|TOUCHDOWN JESUS: New Orleans Five Years After Katrina
by Carol Joynt
A few things you may not know about New Orleans: At dawn in the French Quarter they wash the streets and sidewalks with lemon juice. There are parts of Bourbon Street that are as quiet and residential as there are parts that are raunchy and raucous. Fat Tuesday ends at midnight, when Lent begins, and the police promptly shut down the bars and clear the streets. People are exceedingly friendly, and whether you are black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, addicted or dry, deviant or devout, from this country or another, needs are fulfilled. New Orleans rolls out the welcome mat, in spite of having been to hell and back.
My son and I visited for a week but after only two days he asked, “Mom, can we move here?” That’s not the first or last time such a question will be posed about the new New Orleans. I emphasize “new” because the locals are emphatic: while there’s still work to be done, funds to be raised, and wounds to heal, their city, coming up on the fifth anniversary of “the flood,” is past what they call the “post-Katrina era.”
We stayed in the elegant French Quarter, in the handsome 18th century home of our friends Harry Shearer and Judith Owen. Harry’s an actor, director and comedian (“The Simpsons” on Fox, and host of “Le Show,” syndicated on public radio stations), Judith, a singer, is always appearing somewhere (this week, the U.K.). While their base is Los Angeles, for more than a decade New Orleans has been their second home.
The bond for Harry is so strong he’s producing and directing a theatrical documentary, “The Big Uneasy,” that aims to explain this point of view: the breach of the flood walls and levees, which caused the flood, was not a “natural disaster,” as President Obama has claimed, but was a “man-made disaster” that could have been avoided through better design and construction by the Army Corps of Engineers.
During the week we had excellent guides. Harry, of course, but also the French Consul General, Olivier Brochenin, and two of his staff, Joseph Dunn and Etienne Dages-Desgranges. Dunn is a bilingual native who knows every centimeter of the region. Etienne is from France. The French take a special (almost maternal) interest in New Orleans, involved from the start with financial and cultural support after Katrina.
We didn’t necessarily see all of New Orleans, but we saw what makes New Orleans a fascinating and unique American city, a city of our time. We sampled the good life but we also explored neighborhoods: the French Quarter, Bywater, Treme, the Lower 9th Ward, Central Business District, Lakeview, Garden District, Mid-City; and the bustling campuses of Loyola and Tulane.
|In a New Orleans studio, Harry Shearer, aka "Mr. Burns," records tracks for The Simpsons.|
|Editor Tom Roche works with director Harry Shearer on the documentary, The Big Uneasy.|
|The view of the French Quarter and the New Orleans business district from Harry Shearer's rooftop.|
|The view from the Shearer balcony after midnight.|
|A guest bedroom, French Quarter style.|
|French Consul General Olivier Brochenin and Harry Shearer.|
|Rina Brochenin and Olivier Brochenin. She is an Israeli journalist and mother of three little ones.||From the French Consul General's staff, NYSD's terrific guides, Joseph Dunn and Etienne Dages-Desgranges.|
|As far as we were concerned there were no limits. Anytime someone asked, “Do you want to see ...?” We replied, “Yes, of course, show us.”
The New York based French Heritage Society (www.frenchheritagesociety.org) is mentioned again and again for stepping up to help where needed in the aftermath of the flood. They put their money on history.
David Villarubia, owner and director of the Edgar Degas House (www.degashouse.com), is among the grateful. While Degas spent only six months visiting his maternal relatives in the house on Esplanade Avenue, he did important work there, particularly A Cotton Office in New Orleans. Villarubia has preserved Degas’ studio. The house, while a museum, is also a B&B. In 2010 one can sleep where Degas slept in 1873. FHS provided thousands of dollars for restoration work.
|The Degas house is a museum and a B&B.|
|David Villarubia said the FHS has been vital in helping him to restore and preserve the Degas house.||Villarubia, former Delta airlines pilot who is now a preservationist and innkeeper.|
|Villarubia explains how he matched paint colors found in the Degas paintings. Etienne and Joseph listen closely.|
|Edgar Degas' New Orleans studio.|
|The plaque on the door to the studio.|
|Like so many out-of-towners, and legions of volunteers, we were drawn to the devastated Lower 9th Ward, and historic Treme, both predominantly African American communities. Treme was historic before Katrina, the Lower 9th is historic because of Katrina.
