Coming in from the airport by cab, you don’t go past any of the really famously stricken areas. The neighborhoods visible from the freeway look normal enough. Then you notice the utility poles.
Those stripped tree trunks with wires hanging off them, so much part of the American urban landscape that they’re usually invisible? Almost none of them are perpendicular to the ground. They’re all leaning—most of them just a little bit, some quite a lot, some visibly shored up to keep them from falling altogether. Hundreds of them, thousands, mile after mile. It’s hard to imagine it taking less than years to repair them all.
The damaged Superdome looks like a prop from a post-urban-holocaust SF movie, like a vast dirty concrete ball hurled into hot asphalt.
I’m in a high-rise hotel on Canal Street. I’ve been to New Orleans three times before, in 1988, 1993, and 1994. Things down here look largely as I remember them, that peculiarly New Orleanean blend of comfortable wear, piss-smelling grunginess, heart-stabbing beauty, and civic boosterism. There are some large buildings visibly out of commission, like the medium-rise Doubletree Hotel that lost most of its windows. Despite the presence of the American Library Association (which I’m here for) and another convention or two, the French Quarter and downtown seem oddly uncrowded. This could be because the city has half the population it used to. Or it could be because it’s hot and humid enough to strike strong men down in the street.
The T-shirts for sale in French Quarter tourist shops include some interesting new flavors in the mix. Along with the usual (I GOT BOURBON-FACED ON SHIT STREET) and the predictable (KATRINA GAVE ME A BLOW JOB I’LL NEVER FORGET), there’s a distinct streak of the overtly political. A whole subgenre is devoted to mocking a certain Federal agency: FEDERAL EMERGENCY MISMANAGEMENT ASSHOLES, or, somewhat inscrutably, FIND EVERY MEXICAN AVAILABLE.* But what’s striking are the overtly anti-Iraq War shirts, which seem just as prevalent: MAKE LEVEES, NOT WAR. And, more directly: SCREW IRAQ, REBUILD HERE.
I’m off to dinner. More later.