced past the restored Hyatt Hotel—another visual symbol of Katrina’s chaos, featured in numerous photos with its windows blown out by the winds, and which served as the de facto city hall as the city strived to right itself in the days immediately after the breach. (Today, it’s all glossy and sleek, a sort of polished plinth amid a recent bloom of condo building.)

The group at last danced to the Superdome. The TBC brass band struck up a measured version of “A Closer Walk with Thee”; and the Sudan marchers side-stepped slowly in unison, as if at a funeral. The crowd grew quieter.

And then, a few minutes later, the tempo picked up and people milled and two of the bands filled some time by engaging in a sort of sonic showdown, blasting at one another from a few yards away. I walked to an overpass connecting to the basketball arena, and watched the disjointed crowd below as it blew horns and danced and spun off in tendrils of music and convivial chatter.

With their noise and litter and weed smoking and al fresco beer drinking, second lines would have a hard time getting started in today’s climate—even in New Orleans. But they’ve been around for more than a century, and the momentum can’t be stopped.

Looking down, the scene brought to mind a comment made by Michael Mehaffey, then at the Sustasis Foundation, which studied urban life and sustainability, for a story I wrote on post-Katrina architecture in 2008.

“If you look at the way ants behave when they’re gathering food, it looks like the stupidest, most irrational thing you’ve ever seen,” he told me. “They’re zigzagging all over the place, they’re bumping into other ants. You think what a mess! This is never going to amount to anything. So, it’s easy to look at New Orleans at the grassroots level and wonder, what’s going on here?”

The last 10 years have shown that this sort of amiable chaos not only can get things done with surprising efficiency, but can also yield superior results over fastidious top-down planning.

As I bring this series of columns on New Orleans to a close, it seems to me that a little bedlam and disorganization is what you need to create a truly resilient city—it means many are involved, and all believe that there’s something worth fighting for. After nine years here, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. “If we can’t get New Orleans right,” Mehaffey said, “we’re really in trouble everywhere else.”

If there’s a final lesson from Katrina, that may be it.


Wayne Curtis is the author of  The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today and And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.


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