2008.12.10 The city can't escape its past

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

We found a spot in the parking lot, paid our fee and set off on foot toward the Louisiana Superdome. Food stands were set up everywhere. It was like an instant carnival.

We had tickets for the Battle of the Bands—not a showdown to determine the best rock ’n roll band, but the annual showoff between the massive college marching bands of Grambling State and Southern University. The next day, the football teams would play in the Bayou Classic, but first the bands faced off.

These schools are both HBCUs—Historically Black Colleges and Universities—and it soon became obvious that white vacationers from Michigan were a rarity in the crowd.

Customers were 15 deep at the catfish po’ boy stand, but we weren’t there for food. We kept with the steady flow of walkers making their way to the big white dome ahead.

After a long wait up on the walk surrounding the place, the doors were finally opened and the mad rush to find a good seat was underway.

It’s that first step into the Superdome that brings back the past. This is a football stadium, but three years ago more than 15,000 New Orleanians were living in this place following Hurricane Katrina. They were scattered among these very seats. They were camped out on the field—until the water came in.

This seems to be a city in search of normality, but everywhere there are reminders of an unpleasant past.

We went downtown after the Thanksgiving meal with our tour guides—daughter Rosanna and her husband Taylor—and headed for the Funky Pirate  bar on Bourbon Street. Taylor knew that Big Al Carson would perform and sure enough, an enormous, corpulent man took his seat and soon started singing old blues songs.

His head, shoulders, arms and hands were in constant motion. The remainder of that big body never moved.

Later, when we were back on the street, I asked if this had been a flooded area. I probably asked that question too often. It soon becomes a silly question. After Katrina, 80 percent of the city had standing water.

The Prospect.1 art project—described as the largest biennial of international contemporary art ever organized in the United States—was underway, with exhibits dotting the city here and there, sometimes in the most unlikely places.

We headed for the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood bordered one side by the Industrial Canal levee that broke after the storm. A few houses still stood near the levee, but mostly there are only driveways and concrete slabs.

One piece of outdoor art in the area is a giant ark constructed from debris.

We visited Mack McClendon who is turning a flooded out church into a community center. Mack still lives in a FEMA trailer which he says is good for developing work habits. You tend to get up and out of the house early and come home late.

A Prospect.1 exhibit in the former worship area contains a massive boat-like device that slowly rocks from end to end. Climb the stairs to a viewing platform and a large quantity of water rushes toward you. Soon it flows back to the other end, then it rushes back your way. It’s a little unsettling in this part of town. Rain water poured in through holes in the roof—a perfect accompaniment to the exhibit.

Another day we watched an IMAX movie about the loss of the coastal wetlands that serve as a hurricane buffer and saw some terrifying footage from the storm.

We walked past the Convention Center and Taylor mentioned how thousands of people also gathered there during the storm. The reminders are everywhere.

We drove through neighborhoods that looked unscathed, but then one of those large, painted Xs would appear on a house—the sign left by a search party that came through on a boat. The sign tells when the visit was made, who did the search and whether or not anyone was found in the home.

The really shocking sign is the occasional scar of the high water line, sometimes eight feet deep on the face of a house.

It’s bound to be years before New Orleans is really back to normal. In the Lower Ninth, only about five percent of the residents have returned. Maybe the city never will really recover. Perhaps what we see now is normal.

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