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  New Orleans: Lament for a Royal City
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COMMENTARY:

New Orleans: Lament for a Royal City

by Sheldon H. Laskin
Shrine of the Sovereign, royal city, arise! Come forth from your ruins. Long enough have you dwelt in the vale of tears! God will show you abundant mercy.
—Lecha Dodi, Hebrew prayer

The question every professional in New Orleans asks himself every day is: “Do I go or do I stay? Is there a future here?”
Reminiscences of a trip to New Orleans in January 2007The most difficult time was not the hurried evacuation the day before Katrina hit. Nor was it the four-month exile in Baton Rouge. Neither was it returning, alone, to the three-story brick colonial in the Uptown section of New Orleans, to find the lower floor completely destroyed by the four feet of water that had flooded it. It was not even cleaning out the contents of the refrigerator that had stewed in the heat and humidity of subtropical New Orleans, leaving a noxious conglomeration of decay that had once been food, unrecognizable save for the pristine unopened package of Best kosher hot dogs. No, the most difficult time for this Katrina survivor is now.

Stuart Chalew sits in the dining room of his partially gutted Uptown house and speaks quietly of Katrina. A tall, thin man with a salt and pepper beard and intense blue eyes, Stuart, 55, is a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital and a professor at LSU Medical School. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Stuart’s life was very structured; call the insurance company and gather material in support of your claim, clean out that odious refrigerator, muck out the flooded lower floor and arrange to have it gutted.

But after those tasks were done, the enormity of the tragedy began to sink in and structure began to slip away. A man used to being in control of things, Stuart found himself eaten away by forces beyond his control. Finding contractors who would not rip him off -- a friend was given a quote of $5,000 per day to gut his house -- or who were even available at any price was itself a full-time job. Discovering after the first floor was gutted that 80 years of moisture had rotted the poorly sealed floor joists such that the house was in danger of collapse, wholly unrelated to the storm. Realizing that a year’s worth of blood samples for a study of juvenile diabetes had been ruined with the failure of the air conditioning at his Children’s Hospital lab. And above everything else, the question every professional in New Orleans asks himself every day: “Do I go or do I stay? Is there a future here?” Or, as his wife Gail, a freelance author and editor says, “How much risk are you willing to accept?”

* * *
New Orleans is the kind of town that, when I decline dessert to top off the shrimp Creole and jambalaya at Jacques-Imo’s, a hugely popular Creole restaurant, the waitress brings out a generous helping of bread pudding with caramel sauce anyway, lest I leave town without experiencing the full range of New Orleans culinary delights. It is also a town where, sixteen months after Katrina, many traffic lights are still out or work in bizarre ways; the red at one light still struggles against the darkness, alternating back and forth between north-south and east-west, but the yellow and green have long since given up the ghost in both directions. Street lights are equally dark, requiring the driver to be constantly alert for the occasional pedestrian or bicyclist that appears suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere. FEMA trailers are still ubiquitous. The debris of thousands of gutted homes is a seemingly permanent street fixture. Gutted homes stand amidst houses that appear undamaged. Whole streets of middle class houses stand dark, vacant and silent, mute sentinels to the steady exodus of the professional backbone of any great city. For those who have a choice, the question becomes more insistent every day, “Do I go or do I stay? Is there a future here?” For those who lack the money to have a choice, the question remains as it has ever been -- “What fate will others choose for me?”

And there is the crime. Always a violent city, New Orleans recorded at least nine homicides in the first ten days of 2007. And they are not always the result of random drug violence. Among the more poignant is the murder of Helen Hill, 36, killed during a daylight burglary in her home. After Katrina, Ms. Hill, an experimental filmmaker, had prevailed on her physician husband to return to their adopted city to serve his low-income patients. The couple had been back for four months. Her husband, also shot, survives. As does their two year old son.

* * *
Ultimately, Stuart discovered it was the second floor kitchen that made the difference. Many of the Chalews’ friends still have a trailer attached to the house, because their first floor kitchen was destroyed. They live in their house, but use the trailer kitchen to prepare meals. Stuart was able to make full use of his second floor kitchen when he moved back in. And so the doctor became a bread maker. He delights in the simple pleasures of kneading dough, adding water, honey, salt, eggs, and then sitting back and waiting for the bread. In short order he can see, smell, taste the result of his efforts. It is something he can control.

Inevitably, every conversation in New Orleans turns to Katrina. Sometimes, it is in jest in the grim style of survivors everywhere. But more often than not, the conversation is some variant on “What now? Do I/you/we go or do we stay? Is there a future here?”

With visible reminders of their loss all around them, it is impossible for New Orleanians to move on.
Given the conditions in which they live, with visible reminders of their loss all around them, it is impossible for New Orleanians to move on. Unlike the New York and DC survivors of 9/11 who, for all their unspeakable loss, for the most part had their homes to return to and their families and neighbors to provide support, it is the entire New Orleans community that has been lacerated and traumatized. Whatever support there is can only come from people as much in pain and loss as everyone around them.