A visit to the Lower 9th stirs complicated feelings. On the morning of August 29, as the eye of the storm moved to the East of the city, the first breach happened in the Lower 9th. At 9 a.m. the flooding was fast and deadly, homes were wiped off their foundations. Many people drowned. In very little time the Lower 9th and adjacent St. Bernard Parish were under upwards of 10 feet of water.
|The Make It Right foundation installed an information exhibit in the heart of the Lower 9th.|
|Lest anyone forget, this is what hit New Orleans and nearby coastal areas.|
|Before the storm it was a community of approximately 14,000 people who lived in close to 5,000 homes, more than half family owned for 25 years or more, the highest percentage of African American home ownership in a U.S. city.
According to Common Ground Relief (www.commongroundrelief.org), “The loss of these homes represented the disappearance of a family’s major asset, economic livelihood and, as a result, their future.” Since many didn’t evacuate, they were left to struggle or perish.
|This field once was filled with houses.|
|All that remains of one house in the Lower 9th.|
|A man mows the grass around his restored home.|
|Standing on a levee. To the right, the water, to the left, the rebuilt wall and what remains of the Lower 9th Ward.|
|One of the "Brad Pitt" houses, from the Make It Right foundation.|
|For every new home in the Lower 9th, there are just as many - or more - that look like this.|
|Spring break volunteers help Common Ground Relief restore a house and plant a garden.|
|Message on a restored home.|
|Documentarian Harry Shearer points to a Cypress grove that was destroyed by the flood.|
|Today, among the ghosts, ruins and the weeds where once stood homes, there are obvious signs of new life. Thanks to all kinds of groups, and especially architectural entrepreneurs, the Lower 9th is a model of volunteerism, preservation, restoration and urban renewal. Still, for every “Brad Pitt” house, or other revitalization project, there remain many beaten up and abandoned homes, bearing the coded symbols of the horror: spray painted tattoos from the search and rescue effort. Some locals believe the codes should not be painted over – an enduring reminder of what happened.
Treme, America’s oldest African American neighborhood, was also flooded but feels further along in its restoration. There are many signs of rebirth, not the least of which are the HBO crew and actors filming a dramatic series, “Treme,” that begins airing April 11. It stars John Goodman and is the creation of David Simon who did “The Wire.” The set is virtually open to passersby; the actors are engaged with the community, which is an extension of the generally friendly and open attitude that prevails in New Orleans.
|The Fats Domino home in the Lower 9th Ward.|
|Rebuild: The cry of many homes in the Lower 9th.|
|Thom Pepper of Common Ground Relief with Spencer and Harry Shearer.||Thom Pepper gives Harry and Spencer a tour of one of the houses restored by Common Ground Relief volunteers.|
|Spray painted remnant of the flood.|
|The code tells a story.|
|The code tells who searched, when, what was found and whether there were any deaths.|
|On location with the HBO dramatic series, "Treme," which begins airing April 11.|
|I felt it especially when we visited Father Quentin Moody at Treme’s St. Augustine Church (www.staugustinecatholicchurch-neworleans.org), which was founded in 1841 by slaves and “free people of color,” which is the distinction used to identify the African-American Creole population. The distinguished wood and stucco church was already in need of repair before Katrina’s ravages compounded the challenge. The Catholic hierarchy was prepared to close St. Augustine, but Father Moody said “no,” and with the help of corporate money, the French Heritage Society and others, worked to rebuild the structure and the flock.
