Goin' Back to New Orleans, Part 2

I'm already supporting the local economy--I bought some bananas at Matassa's grocery store, and a double espresso at my neighborhood cafe, where, appropriately, I ran into one of my neighbors, a celebrity in his own right who's been in town since two weeks after Katrina's landfall (he and his wife evacuated on the first Wednesday, when she saw the Fire Department guys across the street start to evacuate). His view of the city, darkened by existing during the days?weeks? when there was no electricity in town, is wryly dark. His news: our local councilperson opposes the reopening of one of my favorite jazz/music clubs, the Funky Butt, because, he quotes her as saying, "Live music on Rampart Street attracts the wrong crowd". I'll check on that later, since right now it would seem as if any crowd in New Orleans is a right crowd.

Then I hopped into my rental car to take a tour of the rest of town. Attention John Edwards: I don't know if there are two Americas, but there certainly are two New Orleans-es: the popularted one and the depopulated one. Driving through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, I saw some streetside debris, but folks on the street, some semblance of urban life. Once you cross Claiborne Avenue, or go down my familiar route to the Fairgrounds Racetrack (where Jazzfest is held), the houses are standing--albeit with the spray-painted signals of inspection--and some cars are parked (and some little boats are still in odd juxtaposition to houses), but there are almost no people. Every once in a while you see somebody sitting on a porch, smoking a cigarette, looking out at the street, and I saw my first couple of National Guard humvees--one blocking an intersection, another just cruising by--but the military presence seems vastly reduced from its heyday. And, since only people need traffic lights, this part of town doesn't have working traffic signals, just stop signs plunked down at each corner, sharing space with dozens of signs advertising debris removal, house gutting, and mold mitigation. At the racetrack, its grandstand partly destroyed, there is a fleet of RV's in the parking lot--apprently for the workers doing the reconstruction of the stand. So somebody knows where to get trailers.

I drove down one of my favorite grand streets, Napoleon Avenue, scene of so many lovely Mardi Gras evenings, and even its splendid houses look deserted and fronted by debris, and its neutral ground--the large median strip--is brown. This city, which is world class when it comes to debris removal from its centuries of experience with cleaning up after Mardi Gras, can't seem to get a handle on the sheer ubuity of major-league debris, possibly because the city has no money. If the Feds were looking for one high-profile activity that could make an immediate difference in the city's prospect, I'd propose funding citywide debris removal now. But don't look at me, I don't buy my shirts at Nordstrom's.

Cross St. Charles Avenue, and you re-enter the populated city. There were even children at a playground. And Magazine Street, a lovely long sinuous road of antique stores, restaurants, and quirky little establishments, seems about 85 percent up and running.

An update from Part One: WWOZ may have its signal on the air, but it's still just broadcasting old mp3s, with internet dropouts and jitter. Another media note: the United Radio of New Orleans, which was a melding of the Clear Channel and Entercom radio duopolies, is no more. This seems to indicate that there's at least enough commerce in the city for Clear Channel to start selling advertising, and get out of the emergency-information business.

On my way back to the Quarter, I drove down Decatur, the tourist-clogged street that runs by the River. In the parking lot just across from the old Jackson Brewery (now a little indoor mall) was a facility apparently devoted to feeding and caring for federal workers, the lot fenced off with signs warning that it's only for feds. Elsewhere, my wryly dark friend pointed out, there is a noticeable rise in the number of people sleeping on the streets here. But it's still warm.