After Katrina

Finding signs of hope in a familiar face,

a casual chat, the smell of baking bread

Associated Press

Saturday, October 15, 2005

By Hugo Kugiya, AP National Writer


NEW ORLEANS — On one of the many recent cloudless mornings, all of the patrons of La Boulangerie on the once again fashionable Magazine Street chose to sit outside.

Newspapers were unfurled, napping dogs underfoot. No one seemed to be reading the news, concentrating instead on the funny pages. Likewise, overheard conversations were about everything but the flood. Two strangers, he originally from New York City, she from France, talked about his trip to Nice and his attempt at the language. Another woman remarked on her three-​​week wait for the delivery of her new refrigerator, about as close as the chatter got to talk of the disaster.

This too is part of the rebuilding process, the repairing of souls, the restoration of everyday rituals, the reopening of familiar places, and the reassurance of familiar faces.

As an army of mostly outsiders work on the physical reconstruction of the city, replacing pipe, cable, glass and roofing, those who know New Orleans as home have begun its emotional reconstruction.

The idea of home is something you really grab onto,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-​​Sideris, who chairs the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. “The attachment is very emotional.”

What is important (in the rebuilding) is remembering what landmarks are meaningful to people … they are the small things. It could be a little open space in the midst of a neighborhood, a little corner shop. Those elements need to be provided again.”

It remains an open question left by Hurricane Katrina: Will New Orleans, so drastically altered and damaged, ever be the same? Put another way, will those who called it home, ever feel at home in it again?

As the first signs of the new New Orleans begin to emerge, the answer is still unclear. It depends on whether you had a home to come back to, and a job to keep you there. It depends on whether you evacuated before the storm, or stayed behind and are now haunted by the memories of the horrors you witnessed.

Some loaded up trailers and vowed never to return. Some returned to businesses or affairs they could not abandon but with plans to make their way out of the city soon. Some could not be sure how long they would remain. Others swore they did not want to live anywhere else in the world.

The glass cases and bread baskets in La Boulangerie bakery and cafe, a family concern run by two brothers from Normandy, were nearly emptied of their baguettes, apple cinnamon scones and banana nut muffins. More than baked goods, these were signs of hope.

Here in the Garden District, on the high ground of the city, hope returned with the electricity and the running water, yes, but also with the smell of fresh bread. La Boulangerie opened the first week of October. So did the Middle Eastern restaurant Table One, also on Magazine Street.

During weekend brunch, every table inside and outside was full. Every barstool was taken. The institutional presence in the city was very evident in the number of workmen dining at Table One, as well as the number of federal agents, fire fighters and police. But the majority of the patrons were locals. In fact, Mayor Ray Nagin ate there twice last week.

What you can get here is a little slice of normalcy,” said Table One’s owner, Tarek Tay, 33. “You can see it in the guy sitting back in his chair, sipping wine. This is how his life was before the hurricane. And for a while, his life is the same again.”

The Garden District, Bywater, the French Quarter, the Central Business District, and the Uptown districts where Audubon Park and Tulane University are located — these are the older neighborhoods along the northern bank of the Mississippi River that were largely spared by the floodwaters. Businesses opened first in these areas. Vacant apartments near the university are quickly being rented, said Katie Merritt, 22, a Tulane graduate student who jumped at the first one-​​bedroom apartment she found available.

With much of the rest of New Orleans still lacking power or people, the city, in many ways, has been reduced to a town concentrated along the riverbank.

On Bourbon Street, they are sipping cocktails served in vessels shaped like hand grenades. At the Marie Laveau House of Voodoo, they are hawking St. Christopher statues to Roman Catholics who believe burying one in your yard brings good luck. Burying icons in a city of icons — that too is an act of faith and hope.

In similar spirit, Chris Edwards, 37, and Mae Fern Schroeder, 38, plan to raise their infant son in New Orleans. She is pregnant. Their first child is due in February. Edwards and Schroeder, husband and wife, own a home in Uptown, on Delachaise Street, part of which they rent out. They spent 8 years renovating the 150-​​year-​​old house, which was part of the original Delachaise plantation. Edwards is a first-​​year medical student at LSU, which relocated its medical school from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. He is living with a host family. Schroeder is studying to be a speech pathologist.

We plan for the city to be our home for at least the next four years,” said Schroeder, cautiously optimistic about whether they will stay longer. The couple loves the way the city brings out passions in people, but they loathe its chronic problems, the crime, the poverty, the broken educational system, reasons so many of their friends have left for places like Portland, Ore.

There’s so much dysfunction here, it’s an easy place to be pessimistic,” Edwards said. “There’s a tremendous amount we don’t know.”

