Volume 75, Number 22 | October 19 - 22, 2005

Notebook

New Orleans Reconstruction; a feeling of déjà vu

By Andrei Codrescu

People are coming back to check on their properties, mostly men. Women and families are staying behind in their places of exile. The town is still full of soldiers, and the returning populace has a slight feeling of déjà vu. It’s an old déjà vu, the aftermath of the Civil War. A woman friend feels uncomfortable walking by herself. She knows that the soldiers are there to protect her, but they are young men and they’ve heard about New Orleans. Last time it felt like that was after the Civil War when Creole women in New Orleans were forbidden to look at Union soldiers.

The new Reconstruction has other familiar aspects. “The town’s swarming with carpetbeggars,” my friend Jimmy, an old New Orleanian, tells me. Indeed. Contractors from everywhere and workers are pouring into the city for ready, well-paying jobs. There is years’ worth of debris to be moved and much of it is personal stuff: people’s belongings ruined by water, everything from baby pictures to travel souvenirs. It’s better that out-of-towners do that.

There is a housing crisis as basic institutions start kicking back in, and the real estate’s gone through the roof. Uptown stayed dry, but is returning to jungle. That’s where the finer houses are and where the wealthier citizens employed armies of servants from the other side of the tracks to babysit their children and keep their gardens and lawns. Many of those servants lived in neighborhoods that don’t exist anymore. Some of them are still in shelters elsewhere; others have already started lives in other towns. Landlords can’t evict because their scattered tenants haven’t returned: there are leases and there is a freeze on evictions.

Many young professionals whose tax dollars kept the city running won’t be coming back either: they’ve already bought houses elsewhere and taken jobs in other cities. All that distress isn’t stopping real estate investors from as far as California from buying tracts of flooded land unseen. Speculation is feverish. The only thing holding back speculators is that most property titles are in freezers in Boston drying out after being flooded in the basement of City Hall. Some transactions might take years to unravel.

Civil cases and malpractice suits have been frozen too, so the backlog in the courts will be phenomenal. Right now, a municipal court functions in the Greyhound bus station, which was also a jail during and after the storms. Jimmy predicts that the population will return to 1870 levels. That’s where it stood after the Civil War. The sturdiest pioneeers determined to keep the embers of the New Orleans spirit going are the artists. The Gold Mine Saloon is holding defiant open mikes every Thursday and serving free red beans and rice.

The secret of New Orleans is that it has never depended on the kindness of strangers: it has always held its psychic wealth secret in the night. America was never too keen on this city: built by the French, shaped by the Spanish, divided by a neutral ground that kept Creoles and Americans apart, the city was more poetic and less rational than any other. It would have been nice for its history to march progressively forward. Instead, the history of New Orleans moves in circles inside a mirror.

Happily, the curfew’s been pushed back from midnight until 2 a.m., and it won’t be long before the all-night life returns. After that, it will be the Reconstruction, the Great Depression, the W.P.A. and the Golden Age of the artistic malcontent.

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