Father Moody showed me the ancient pews purchased in 1842 by Creoles for themselves and for slaves, prompting whites to buy pews, also. In the 1840s it was the most integrated Catholic congregation in the country and Father Moody says that is happening again today in the aftermath of Katrina. “There is no color,” he said. “Here, there is just a lot of love.”
|St. Augustine Catholic Church, which was founded in 1841 in the historic Faubourg Treme.||Father Quentin Moody at the entrance to his historic church, St. Augustine's.|
|The Tomb of the Unknown Slave. "There is no doubt St. Augustine sits astride the blood, sweat, tears and mortal remains of unknown slaves," said Father Moody.|
|The shrine is hung with the chains, cuffs and shackles worn by slaves.|
|Some of the rot in the walls of St. Augustine's. Father Moody says $300,000 will make the church good as new.|
|Father Moody's pulpit is carved from a single piece of cypress wood.|
|Father Quentin Moody, a native of Belize, now passionate about the rebirth of New Orleans.|
|Outside the church is the “Tomb of the Unknown Slave,” dedicated in 2004 “in memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.” It is made of crosses, chains and shackles.
The misery of slaves is boldly apparent at another Treme landmark, the New Orleans African American Museum (www.thenoaam.org), which, like St. Augustine Church, has an enthusiastic leader in John Hankins. He’s been on the job only six months but his every breath is about restoration: of the museum itself but especially the surrounding campus that includes two Creole cottages, a double Creole cottage, a double shotgun house, two slave quarters and the historic main house, a classic Creole villa circa 1828. There is work to do and a lot of money to be raised, but Hankins feels well on his way.
|John Hankins, the new Director of the African American Museum, talks about his ambitious plans for his "campus" in historic Treme.|
|John Hankins with Naydja Bynum of the Preservation Resource Center outside the Treme Villa.|
|A visual exhibition of what life was like for slaves.||Many of the items on exhibition at the African American Museum are from the collection of one man, Derrick Joshua Beard of Chicago.|
|Looking through a restored Creole shotgun house, now an exhibition space. Shotgun means being able to fire the shotgun through the length of the house without hitting a wall.|
|John Hankins shows off the master plan for his campus. All it takes is dollars, determination and dollars.|
|One side of the Passebon Cottage today. It was built in 1843 by Pierre Passebon, a free man of color.|
|Some of the semi-restored buildings at the African American Museum.|
|A week here and I saw the rebirth in so many neighborhoods and endeavors. It was easy to see why volunteers, especially young people, continue to arrive almost daily, ready to do whatever, wherever. They are welcomed and put to work.
It wouldn’t be a visit to New Orleans if we didn’t jump in – with all our senses – to the pleasures of food, wine and music. We sampled with abandon. Here are the stand out memories: garlic soup at Bayona, the gumbo and oyster Po’ Boy at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, fresh grilled Pompano at elegant Galatoire’s, an altogether splendid meal and insane corn bread at Cuvee; Café Amelie’s romantic garden, signature cocktail of vodka, fresh lime and mint and their spiced pulled pork and pickle sandwich; a superb dinner at Stella! with chef (and James Beard nominee) Scott Boswell, welcoming us and checking back to make sure everything was perfect. It was.
|An oyster po-boy at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. On the side, sweet potato fries.|
|K-Paul's Chicken and Sausage Gumbo: dark, dense, delicious.|
|K-Paul's rich, spicy and creamy bread pudding.|
|A legend among New Orleans restaurant.||Galatoire's has plenty of jackets available to loan to male guests.|
|Quiet and tasty lunch in a garden at Cafe Amelie.|
|Cafe Amelie's signature cocktail - perfect for a warm day - of vodka, fresh lime and mint.|
|The warm and elegant dining room at Cuvee.|
|We went to Drago's for large platters of charcoal grilled oysters, and ordered seconds. Connecticut and New York transplant Peter Rogers took us to dinner at Meauxbar, which is stylishly casual, a bit of Hamptons chic in the Quarter.