From the time I saw the television images of the Superdome and the Lower Ninth Ward, I knew I needed to go to New Orleans. Like thousands of volunteers since Katrina, I simply had to bear witness to the destruction and suffering that shattered New Orleans and scarred its people. I spent a week doing volunteer legal work at New Orleans Legal Assistance, a publicly funded legal aid program for the poor. During the weekend, Gail took me on a tour of the most devastated areas, as she does repeatedly for Jewish groups who come to render what help they can.

Lakeview is -- was -- a middle class professional community a short walk from the Seventeenth Street Canal. The failed flood wall is visible from the wrecked house my guide takes me into. The owners, a Jewish family, never returned after Katrina. They took the insurance money, sold the house for whatever they could get, and relocated. It will shortly be torn down. The house stands exactly as it was after the waters receded. As I go through the house, I am very careful not to cut myself; who knows what toxins are breeding on every filthy surface? Amidst all the muck, what stands out are the few items that somehow emerged unscathed – a racquetball paddle, a spray can of Miracle Gro.

Gail takes visitors through the house to show them that it wasn’t just poor, uneducated, black people who lost everything. Middle-class professionals sought to make a life in these communities just as their poorer, blacker counterparts did in the Lower Ninth. The difference is, the middle-class professionals had flood insurance. And so they have choices. For this family, the question, “Do I go or do I stay?” has been answered.

And then there is the Lower Ninth Ward. Pictures can show wreckage, but how do you show the almost total nothingness of what used to be a community of thousands who, for generations, spent their lives here, many of them the backbone of the Mardi Gras and other festivals that were the foundation of the city’s tourist industry? And where dozens of them died, either immediately when the levees failed or in their attics and on their roofs when they waited for rescue that came, if at all, much too slowly.

I struggle to find something left to photograph: A bare slab foundation. A smashed wooden house that was uprooted by the flood and came to rest on top of another smashed wooden house. An industrial container standing upright in what used to be someone’s yard, having been hurtled hundreds of feet over the Industrial Canal levee. Fats Domino’s house, where he sat out the storm and waited for rescue. The house survived only because the music legend had the resources to build it of masonry and not wood.

I saw only one trailer, a double, sitting in the Lower Ninth, an elderly man seated outside. Before the storm, he lived in his house with two young grandchildren. The flood claimed the house. And gave him a choice – which grandchild do you choose to save? He chose. Now he remains, unwilling to leave what he forever lost here.

* * *
After the horrors of the Lower Ninth Ward, the Upper Ninth Ward was almost pleasant. Not that there wasn’t a great deal of damage. But the people who lived/live here (one struggles to find the right tense) were/are somewhat better off than the residents of the Lower Ninth, and the houses are largely of masonry construction.

David Fountain has an infectious laugh. When he smiles, the wrinkles on his 65-year-old face smile with him. A retired dock worker, he lives off a pension.

I stop to take pictures of the gaudily decorated display in Mr. Fountain’s front yard. Musical instruments, mannequins, a boat -- named, of course, Katrina -- gaily painted and decked out with beads fill the yard. Mr. Fountain is inside the house, entertaining two friends with generous helpings of whiskey. He invites me in.

The water line in Mr. Fountain’s house is at 5 feet, 5 inches. After Katrina, Mr. Fountain returned to a house reeking with mold. He slept on the roof while he gutted the house. The four modest rooms are now surprisingly clean, although, with the exception of the front room, the house has the look and feel of an unfinished basement.

But that front room. It is outfitted with Mr. Fountain’s computer, scanner and fax machine. That, plus his wireless connection and cell phone, keep him connected to the outside world. And Mr. Fountain needs to be connected now, because of the museum.

After he returned, Mr. Fountain started to comb through debris piles, looking for musical instruments, sheet music, posters of local musical celebrities and other paraphernalia of the musical legacy of his neighborhood. Over the past sixteen months, he has accumulated a roomful of exhibits; a trombone, a clarinet and a piano are the mainstays of his little museum. Mr. Fountain politely declines my offer of a contribution, although he proudly shows off the blowup of the $300 check he received from a donor who was wise enough not to offer cash.

I ask to take Mr. Fountain’s picture. He asks to have his wife included. I am puzzled. Wife? I went through the entire house; there’s no one else here. “Oh, yes.” Mr. Fountain insists. “She’s on the roof. I’ll get her.”

So I snap a few pictures outside, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Fountain. I copy the names off the door lintel -- David and Katrina Fountain -- so I can mail them the photographs.

Mr. Fountain calls from the roof. There he is, in full Mardi Gras regalia, his arm around a gaudily attired female mannequin -- the lifelong bachelor’s wife, Katrina. Mr. Fountain laughs long and loud over what I come to learn from an article in the Harvard Crimson he proudly hands me, is a running joke he’s pulled, yet again, on an innocent rube from the North.

* * *
L.J. Goldstein agrees with Mr. Fountain -- the music must be preserved. A transplanted Philadelphian, attorney and fine arts photographer, Mr. Goldstein fell in love with New Orleans and its wacky, exotic culture on his first visit. Moving to the city, he found that he had an innate ability that is of almost unlimited value in this town that lives to party -- he is a past master at organizing parades and celebrations. An intense 39-year-old man with a bushy black beard and expressive eyes, L.J. was instrumental in forming the “Krewe du Jieux”, the city’s first Jewish Mardi Gras krewe.

