New Orleans: The Week After the Week After

Enough about Katrina.

Enough about resilience.

One New Orleanian I heard put it perfectly: "Have you ever wanted both to be heard and to be left alone?"

Have you ever been on an airplane, sitting on the tarmac for three hours, no information forthcoming? Finally, after it seems as though the entire crew had been struck mute by an angry air traffic controller, a flight attendant comes on the PA and says, "Thank you for your patience." That's how it sounds when New Orleanians are congratulated on their resilience.

Last week, marking the tenth anniversary of what Dr. Ray Seed once called "the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl," the circus came to town. No elephants, some clowns.

Mainly foundation granters and thumb-sucking journos. Actually, there was an elephant, and they were the blind men.

Perhaps the blindest was the walking TED Talk Malcolm Gladwell, who graced Meet the Press Sunday elaborating on his premise that "we needed to destroy New Orleans to save it." The reed on which he rested was a study showing that previously-incarcerated young men who didn't return after evacuation were less likely, statistically, to be re-incarcerated than similar males who returned to the city. Self-deportation for offenders, anyone?

Finally, Mitt Romney has a soulmate.

Missing from the record are any studies of how non-previously incarcerated men, or women, fared, returnees vs. non-returnees. In Gladwell's lens, community is just a bad influence.

In a week of incessant talk, it would not surprise you to learn that the hottest, stalest air was blown by politicians, visiting and local. Our mayor, so intent on drawing four million more tourists to town so we can generate even more low-paying jobs, has finally learned to say the dreaded words, "not a natural disaster." In another ten years, he may learn to pronounce the syllables, "Army Corps of Engineers."

"Not a natural disaster," though, was more than the current White House incumbent could muster. President Obama, bragging about the grease stain on his suit from eating Willie Mae's fried chicken, repeated his slippery locution from his first visit in 2009, in which "man-made disaster" followed a natural disaster -- meaning, blame Bush. Bush himself had the guts, or the gall, to make an appearance, and Brownie tried to correct the record in the pages of Politico. He did a heckuva job.

Bill Clinton was here, too. Any time he shows up and funds aren't raised, you know it's a special occasion.

Many New Orleanians were dreading this week. They didn't need decade-old memories rekindled. Those memories had never been un-kindled. They're revivified daily, by a breeze, a sound, a smell, a change in the weather, a street sign -- by everything. They either self-deported, like the locals who flee during Carnival, or they hunkered down in their homes with TCM on the tube.

It was like Mardi Gras without the fun.

But New Orleanians are great story-tellers, and some came out to share their experiences. At the Sheraton, media headquarters for the week and site of a hundred "sessions," there was a meeting room on Wednesday afternoon in which three African-Americans, two men and a woman, sat at the dais. Each was a principal of a single-sex Catholic school serving the African-American community, each of their schools had lost their campus in the flood, and the three schools had had to merge temporarily and operate on a single campus. Their stories were detailed, and funny, and moving. There were no media people in the room.

There were meetings outside the media village, at which local "culture-bearers" -- a word you never hear outside New Orleans -- bemoaned the second wave of neighborhood destruction, the one caused not by flooding but by the influx of new residents. The traditions, they feared, were endangered because the generational continuity couldn't be maintained if the practitioners were priced out of their historic neighborhoods. At another meeting for locals, Dr. Paul Kemp of the levee authority, after a due period of consideration, finally allowed himself to say, in answer to the question "Are we safer now?," that the new, improved protection system -- the system a Washington Post reporter wrote was now "swaddling" the city -- deserved skepticism and constant vigilance from New Orleans citizens.

Some swaddling.

Moving through all the talk, like an insistent, sinuous drumbeat, was the sense that the city was facing a choice, or an endless series of choices: become more like an American city, or stay New Orleans. Of course, the early fears of a Disenyfied New Orleans were quickly disproven, and the mayor who wanted a row of glitzy casinos is now enjoying the leisure of second thoughts in a Texas prison cell. His one-time "recovery czar," Ed Blakeley, who prophesied "cranes in the air" by September 2007 -- there were swifts, but no cranes -- was brought back to mind this week as part of Blake Boyd's gallery of Polaroid photographs of 500 of the dramatis personae of the post-flood period. Blake, who loves visual jokes and wordplay, had the discipline not to tamper with the photo of the ex-czar, else there might have been cranes in his hair.

