The Way of the Bayou

The Way of the Bayou
June 18, 2009
Dan Baum
Happy Days

Five weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I was wandering around the ruins of New Orleans as a writer for The New Yorker when I heard some really dreadful news.

The city was just starting to show signs of life. A few restaurants had opened, albeit with very limited menus — burgers, red beans and rice — served on plastic plates. For those of us who’d stayed through the crisis, these small miracles were our first taste of cooked food in a month. More important, though, was the symbolism. Live music was returning; Coco Robicheaux sang at Molly’s, and three members of the Jazz Vipers played at Angeli. For the first time since the disaster, it was possible to see a future for New Orleans.

And then a bombshell: All of the city’s real estate records had been in the basement of the courthouse and were damaged by flooding, apparently beyond redemption. It seemed that nobody would be able to prove ownership of their homes, which meant federal housing aid and insurance payments were frozen, as well as any chance of redevelopment. It was like being punched in the stomach.

If New Orleans disappeared, a piece of the American soul would go with it.

I’d had very little experience with New Orleans before Katrina; I didn’t really start getting to know it until it was full of water. But even without much in the way of the cuisine and entertainment that makes it famous, New Orleans had me intoxicated. Its people were responding to the disaster with such candor and wit that the city seemed the national repository of that snoot-cocking Huck Finn spirit we Americans claim to cherish, and if it disappeared, a piece of the American soul would go with it.

I was staggering through the nearly deserted French Quarter when who should I see walking toward me but Joe Braun, the Jazz Vipers’ saxophone player. Joe is a lugubrious-looking fellow in the best of times, and these were hardly the best of times. Shoulders hunched, in his trademark newsboy’s cap, he looked like he was walking to his own funeral.

“I hate to make your burden heavier,” I said, “but I just got some bad news: The city’s real-estate records were all destroyed in the flood.”

I expected him to fold at the knees. Instead, a big smile split open his rubbery face. He arched his back and threw his arms over his head. “Oh, thank God!” he cried.

You never know what’s going to make people happy.

“No properties can change hands!” Braun laughed, clapping me on the shoulders. “It’s not going to happen!”

By “it” he meant change.

Circulating at the time were a lot of plans to use the Katrina destruction as a “blank slate” to make New Orleans “bigger and better than before.” One high-level commission after another spoke of mixed-income neighborhoods, casino districts, light rail, a denser urban “footprint,” the works. Their proponents pointed out that New Orleans before Katrina was a cauldron of urban pathologies: crime, corruption, decaying infrastructure, lousy schools, and more. To a certain way of thinking, Katrina represented a chance to “fix” things.

The city operates at such a low level of economic activity that it never really prospers in good times or suffers in bad.

In their zeal to imagine a new city, the big-picture planners lost sight of how happy New Orleanians had been with the old one. In a nationwide Gallup survey shortly before the storm, New Orleanians — in numbers far greater than other Americans — reported themselves “extremely satisfied” with their lives, despite some of the worst violence, poverty, and mismanagement in the country. New Orleanians measure happiness differently than the rest of us do.

While the rest of us Americans scurry about with a Blackberry in one hand and a to-go cup of coffee in the other in a feverish attempt to pack more achievement into every minute, it’s the New Orleans way to build one’s days around friends, family, music, cooking, processions, and art. For more than two centuries New Orleanians have been guardians of tradition and masters of living in the moment — a lost art. Their preference for having more time than money was at the heart of what made that city so much fun to visit and so hard to leave.

So when outsiders talked of making New Orleans “bigger and better,” the people of the city recoiled. “Bigger and better” struck many New Orleanian ears as code for whiter. But even more, I suspect, they heard it as a recipe for a city driven — like the rest of America — by the dollar and the clock. Who needs that?

Joe Braun celebrating the destruction of the real estate records was a harbinger. Although the records were freeze-dried and restored, the terrible “it” Braun had feared never happened. New Orleanians rejected all the plans for a “bigger and better” city, either by hounding the planners out of town or refusing entreaties to sell their ruined houses to developers. They’re putting New Orleans back together the way they like it, which is pretty much the way it was before Katrina. All the old neighborhoods are intact – even the Lower Ninth Ward, which was pronounced dead many times over. Life still revolves around second lines, the meticulous year-long building of Mardi Gras Indian suits, the boiling of crawfish and the lowing of saxophones.

Another good thing about living in New Orleans these days, according to some; it’s a great refuge from the recession. The gyrations of the Dow, the collapse of General Motors, the prospect of regulating credit default swaps – even the collapse of the housing markets – mean little to most New Orleanians. The city operates at such a low level of economic activity that it never really prospers in good times or suffers in bad.

Ronald Lewis is a retired streetcar-track repairman in the Lower Ninth Ward – pretty well off, by New Orleans standards, with a $1,100-a-month pension. His disappointment in me was audible when I called recently to ask if the recession was hurting him or his neighbors. “Now Dan,” he sighed. “You know we ain’t never had nothing down here, so how could we be losing?” Then he went on to describe the barbecue he was holding at house that evening and wondered if I couldn’t come by.

Americans will probably continue to use economists’ numbers to measure recovery from the current recession. But as we debate what to do for the millions of homeowners who are “under water” — owing more on their homes than the homes are worth — we could learn from a city that knows a thing or two about being under water. New Orleans can teach us that the life we build with our neighbors deserves at least as much attention as our endless thrust towards newer and bigger.
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