Hard Times in the Big Easy


It’s hard to know how to write about New Orleans. Formerly the boozy jazz capital of the Southern United States, these days, storm-wrecked and abandoned, New Orleans is a haunted city. Its remaining or returned residents carry a permanent pall of anxiety in their eyes.

There are virtually no children in New Orleans. Why would there be, when just five of the 78 district schools are open? Houses, like the city, have been gutted. As you travel the deserted streets, passing the occasional boat being used as a dumpster, you can see into homes where doors, walls and furniture have been cast out  – victims of mould.

Loss is pervasive. It’s a city defined by the ‘negative’ in both senses of the word: the absence of what once was; and a breathless sadness, tangible as the dust and debris.

You can see what New Orleans looks like from news pictures but you can’t feel the emotional reality of the place. If you’ve never been to New Orleans, it’s not hard to imagine the style of the city. The French Quarter has the elegant wrought iron balustrades and low-rise charm of parts of Paris or Marseilles. It covers a tiny geographical area  – just a third of a mile, according to a geography professor I met.

Pretty, rather than showy, the buildings are a couple of hundred years old and the city feels comfortably settled-in.

It also has a seedy side, which makes you think more of the red-light district of Amsterdam or Victoria Street in Sydney’s Kings Cross. As you head further downtown, shopfronts change  – from windows advertising books of Cajun Christmas stories (with alligators instead of reindeer), to lurid displays of grog and bodies advertised in neon lights. And the seediest street of all is the appropriately named Bourbon Street.

I imagine that Bourbon Street was pretty unpleasant even before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, but now there’s an aggressive attitude about the place that I suspect is new. It’s a bloody-minded determination to ‘have a good time,’ but from what I hear, the drinking is harder and faster than ever before, and it’s turned into a joyless routine rather than a celebration of the city.

At 9:00 pm one Sunday night, there was nothing jovial about the place. I was one of the few females amongst the several hundred stumbling men. Music blared from every second doorway, but it wasn’t lyrical or even rhythmic. It was just loud. And at 11:00 pm a man in a bar keeled over onto the floor with a gunshot wound to the temple. He was dead by the time the police got there. According to the morning paper, investigators believed it was a suicide.

A casual, public suicide in a crowded bar on the main street of town. There’s something emblematic about that. That anonymous man may have killed himself regardless, but you can’t ignore the impact that Katrina is having even now the water has long gone. Keeping your chin up for three and a half months, in the face of unemployment, homelessness, mortgages still to pay on lost homes, and the absence of nearly all your friends, that’s asking a hell of a lot from people and it’s no surprise that suicide rates are on the rise.

Jeff Wellborn, the Director of the Crisis Unit for the New Orleans Police told me that, prior to Katrina, they responded to between one and two successful suicides per month. The rate is now between four and six per week. And as for attempts, there were 4 to 6 weekly attempts before the storm: there are now 12 to 15. And this is in a population that has shrunk from 462,000 to 70,000.

Some of the suicides have been physicians themselves. A psychiatrist told me that he has been searching for his chronically mentally ill patients, but many are simply gone. They can’t self medicate, and they can’t function without medication. This man had himself lost two family members since the hurricane. The whole city seems like it’s running on pure determination, but the atmosphere is at least as grim as it is inspiring.

For those who remain, social networks are redefining themselves. Sitting in a cafe checking my emails, I was approached by a young woman with iridescent blue eye shadow and stiletto boots. Her name was Natalie, and she asked whether she could use my computer to check her emails and do some banking. She had lost her computer in the storm and, when she needed to take care of those modern necessities, she would head to the closest cafe with wireless access and ask a stranger if she could use their laptop.

Natalie is 22 and has no one left in the city. She’s an aspiring singer, and one night when we were at a pizza joint, she got up and performed ‘All of Me’ with the jazz band playing in the corner  – yes, in New Orleans there are jazz bands performing in pizza joints. She had a rich and velvety voice, but she’s stuck for now, living between her car and the hospitality of strangers. One step up from living on the streets, she’s making her way as best she can  – one of the solitary survivors picking her path through Katrina’s aftermath.

Other young people are doing the same. It’s a new subculture: the early-twenties, pre-professional castaways. They have money in the bank but not enough to afford the newly exorbitant rents. Prices have skyrocketed because of two factors: the slow return of amenities has caused a severe shortage of dwellings; and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers have taken what accommodation there is. I got the feeling that Natalie and her friends were waiting for something to happen  – for normalcy, or at least someone who would take responsibility for them, to return.

Hurricane Katrina has become part of the currency of all social interaction in New Orleans. At a tollway, I heard the attendant tell a woman not to worry about the drivers honking behind her as she struggled to find change. ‘Honey, if they can get through Katrina, they can deal with anything.’ In New Orleans, there is a logical connection between Katrina and trying to find pocket change.

There’s a comic side too. Spray-painted signs on rubbish skips say, ‘Asbestos board inside, deliver to Crawford Texas’ (W’s home town). Bourbon Street tourist shops have new t-shirts. One says, ‘Katrina, you bitch, don’t even talk to me.’ Another, ‘Katrina gave me a blow I’ll never forget.’ Sadly, there aren’t many tourists there to buy them.

One woman in a clothes shop looked up, startled, as I walked through the door, and said, ‘Oh my god, are you a real tourist?’ In fact, I wasn’t  – I was there to make radio reports. But I was pretty close. Put it this way: FEMA wasn’t paying my hotel bills. But it’s a big change for a city that used to be overwhelmed by tourists. Previously, the question would have been, ‘Are you a local?’

I saw New Orleans in an intimate and authentic state. A time of raw vulnerability – the honesty of a city struggling to mend amid the conflicted feelings of its residents, their guilt and shock and anger and pride. And I suggest that, if you are in the United States, go to New Orleans. It is something you’ll never forget.

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