Reflections on a Trip to New Orleans

Posted by on 04.15.08 | No Comments
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I just got back from a conference in New Orleans, a city I have never before visited. It took me more than just a moment to sort out my feelings and impressions, but, O so tentatively I have settled on a few bits and pieces.

New Orleans is not one place any more; it is two. First it is a city of intense and conflicting energy, Second, it is an uninhabitable ruin.

As a city at first it sent me into the kind of cognitive dissonance Dorothy felt when she opened the door of her home and stepped into Oz. I was pretty sure I was still in the United States, but this wasn’t Kansas anymore, that was for sure. My nose helped me overcome the vertigo. That peculiar mixture of aromas from the flowers of lush green vegetation – some of it rotting – moist humid marine air, human sweat, automobile exhaust, and garbage was exactly what I encountered in Managua, Nicaragua. Then it all made sense. New Orleans is much more like Central America than the United States, even the Southern United States. The old crowded together buildings with their Spanish architecture, most of which are not in good repair, the narrow, narrow streets of the French Quarter, full of cracks and potholes, the crowds of people, who for the most part seemed very friendly, the street bands on every third or fourth block which gave the impression of a city that loves to sing, and dance and play. It is impossible not to get caught up in the positive and powerful energy, an energy that arises not from ignoring loss and pain, but from staring it in the face and refusing to be overcome by it. I was reminded of the song “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

Then there were the Voo Doo shops dotting Royal Street, and the palm readers and diviners – perhaps half a dozen of them – plying their trade in Jackson Square under the statue of the Hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and the stores full of obscene curios and souvenirs. And I realized that right along side the energy that seemed to be pulling New Orleans into a positive future is this different sort of energy, with a different sort of intensity to it, an energy that doesn’t so much celebrate life as try to control it, manipulate it, manage it for the benefit of those who know the secrets and are willing to use them. I can’t honestly say I thought it was evil, though the banality of the shops was striking, but it was a very different sort of energy, and it made for a remarkable contrast. I glimpsed in that moment the riddle which is the part of the city that wasn’t affected by Katrina. Is this a place that dares to hope in the midst of despair, or a city that despairs in the midst of hope?

Then we left the city and saw the ruin. The riddle was reinforced.

We drove past an abandoned convent and heard its’ story. As the flood waters neared the top of the first floor something shorted out and a fire started. It was left to burn since no fire fighting equipment could get anywhere near it. The result was something out of Hamburg or Dresden during the Second World War. The roof was nothing but charred timbers, and through the the holes that had once been windows we could see the blackened interior. On we drove through blocks of abandoned houses, derelicts that no one now would, or could, claim. On each house was spray painted an “X” and in each quadrant was a number. In the top quardant was the date the place had been searched. To the right was the number of people found. The bottom quadrant was for indicating how many of those people were dead, and on the left was the symbol for the team that had done the searching. Still more heartbreaking was the trip to the Lower Ninth Ward, or what I should say once was the Lower Ninth. There were still a few houses, and even a few people trying to live there, but mostly the Lower Ninth was gone. All that was left of a place that once was home to 25,000 people were bits of foundation and occasionally two or three lonely stone steps leading to nothing.

Yet, even in the midst of this devastation are signs of real life. Several Churches and Habitat for Humanity had teamed up to begin building houses, brightly colored, brand new houses in the parts of the flood plain least likely to be inundated again. The owners of those homes, without a dime of their own to invest, were providing the sweat equity which would give them a place once again to call their own. Compared to what had been there the numbers were small, and I am certain that greater New Orleans will not again be home to a million people, or perhaps even half that many. But people were rebuilding not just homes, but lives, and once again I was left with the riddle of the city itself. More important than even this was a scene I saw as we left; an older man, the homes around his abandoned, sweeping his sidewalk. Was this a futile gesture, a monument to denial? Or was he simply living his life, participating in his world as it is, and not just wishing for something else? Is this hope in the midst of despair, or despair in the midst of hope?

Of course the answer to the riddle is that it is both. Part of the spirit of the New Orleans that flooded simply cracked under the weight of the water, the bungling mismanagment and the corruption. And part of the spirit of that place got up and said “you shall not die, but live.” Spiritual energy cuts both ways, and in this sense we are all at least a little like New Orleans.

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