If you shut your eyes on the way to the French Quarter from the airport you could visit New Orleans and never know there’d been a hurricane. The city’s tourist areas of the city look pretty much the same as ever. You can still eat well and listen to great music. On a recent Saturday, the sidewalks were jammed, between the Ferrari convention, the Words & Music Literary Festival, and the jazz funeral parade.
But if you keep your eyes open, as I did on my recent trip, the half-hour ride into town serves as an abbreviated tour of storm damage. I watch through the taxi window as Katrina’s now-familiar iconography of destruction slides by: boarded up houses; twisted skeletons of industrial buildings; shotgun cottages scrawled with the ubiquitous spray-painted red x’s, indicating each home’s post-storm search status. Signs on telephone poles advertise mold remediation, and you can still see an ugly brown stripe bisecting the walls of some houses – the high-water line. Still, I know I’m in New Orleans when I see a sign on a storefront church announcing the topic of Sunday’s sermon: “The Gospel is in The Gumbo.”
This is my second trip here since Katrina—my husband and I came in April to visit friends and attend the French Quarter Festival, a kind of smaller, local version of the famous Jazz Fest. Certainly there are signs of progress since then. Fewer piles of debris, downed tree limbs, rusty bicycle frames. Over in the Lower Ninth Ward, the huge heaps of splinters that were once houses have been mostly cleared away, leaving an eerie wasteland that was once a neighborhood. There is still a house with a truck lodged on top, but few such Katrina-produced incongruities remain, so it’s become a much-photographed tourist attraction. (If you have visited New Orleans since the hurricane, send photos and stories.)
One thing that hasn’t changed is that people in New Orleans are really glad you’ve come. If you were to somehow arrive in the French Quarter with no awareness of the surrounding devastation, you surely would start to wonder why you were being thanked all the time just for being there. And if you were paying close attention you might notice that everyone was trying really hard.
It’s heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people trying so hard. This was crystallized for me one morning when I was headed to Mother’s Restaurant for a cup of chicory coffee. I came across a sidewalk table holding sign-up sheets, work gloves, bottles of water and brooms. Running this volunteer clean-up was Alphonse Martin, director of public space for the downtown district.
He explained that members of the National Association of Realtors were about to start arriving in town for a convention, only the second large convention since the hurricane. The call for volunteer cleaners had gone out under the banner, “Company’s Coming.” When the public eye is on New Orleans, it’s important that the town look nice, Martin told me. He asked if I’d seen the Saints play on TV that week. “One thing you didn’t hear anyone say was that New Orleans looked dirty. Nobody said it looked dirty.” That’s something to be proud of and he is.