Letter from Nola (and New Orleans, too)

Part 1 of 3

We live in New Orleans now, but just barely. Standing outside our front door, I could throw an egg and hit the Jackson Barracks. (I wouldn’t, of course; it’s a National Guard base). Beyond that is the St. Bernard Parish line.

We’ve lived in New Orleans before. E (my wife, now) and I moved here from New York City in January 2000, renting half of a gorgeous house in a neighborhood called Bayou St. John, and stayed until August 2003. We had quite a time. I wrote a series of “letters” about our experiences, distributed via email and online. To my considerable surprise, that writing ended up becoming a book, published in the late summer of 2005 — just before the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina rewrote both the idea and reality of the place we had lived.

Our return has been a different sort of adventure. We’re older. We have more responsibilities. We bought. We’re not recklessly discovering a place wholly new to us, but carefully navigating one that is both familiar and strange. We know what we don’t know. Back in 2000, I was ready to start writing about New Orleans almost the day I arrived. It’s been nearly five months now since we moved back; we’re already into Carnival season. And I’ve kept meaning to write something, but not doing it. So here goes. Maybe I’m starting to find my footing, but just barely.

The move itself coincided almost exactly with the 10-year-anniversary of the post-Katrina flooding, and thus with a deluge of retrospectives in all known media. This put me in a bit of a mood, for two reasons.

One of those reasons should be obvious. New Orleans’ population was recently estimated at 385,000, compared to about 495,000 before Katrina. It’s grown considerably from its lowest point, but that’s a fair benchmark of the flood’s lasting aftermath. And our new neighborhood, Holy Cross, is a section of the Lower Ninth Ward — a part of the city that Katrina coverage made almost as famous as the French Quarter and Garden District, but for all the wrong reasons. Yes, to answer a question you might have, our new house is one that flooded, just like almost everything else in the neighborhood. You can see the water line, about six feet off the floor, on the exposed-wood walls of my home office. (No, to answer your next question, I don’t know anything about whoever lived here in 2005; but perhaps eventually I will, since I think about it all the time.)

Batman slapping Robin meme variation. Via.

The point is, I just wasn’t interested in a saturation rehashing of the traumatic past at this particular moment. And I’d kept in touch with the city and our friends here enough to have the sense that the anniversary was not a popular conversation-starter: The floods should be fully unforgotten, yet only judiciously discussed. For a particularly vivid description of local weariness with this subject among those who lived it, read this.

On the other hand, some of the anniversary coverage was determinedly upbeat — chipper stories of a newly hip comeback city: The New New Orleans, or, ever more persistently, “Nola.” It’s probably less obvious why this bugged, me, too. Frankly, it wasn’t even obvious to me at first. I’ll get back to that in the next installment of this series. (And don’t worry, I’ll snap out of this apparent funk before I finish up.)

But first, I offer you one scene from the Anniversary Moment that greeted our arrival in this corner of the Ninth Ward.

Compared to Bayou St. John — or for that matter compared to every neighborhood I’ve lived in as an adult — Holy Cross feels remote. There are few businesses, and minimal traffic. On my normal routes walking Russell (our dog), there’s an empty former school and a big unused church, and every tenth house is vacant. Some still bear the familiar post-Katrina rescue X symbol. A few, including one on our block, are in a severe enough state of disrepair to serve as a plausible backdrop for one of Anderson Cooper’s concern-y-face dispatches.

On the other hand, quite a number have been rehabbed, plenty more are in the works. Hammering is part of the area soundscape; people are moving in. Quiet and friendly, Holy Cross is a nice mix of shotgun houses and cottages in varying styles, on comfortable lots. Black kids play in groups; white couples walk their dogs. The neighbors are nice. As a rule, people wave and say good morning; some random guy actually tossed a “Where y’at” my way the other day.

Still, I’d understand if your first reaction, if you saw it, was that the area looks like the backdrop for a TV crime drama. And for all I know, you’ve actually seen it playing exactly that role. Our second night here, I had to hustle Russell out of the street to make way for a slow-rolling procession of a half-dozen production trucks and vans marked “NOLA Film Logistics.” They were headed for a nearby lot, and spent the next couple of days filming for NCIS: New Orleans.

Since then, film and TV productions have come to seem pretty routine: Scream Queens, some Tom Cruise movie, etc. (Maybe there’s some truth to New Orleans’ “Hollywood South” claim?) Most memorably, E spotted another NCIS shoot a couple of weeks after we arrived, in another part of the neighborhood. Incredibly, this one involved an entire block strewn with what appeared to be flood-swept debris, flipped cars, a stray boat: a re-creation, in other words, of the levee failures’ aftermath a decade ago.


Early the next evening we gathered up Russell and headed over for a closer look. They weren’t shooting, so the crew at that moment consisted of some guard types, and a guy who I took to be part of the location-scouting operation. We faux-innocently inquired whether it would be okay to walk our dog through this chaos simulacrum. Sure, we were told.

We strolled through the ersatz debris, all thoughtfully arranged to evoke one of the true low moments in modern American history. I compared it to the endless images I’d seen in the media, and to my memory of a visit to the city five weeks after the flood. There were flaws, but it was pretty effective.

The location guy was chatty. He explained that the show was filming an episode with a flashback plot. Obviously a local, he didn’t seem very enthusiastic about that idea.

E wondered aloud about the people who actually live on this block.

Yes, this fellow confirmed, the production had communicated thoroughly with them in advance. Nobody just walked out the front door one morning to find a constructed version of the grim past flashing back at them from the front yard.

I wondered if the production had altered anything on the next block down. There was a Katrina X that looked a little off to me, and some graffiti that seemed too corny to be real. Was that part of the shoot?

Nope, the location man replied. Only the one block had been altered. Everything else was … what it was.

I pointed to a vacant three-story brick building behind us. What about that?

That, too, had been left alone — it just happened to look as though it was devastated recently. And the truth is, the guy continued, that building actually came through the flooding pretty well. Its current state of disrepair was a more recent development. People had figured out that nobody was really minding it, so they’d started to tag it up and break in for reasons of their own.

A decade ago, press coverage of the flooding and its aftermath routinely included images of dilapidated structures that most viewers surely assumed were ruined by Katrina — but that had in reality been in the same blighted condition for years prior. So here was a new wrinkle: A building that has aged into looking like a relic of 2005 flooding.

The friendly location man added that the building was pretty interesting inside. And also unsafe. But worth a peek if we had time! We begged off, thanked him, and took Russell home.

Two days later the production had cleaned away all its imported flotsam, and the block was back to being real New Orleans … whatever that means now.

The second part of this series will begin to address “whatever that means now.” It is here.