Friday, December 21, 2007

Assignment NOLA:
Struggle to see the good in a broken city


Certain little things that I notice while walking throughout New Orleans are things I wouldn't see often in other cities. Many objects, such as postal boxes, have been painted over by graffiti artists, then painted over again by the Postal Service. Above, a fallen Times-Picayune newspaper box rests beside a standing one just off St. Charles Street in the Garden District. Neither are working.

Today was a perfect example of how divided this town is. While tourists and college students continue to party on Bourbon Street, residents are protesting the City Council's approval of the demolition of public housing.

I'm not going to get into this very deeply because I wasn't at City Hall on Thursday to see the protesters clash with police. After grabbing a bowl of gumbo for lunch and walking down the sidewalk along the riverfront Decatur Street, I passed a big-screen television. I did a double take when I saw it, then backpedaled and absorbed the news. It may be on the front pages of many major newspapers Friday.

But I don't need to read those stories to see the fissures throughout this town and among its people. The poor are desperate. They think the elimination of decrepit public housing will spell the end to affordable living. They think the city, the state, the federal government are ganging up on them.

And it's not difficult to put yourself into their shoes after seeing them in their current state of living. Many have camped out in Duncan Plaza in front of City Hall, above. "Tent city," they call it. A few tents have been abandoned and trampled by weather and by people. But some people don't have tents: They're just sleeping on benches.

Wet clothes hang over the concrete barrier lining the park, above. A cardboard box, soaked by rains Thursday, calls on good-hearted folks for donations. A flier from New Orleans Mission on a lamppost nearby offers these people a daily evening schedule of: a worship service, dinner, a shower and bedtime, in a real bed.

This is all in the shadow of a fairly modern building with a fairly modern neon sign with the signature fleur-de-lis emblem and the words "City Hall," above. Though city officials can gaze out their windows onto the tent community below, its inhabitants think they are being overlooked.

It's a sad sight to see. I rarely feel sorry for homeless people in other cities. But here, I know that many of them would not be like this if it weren't for Hurricane Katrina. Even those who have been more fortunate in the past, such as the many musicians who make up this town, also have fallen onto tough times. Collecting tips as they play each night at an outdoor cafe - maybe selling a CD if they're lucky - is a tough way to make a living.

In St. Vincent Guest House, where I am staying, at least a few men are Katrina survivors and living at the hostel on a long-term basis. I overheard one pleading with the manager Wednesday for an extension on his rent. She was quite firm on the due date, but it sounded as though they worked something out.

Next to the downtown Holiday Inn, an old public parking lot is instead full of a fleet of military police cars, above, and hummers.

In stark contrast to the police cars, the side of the Holiday Inn features a painted-on clarinet extending its entire height, above.

It's difficult to believe the storm happened more than two years ago, yet it's still on the forefront of all New Orleanians' minds. They're looking for a way out of a rather tight spot. And none of the answers they're getting are easing their fears.

This condition is a shame considering the city's greatness.

I have changed my mind about Bourbon Street. At first glance, I thought it was nothing more than a drunk fest, offering bars and clubs for people to quench their alcoholic thirsts or to satisfy their sexual desires. Indeed, on Thursday night - thirsty Thursday, as drinkers would say - the street was full of fans from Memphis and Florida Atlantic universities, which are set to play in the New Orleans Bowl on Friday night at the Superdome. And then you have the Philadelphia Eagle fans who are in town for their team's game Sunday against the Saints. Much of this resulted in drunken shouting matches between rival fans.

But there's a different side, a much more worthwhile side, to Bourbon Street and to the Crescent City as a whole.

The countless blues clubs, jazz bars and Cajun music joints make up the soul of New Orleans.

You can hear renditions of "When the Saints Go Marching In" over and over again on television shows or in ads for Zatarain's, but it can never truly send shivers up your spine until you hear it on Bourbon Street.

I heard it Thursday night. It was coming from a club called Maison Bourbon, which says it is "dedicated to the preservation of jazz."

And nothing can beat that dance-inducing sound of the accordion coming from Cajun and zydeco joints.

It's these unique sounds, people, foods and spirit that make New Orleans irreplaceable. To lose this city any further would be a loss for the United States and a permanent stain on its reputation.

I stopped Thursday night at Cafe Beignet on Bourbon Street for a catfish po' boy. People in the outdoor dining area focused their attention on Steamboat Willie and his three-man New Orleans Jazz Band playing bass, banjo and horn, above. Willie introduced a song he wrote called "Bring Us Back to Our Home Sweet New Orleans," about longing to return, umbrella in hand, to the Big Easy after the storm.

"Katrina had her way, and for homes we'll have to pay," Willie sang.

On the second verse, he continued, "New Orleans, she is weak. Her knees are trembling. But she says, 'Come on, sons and daughters, rebuild this jubilee."

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