But back to that drumbeat. There's something seductive about the prospect of being a "world-class," "21st-century," "cutting-edge" city.

It sounds so Big League. Of course, little ol' New Orleans has NFL and NBA teams, but it's still Small Market.

The last time this siren song was heard, it was the 1980s, and oil companies were going to bring New Orleans into the Big Leagues by building great modern steel and glass towers up and down Poydras Street, to house their regional operations. Until, that is, in the phrase of a person from Dallas I once met, oil stopped "bein good," the bottom dropped out of the industry temporarily, and the companies decamped to Houston, drawn by the proximity of their friends, and by the paucity of taxes and the absence of zoning. Their towers remain.

There's no sense in denying it: This city is not efficient. Efficiency, along with probity, predictability, individualism and regularity are all American virtues. Those are not the virtues raised up by the New Orleans culture, which instead prizes spontaneity, community, unpredictability, flexibility and a leisurely approach to getting things done. Like 'em or hate 'em, that's the matrix from which jazz, and later, the earliest funk, emerged.

The new hospital -- about which you can learn a depressingly complete picture in the new documentary, Big Charity -- was ceremonially opened during circus week. It stands as a battle in this war, a battle won by the advocates of an American city. What was here was Charity Hospital, an Art Deco building that housed the #2-rated trauma center in the country, a hospital that gave high-quality medical care to the working poor and the indigent. What has replaced it, after ten tortuous years, is University Medical Center, identical grey rectangular blocks that would be at home in an office park on the way to O'Hare Airport. It is modern, it lacks some of the services -- OB-GYN, pediatrics -- that Charity offered, and it sprawls on a large, suburban-style footprint that once hosted historic homes painstakingly restored, post-flood, by members of a mixed community.

The head of LSU Health Sciences told the makers of that documentary that, "the word charity had become a stigma." Somebody should start a movement to rename the new hospital Stigma General.

Dr. Allison Plyer of the Data Center has been doing the hard work of collecting the data on the area's fate since the flood. She's been saying that the income disparity between black men and white men in New Orleans has gotten worse since 2005. For most of that time, America's first black president has been in office. He's now busy fund-raising for his library, so let's not bother him.

Over the last ten years, first as a blogger here and then as a tweeter, I've gotten used to commenters thinking that the price we need to pay for being made even semi-whole for the wanton destruction of this place by the negligence and malfeasance of the Army Corps of Engineers is the need to listen to outsiders telling New Orleanians how we should organize our lives and our city. Malcolm Gladwell is just the latest example.

Now that the circus has moved out, making way for Southern Decadence this weekend (the gay celebration that Pastor John Hagee said so angered the Lord that He ordered up the flood), the conversations about the future of New Orleans continue -- over real food, not conference snacks. The discussion will go on for years.

This March, I was in Barcelona, a city that rings a lot of resonant bells for a New Orleanian: culturally distinct from its mother country, a vibrant food culture, an ambiance of joie de vivre, even if it's written in Catalan. That city has just elected a mayor, a radical woman, whose platform included this premise: Barcelona now has more than enough tourists, and catering to them further endangers the city's soul. New Orleans has yet to elect an official who espouses that message.

My first night back in town was the quintessential New Orleans experience circa 2015. First, a book reading Uptown. An editor had gathered blog posts from the first two post-flood years, finding along the way that not everything survives on the Internet. I discovered that one of my old HuffPo posts was included, and as I re-read it for the first time since I wrote it, I was struck by the attitude of contingency and uncertainty about the city's recovery I reported -- in December, 2006.

Then, a number of us repaired to a fine local restaurant. The evening ended with three masked robbers taking everybody's phones and wallets. I left half an hour before they arrived.

As they say in the comedy business, timing is everything.