L.J. worries over the future of his beloved adopted city. He says the backbone of New Orleans culture is the black working class, which is probably not going to return. While the culture will survive in some form, it won’t be the same; for one thing, who will teach the next generation of Mardi Gras brass bands?

Allan Lehmann is an animated man in his late 50’s with the aspect of a cuddly teddy bear. Allan, the rabbi for Hillel at Brandeis University, has brought 22 students to New Orleans to gut and rehab storm-damaged homes.

A native New Orleanian, Allan’s father and brother both lost their homes to Katrina. A 95-year old cousin died in the evacuation of the Home for Jewish Aged. A former classmate returned home after the storm, only to later commit suicide, a victim of the post-traumatic stress disorder that will claim Katrina victims for years.

I asked Allan what is the response he believes that America should make to this calamity. He replies slowly, choosing his words thoughtfully.

First, Allan acknowledges that the situation is “more than a little humbling” and that it may be “too tall an order” to find meaning just yet in an event of this magnitude. Perhaps, he suggests, silence is preferable for now.

But Allan notes that classical Jewish sources such as the Talmud stress the moral imperative of taking care of others, of tzedekah -- the restoration of justice. Tzedekah is a reminder that human beings function in connection with each other and as members of multiple communities, not merely as an aggregation of individuals. Because we belong to “something greater” than ourselves, we are called upon to be responsible for one another.

Allan goes on to note the unique moral burdens imposed by the capacity, born of the Internet and modern technology, for the entire world to witness a human catastrophe of this scale in real time. Classically, the ability to respond to natural disasters was limited, at least initially, to people in the immediate area. Others might not even hear of the event until much later. This meant that those who were themselves present at the scene intervened personally and immediately to dig survivors out of the rubble, or to pluck them from the waters. And those witnesses were, by and large, the people who took responsibility for rebuilding.

Now, the entire world can view a tsunami in Southeast Asia, or a hurricane on the Gulf Coast, in real time. It was not necessary to be at the Superdome to be aware of the horrors there, virtually as those events transpired.

But information is not connection. At a time when it is possible to donate for Katrina relief by the click of a mouse, is that the limit of moral responsibility? Does this relieve the observer of personal responsibility to bear witness? It is here that Allan says he is lost -- what is one to do in the face of so much devastation?

Allan left New Orleans after high school. He has since lived in New York, where he went to rabbinical school, in Florida and in Boston. He has enjoyed his life in each of those places. But for him New Orleans, along with Jerusalem, is home in a deep mythic sense of the word. It is the place that is most connected to his soul. As a Jew, post-Katrina New Orleans inspires the same sense of longing for return from exile as Jews in the Diaspora had for Jerusalem. It is, in the words of Lecha Dodi, the prayer that is said by observant Jews each Friday night to welcome the Sabbath, a “royal city.”

* * *
Snug Harbor bills itself as “the most intimate jazz venue in New Orleans.” Small tables fill an appropriately intimate-sized room in front of the raised performance stage. Tonight, Tony Green and Gypsy Jazz are performing. The three-man local group -- solo and rhythm guitar plus bass -- combine gypsy guitar rhythms and jazz to produce an elusively unique sound. The Brandeis students have come to Snug Harbor to absorb some local New Orleans music. Tony, a soft-spoken man with thin blond hair, notices the group and asks why they are in town. When told they are there to do volunteer work, the band applauds the college students. After the show, the musicians come off the stage to shake each student’s hand.

After being betrayed by everyone in any position to betray them, New Orleanians are just so grateful whenever they realize a visitor is a volunteer.
They are all so grateful. After being betrayed by everyone in any position to betray them, New Orleanians are just so grateful whenever they realize the visitor is a volunteer. Their manner of expressing appreciation varies depending on their position. Performers applaud their audience and shake their hands; attorneys offer to pay the expenses of volunteer lawyers who come to help with the urgent and often complex legal issues raised by the cataclysm. But most people just utter the quietest, most heartfelt “thank you” a person can ever expect to hear. When you hear it, you just know it isn’t simply a matter of being polite; they are so, so grateful that someone remembers them. And cares.
* * *
But in the end, New Orleans is still the Big Easy, and the Good Times still roll whenever people get a chance to party -- which is to say, any day with a vowel in it. The twelfth night of Christmas is the first night of Carnival, a month’s-long festival that culminates in Mardi Gras. The third annual Twelfth Night Party was in high gear at the House of Blues, a benefit concert for WWOZ, the local progressive jazz station.

New Orleans, like all too few places in America, exults in its larger-than-life exuberance and joyous public celebration of sensuality. Where else can you go to a fundraiser for the local progressive jazz radio station in a high-class blues club where the highlight of the evening is a surprise performance by Miss Athena and Katy Twist, two local strippers who, to the tune of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, remove everything down to g-strings and pasties, to the enthusiastic cheers of the coed audience?

Laissez les bon temps rouler. Please.


©2007 Sheldon H. Laskin. The writer is a Baltimore attorney.


Copyright © 2007 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on May 17, 2007.
 

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