Message from discussion Hope In the Ruins
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From: "GWhyte" <gwhyte3...@rogers.com>
Subject: Hope In the Ruins
Date: Sun, 4 Sep 2005 10:21:13 -0400
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Hope In the Ruins
'Battered But Proud': A New Orleans partisan on the spirit of her
hometown-and why it will endure.
By Julia Reed
Sept. 12, 2005 issue - In 1719, a year after Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur
de Bienville, established New Orleans as the capital of the fledgling French
colony of Louisiana, a hurricane wiped out the handful of palmetto huts that
comprised the city. An engineer named Le Blond de la Tour begged Bienville
to move New Orleans to another spot-one that was not, say, five inches below
sea level between a powerful and unruly river and a 40-mile-wide lake, but
Bienville refused. Two years later, after they'd managed to build four whole
blocks, another hurricane came and wiped them out. No wonder the city's
first commercial establishment was a wine shop.
Story continues below ?
During the almost three centuries since, New Orleans has remained on the
brink of disaster, from continual outbreaks of deadly yellow fever in the
19th century to Hurricane Betsy, which killed 75 people in 1965. Since I
first came to New Orleans 14 years ago to cover an election, the nightmare
scenario currently being played out with Katrina has been predicted and
described in great detail by city and state officials, in countless
newspaper stories and on television specials just so you'll know-but not
apparently so that the powers that be could do something, anything, about
it. The "bowl" that has lately been explained ad nauseam on the news
channels has for centuries had another name, the "damp grave."
Yet we wouldn't think of living anywhere else. Nothing could have prepared
the city-or any American city, for that matter-for the unfolding
disintegration. It is cold comfort (but still some comfort) that New
Orleanians have long had a closer relationship with death than most people.
Graves in New Orleans are not underground and marked by discreet headstones
(early attempts at burial resulted in bodies' floating through the streets
every time it flooded); they are aboveground in vast, gleaming white "cities
of the dead."
From the beginning, the city was different, a heady mix of French, Spanish,
black and Roman Catholic cultures that separated it from the mostly
Protestant, Anglo-Saxon rest of the country, and even the rest of the South.
New Orleans gave the world jazz and Creole cooking, America's only
indigenous offerings in the fields of music and cuisine. Sherwood Anderson
found it "the perfect blend of the two best ethnic cultures in the world,
French and Black," and was so enthralled by it (he would have been-he was
from Ohio) he published an open invitation urging writers to come to "the
most civilized place I've found in the world."
Today New Orleans is anything but civilized. The images of the thousands of
African-American victims trapped by the flooding-there were some white
faces, but not many-illuminated the city's stark racial and economic
extremes. My husband and I could escape before the waters came because we
are lucky enough to have the means to do so; countless others were too poor,
too sick or too old to join the exodus in time. Until now, New Orleans was a
city known for taking in refugees, a tradition going back to the days when
the owner of what is now the Napoleon House bar at the corner of Chartres
and St. Louis streets offered it as a haven for the exiled emperor. Current
inhabitants include Andrei Codrescu, the writer and NPR commentator from
Romania, who told a reporter that he was drawn to the city because of the
"complete disdain for the whole yuppie, Puritan ethos of exercise and
Writers have also been drawn by the city's romantic nature, stemming from
its age and architecture, its dense tropical vegetation and often spooky
light, but also from the feeling that the rest of the world-and time
itself-has somehow fallen away. Tennessee Williams wrote of rainy afternoons
(which are pretty much all the afternoons of the summer) "when an hour isn't
just an hour but a piece of eternity dropped into your hands." When I lived
in the Quarter, in a house where Anderson is said to have lived, I was
awakened each morning by the children arriving at the cathedral school
behind me and kept awake most of each night by the bass beat emanating from
the enormous gay bars on either side of me. "There it is," wrote Walker
Percy, "a proper enough American city and yet the tourist is apt to see more
nuns and naked women than he ever saw before."
Percy immortalized the city in two of his novels, "The Moviegoer" and "Love
in the Ruins" (in which, presciently, gangs with guns terrorize the golf
courses while the protagonist holes up in an abandoned Howard Johnson with
cans of Vienna sausage and a case of Early Times). He had considered San
Francisco first, but found all that urban beauty depressing. Better to live
on the edge, to feel twice as alive in the face of impending catastrophe.
Now catastrophe has come. There are loved ones to mourn, disease to fear and
a city that must rise from the ruins. We are a battered but battle-proud lot
and do not take defeat well. My husband's father held him by the feet out of
a second-story window at the height of Betsy so he could unclog the gutters
that were pouring water into the house. Like the stoic native New Orleanian
he is, he has never evacuated before. This time, he grabbed me and we both
grabbed all the potential projectiles that surrounded our unfinished house
before jumping into the car to start the slow exodus from the city. Now all
I can think of is getting back there. I just hope there's some wine left.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.