Friday, January 05, 2007

New Orleans Today

I committed myself to write this, but talking about New Orleans today is hard.

The physical part, first. The New Orleans most tourists know, the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the rest of Uptown stretching between Canal Street and Carrollton, escaped the floodwaters. But many of the old, wonderful sections of the city were inundated—Jackson Barracks, the Bywater, Broadmore, Gentilly, Mid-City. I suspect that most of those areas will, in time, be revived, although many of the graceful old homes that once stood there probably won’t make it. Lakeside—the largely white, affluent area to the northwest—will eventually also return, doubtless more gentrified than ever because lots there are selling for surprising sums. Large homes in that area are being restored, while many of the smaller, single-story, three bedroom brick houses that were built there after World War II are being torn down, to be replaced with MacMansions. But a drive through the older areas of the city that once had largely black populations is depressing. Many of those houses were rentals, and even residents who owned their own homes found it difficult to afford insurance. Yes, the “Road Home” program is promising to release funds to people in those circumstances, but by the time the money appears, many of those houses will be fit only for demolition. Time is passing, and the elements in New Orleans are not kind to broken homes. Something like 20% of the houses in the city have already been demolished or are slated to be torn down. And it’s only beginning.

Huge swaths of the city are still largely deserted. Take a drive through New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, Chalmette, and you will see tens of thousands of ruined houses standing empty beside the empty shopping malls, churches, schools, and businesses that once served them. There is no way to adequately describe the devastation that simply goes on, mile after mile. Try to imagine a huge modern city, street after street, block after block, of houses without people, streets without cars or bicycles, overgrown yards without children, without dogs and cats, without anything except the wind and an ugly brown water line. Officials say the population today is considerably less than half of what it was pre-Katrina, around 180-200,000, although no one really knows. I personally think their estimates are high. The city is struggling to repair and replace everything from streetlights and stoplights to street signs, pumps, gas lines, sewage lines, water lines—you name it. New Orleans has always had a problem with potholes, but we now have potholes big enough to swallow washing machines. This is not an exaggeration.

Life here has improved enormously since the fall and winter of 2005-6, when schools, grocery stores, and almost everything else you can think of were closed. If you’ve been reading my blog since the beginning, you’ve doubtless sensed the changes. But small businesses in the area are still hurting. The lack of workers has driven up wages, and the conventioneers and tourists who once drove the city’s economy have not returned.

Yet New Orleans has been through hell before. Hurricanes, floods, a brutal military occupation, yellow fever epidemics that claimed tens of thousands—each event, doubtless, wrought enormous changes on the city. New Orleans always survived, still vibrant, still unique. Yes, life in New Orleans is hard at the moment, and everyone here is more than a little crazy. And yet I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to be living anyplace else. The rebirth of this city truly is something glorious to see and to experience and to contribute to.

In just a few weeks, we will begin celebrating Mardi Gras. I must admit I’m not a huge Mardi Gras fan, although I always go to a few favorite parades. But this year, I find I’m looking forward to it, and I suspect it’s because of Katrina. Last year, critics scolded the city for throwing what is essentially a huge party when the city was still in ruins. Some people seemed to think it was morally wrong for us to take a few hours off from gutting our houses to go stand out in the street and catch beads. Well, you know what? The city is still in ruins, and it will be for years to come. Our lives go on. Last year, when the parades rolled, their floats and riders severely reduced in number but still gamely THERE, those few of us who were here cheered. Many of us also cried. But make no mistake, they were tears of joy, and determination, and pride. New Orleans is coming back.

On a side note…
The proposal for the fourth Sebastian St. Cyr Regency Mystery, currently entitled WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP (I don’t like that title; suggestions are welcome), is finished. That horrendous sound you hear is my gears grinding as I shift from early nineteenth century London to 21st century Washington, D.C. and the world of power politics. THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT is due 1 March. That’s scary enough, but when I think about that the fact my sister is coming for a ten-day visit at Mardi Gras, I start to hyperventilate.

5 comments:

Jeffry Florentine said...

I don't want to seem negative, but I don't know how else to start this.
I saw a copy today of your book "What Angels Fear" and noticed that on the front cover was the phrase "A Historical Novel". I could not help but think you must not have seen the cover until it was too late to change it. I hope you got suitable recompense in what ever form from the person responsible for the cover. If this entire comment strikes you as impolite cricism, I apologize. I certainly don't have what it takes to write a book, and so probably shouldn't be so free with comments, but my mother taught English and we children were scarred for life. Your site shows you to be having a very interesting life. What good fortune! I would have emailed this to you but couldn't find a way to do so.

Anonymous said...

RE: New Orleans, it sounds like you're cautiously optimistic, am I right? My boyfriend and I are looking to buy property down south and found ourselves looking for New Orleans-y areas. Finally we just said, why not the real thing? Prices seem pretty reasonable (but just about anyplace does compared to Boston) and there's really no place like it anywhere else, so maybe we'll give it a whirl.

Thanks for being honest - Jody

cs harris said...

I'm afraid authors have little or no control over their covers or the cover copy, Jeffry. I managed to stop them from putting a Victorian cab on the cover of WHEN GODS DIE, but I had to kick up an enormous fuss. The more recent books in the series say, "A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery." But the phrase "A historical novel" is very common in the publishing world.

Anonymous said...

I just finished your two Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. You have the talent for making me care about the murder victims and Devlins ability to find justice for them in the corruption that was Regency England. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed them. I am also originally from Louisiana and I have many friend from NOLA who are in your same situation. Last time I was home I vistied the city and had a sense that it was trying to come alive again. The greyness was gone. I dearly hope so as I can't imagine this Country without the soul, spirit and determination of New Orleans. Best of luck.

What happend to Penelope Williamson ? I figured you would have an answer. I am a fan.

Camilla

Anonymous said...

I just finished your two Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. You have the talent for making me care about the murder victims and Devlins ability to find justice for them in the corruption that was Regency England. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed them. I am also originally from Louisiana and I have many friend from NOLA who are in your same situation. Last time I was home I vistied the city and had a sense that it was trying to come alive again. The greyness was gone. I dearly hope so as I can't imagine this Country without the soul, spirit and determination of New Orleans. Best of luck.

What happend to Penelope Williamson ? I figured you would have an answer. I am a fan.

Camilla