It’s been almost two months since Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of New Orleans and just over three weeks since Mayor C. Ray Nagin invited the Uptown zip codes to return. And while much of the city remains uninhabited and uninhabitable, the Uptown and Garden District neighborhoods are beginning to show signs of normality. But it’s not the “old normal,” it’s a “new normal,” a strange, limping normality that can send you into fits of joy one moment, and desperate crying jags the next.
On October 24, the first of the Uptown schools re-opened. The Louise S. McGehee School, a private girls Pre-K through 12th institution founded in 1912, opened its doors to welcome just over 40% of its former student population. For the first time in its history, McGehee also welcomed boys through grade 8 – the brothers of enrolled students and sons of faculty members.
In the first hours of the day, squeals of delight rang through the campus, girls flinging themselves into each others’ arms, into the arms of the teachers. And by mid-day, the poor, brave boy pioneers were already fending off their curious, fawning female classmates. Normality – kids acting like kids.
But, students met the re-opening with grief as well as elation. Tears shed for classmates and teachers still in exile. Long, sad hugs to comfort girls mourning the loss of their homes, their pets, their possessions.
The re-opening of McGehee was a children’s microcosm of the re-opening of Uptown. Bliss followed by horror. Joy on the heels of anger. The New Normal.
It’s been nearly three weeks since I returned to New Orleans, and so much progress has been made in my little corner of the city. When I first arrived, groceries and gas were scarce, the water undrinkable, the stinking rot of garbage lined the streets. Black swarms of flies, like something out of a Hitchcock movie, hummed incessantly in the daylight hours; by nightfall, the hum became the buzz of mosquitoes. Only the very brave and the morbidly curious ventured outside of the confines of the “safe” neighborhoods. After dark, few neighborhoods felt safe, and a 6pm curfew was hardly necessary to keep us close to home. As more businesses opened, the Mayor pushed the curfew from 6pm to 8pm to Midnight to its current 2am. Bars stay packed now right up to the curfew, but it’s still a far cry from the former, sleepless normal.
The real vanguards of the city have been the small businesses. While the Starbucks (plural) in Uptown remain shuttered, independently-owned Café Luna on Magazine and Nashville has been open for weeks. Even the larger local chains like PJ’s and CC’s have yet to open their doors, despite the fact that the small chain of Rue de la Course opened its one undamaged coffeehouse last week. This is where some of the joy comes in. We have no Burger King, but we have sushi. We have no Wal-Mart, but we have the corner hardware store. Domino’s may be delivering, but local chain Italian Pie is packed to overflowing every night.
Within two blocks from my home-an apartment that was untouched, save by four-legged and six-legged and more-legged intruders, in my absence-there are two houses that are flat. Foundations and roofs sandwiching the walls within. One of those houses was my first home in this city, the place where I planned the wedding and marriage that brought me to this city, my first address in this city of my heart. Now that much, but not all, of the garbage and debris has been hauled away, my block looks like a worse-for-wear normal. Turn the corner for a glimpse of Katrina’s devastation. I turn the corner and see a bit of my personal history lost. This, too, is the “new normal”-Uptown residents return to (hopefully) find their presents intact, but their pasts altered. While my first residence was unlikely to end up on a historical walking tour one day (although one can hope), much of the history of New Orleans crumbled as the pumps returned the waters to Lake Pontchartrain.
Since my return, I’ve not met a single person who didn’t spend his or her exile glued to the television and the Internet. Even now that we are back, many of us spend our evenings checking out the message boards on www.nola.com, reviewing the New Orleans city website. Those of us (myself included) who have been laid off or taken pay cuts since Katrina, surf the relief websites for job offers. Days after my return, I walked down Magazine Street and passed four people outside of the boarded-up CC’s coffee shop. Three sat on the sidewalk, one had brought a beach chair; all had laptops. They were poaching the free Internet from the closed café. While so many crass comparisons have been made between Katrina and the attacks of 9-11, this hunger for information, for contact, resonates as a common thread. A whole community, starved for knowledge, desperate for answers and explanation.
What happens next? It’s a question every New Orleanian asks at least ten times every day since Katrina. For those of us who live in Uptown, sometimes that question is as mundane as asking “When am I not going to have to wait in line for fifteen minutes to buy groceries?” or “Am I ever going to get my mail?” (so far I’ve had two mail deliveries, a mix of old and new mail, but much of my mail remains in limbo). But more often than not, “What happens next?” signifies so much more. When will my city develop a cohesive and progressive plan for recovery? How do we preserve the culture and character of this unique and precious place? Even, when will my neighbors and friends return and take their places in the fabric of the community? What next? What now? How do we keep going on?
This is a city of dualities. The TV and Internet media focus on the French Quarter (open for business) and the 9th Ward, Lakeview, and St. Bernard (tragic wastelands). Uptown embodies both spirits-death and rebirth, progress and finality, hope and despair. And the denizens of Uptown, like the students at McGehee, go forth every day with this dual nature in mind. We celebrate what has returned to our neighborhood, we mourn what is missing, and at night we have no choice-we go home, we embrace our domesticity, and we do our homework. And we wait, hoping a hope with reservations that we came up with the right answer.