As a future doctor, he wonders what will become of the city’s hospitals, two of which are marked for demolition. As a future father, he wonders whether services like daycare will be widely available in the coming years, and if the quality of public schools will improve.

Yet, both he and Schroeder can imagine a city improved by the rebuilding, a new hospital, new schools, new jobs and new money, a healthy tax base. The storm, they hope, might have removed the impediments to such improvements.

We want to be part of the solution too,” Schroeder said. Still, she added: “We worry about things being in transition and being so unstable and how they might affect a young child. We hope we can create a sense of safety for our child here.”

The block on which they reside is a microcosm of the city. Across from their beautifully restored house is a three-​​story apartment building, its roof torn off by the storm, all of its floors soaked. It will be torn down and replaced with condos, the neighbors were told. The apartment building was also the reputed location of numerous drug deals.

Next to Edwards and Schroeder lives the former dean of the LSU medical school. At the end of the block is Cohen High School, one of the poorest-​​performing in the state. The block is just north of St. Charles Avenue, a sort of dividing line between the predominantly white Garden District and the predominantly black Uptown neighborhood on the other side. The Uptown side has gentrified over the years. Homes are being restored. Blocks close to St. Charles can no longer be strictly defined by race. Black and white, professors and plumbers, affluence and poverty reside on the same blocks.

The Edwards-​​Schroeder home sits on another kind of line, a more literal one. The flood water came to within an inch of their main floor, destroying the cooling and heating system but sparing the house. Another block north and their home would have flooded. Another block toward St. Charles and their crawl space would have stayed dry.

The ground cover, the magnolia trees, and the sweet olive are a mix of green and brown, sick branches and new buds, metaphor for the city, suffering but on the mend.

Downriver from the Quarter are the bohemian enclaves of Marigny, Bywater and Faubourg. The residents are a mix of working-​​class families, craftsmen, and artists escaping the rising rents of the Quarter. There was a cookout at BJ’s bar on Burgundy Street last Sunday. They grilled chickens while a band played honky-​​tonk music, New Orleans style, for a loose web of friends and some National Guardsmen who wandered by.

The blocks near the river, including Burgundy, had electricity. But north of St. Claude Avenue, where the land is lower and closer to Lake Pontchartrain, houses were dark. Only a few residents with generators attempted to retake their homes.

Structures in Marigny, Bywater or Faubourg were not damaged by the flood, but very few people have returned to live. Every day they come by with trucks and trailers, removing what they want and leaving the rest to anyone who cares. Every other house, neighbors estimate, is no longer occupied. Many have relocated to Texas, Georgia or to the Midwest. They have apartments with new appliances and no jobs to return to in New Orleans.

Karen Simon, 28, with help from relatives, removed belongings of sentimental value from her shotgun rental in the Bywater, loaded them onto a trailer and left for a new life in Arkansas.

We can’t live here anymore,” she said. “We don’t have power. The place smells. There’s a dead rat in the bathtub. Who could live here?”

Most who stayed in the city believe it will be smaller, at least for a time. Too many people have been left and have no way to return. Restaurants and hotels have lost staff, not because their jobs were eliminated but because they lost their homes or because their kids do not have schools to attend.

The same number of people leaving will be replaced by the same number of people coming here,” said Tay, whose restaurant is suffering from a lack of staff. “This is a beautiful city. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Hordes of potential new residents are arriving in New Orleans daily, hired to paint, clean, demolish, and rebuild the mess left by the hurricane. Maurice, who would not give his last name, is a painter from Honduras, by way of New Jersey. He wore a T-​​shirt bearing the name of his newly adopted home. He has been living in New Orleans for two weeks and plans to work here for at least three months. If the work keeps coming, who knows, he said, “I might stay.”

Once the newcomers revitalize the city, the exiles will return, said Craig Colten, professor of geography at Louisiana State University. Through churches, neighborhood associations, and social clubs devoted to Mardi Gras events, these networks of former New Orleanians will reconstitute themselves. The Internet and mobile phones will aid in the process.

I don’t think being displaced physically is such a great obstacle to coming back,” said Colten, author of “An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature.”

People have powerful attachments to New Orleans… They get uneasy the farther they get from the city. It’s because of the rich architecture, the availability of certain foods, the manner of speech. There’s enough of the city to provide a seed bed. The city can re-​​germinate itself.”

When asked to explain why they stay, or why they think people will come back, more than a few residents referred to the song, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” The answer lies in the words:

Moonlight on the bayou.

Creole tunes fill the air.

I dream about magnolias in bloom.

And I’m wishing I was there.”