Plus venerable Brennan’s, and Emeril Legasse’s NOLA. Every morning I went in search of a café au lait and beignets. My favorites: Café Beignet and Café du Monde. After the meal, like a cat covered in bird feathers, I dusted powdered sugar off my face, hair and clothing.
|Charcoal grilled oysters at Drago's coming up ...||The oysters. All that's needed is a squish of lemon.|
|A popular breakfast spot.|
|The beignets at Cafe Beignet.|
|A New Orleans restaurant legend.|
|Brennan's at breakfast.|
|Night was for music and club hopping. Here, finding music is as easy as breathing. Each day I walked around humming the music of the night before. Music is everywhere and in everything.
Harry Shearer is a professional musician; he was bass player “Derek Smalls,” in “This Is Spinal Tap.” He knows his clubs and musicians and they all know him. We hit Snug Harbor, Café Negril, the Maple Leaf, Vaso, One Eyed Jack’s, The Spotted Cat. The clubs clutter in Faubourg Marigny and on Frenchmen Street. It’s a marvelous, melodious late night scene.
|Its possible to look in the windows at the many of the music clubs along Frenchmen Street.|
|Soul Patrol performs at Cafe Negril in the Faubourg Marigny.|
|Swinging to hot Salsa at the Vaso club.|
|Jill Sobule performs with Bonerama at One Eyed Jack's. Jill Sobule wrote and recorded the first version of "I Kissed a Girl."|
|The Spotted Cat in the Faubourg Marigny.|
|Dancing after midnight at The Spotted Cat.|
|The Thelonious Monk Jazz Ensemble at Snug Harbor jazz club.|
|The Thelonious Monk Jazz Ensemble in action.|
|You walk home after midnight on the noisy or quiet streets, mindful of possible random crime but not overly frightened, get a good night’s sleep behind closed shutters, wake in the morning not too early, sit for a spell in the courtyard or on a balcony, and then prepare to start the day again, maybe with an early walk along the mighty Mississippi.
Possibly the most telling symbol of the reborn New Orleans is the statue of Jesus at St. Louis Cathedral. His arms are raised in blessing. At night, a floodlight cast’s his shadow against the Cathedral wall and the arms loom larger and higher. So, what do the locals do? They call him “Touchdown Jesus.”
My point: a sense of humor can save the day, even for a city.
|Just in case you didn't know, the 411 on NOLA.|
|Details on the birth of a street we call Bourbon.|
|Mardi Gras beads hang from virtually everything.|
|One can't have too many Mardi Gras beads hanging from the balcony.|
|Significantly, Joan of Arc added the New Orleans Saints flag to her collection.||Down almost any street in the French Quarter the view is charming.|
|Many, but not all, of the Bourbon Street signs have been stolen.|
|One part of Bourbon Street is good ole boy, another part is gay, and another part is residential and quiet. The Gay Heritage Tour starts here!||A Tom of Finland doll.|
|In the heart of the more raunchy part of Bourbon Street.|
|A frequent sight in the mornings on Bourbon Street. Even the "love" clubs need maintenance and upkeep.|
|It appears a Bourbon Street bar can't be too tightly locked up after closing.|
|A carriage rolls along in the French Quarter.|
|The classic tourist shot: brass band on Royal street.|
|At the Mardi Gras Zone, the downstairs sells groceries and the upstairs is answers all your Mardi Gras needs.|
|Check out at the Mardi Gras Zone: "Who Dat or Leave!"|
|Kosher at Blue Frog Chocolates on Magazine Street.|
|Super Bowl pride.|
|A native son and the most famous dog in New Orleans.||Whenever there's an open door or gate one must take a peek.|
|Inside the courtyard at Maison Montegut, built in 1794.|
|Ready for Easter Sunday.|
|Classic French Quarter.|
|Vibrant color plays a role in many French Quarter buildings.|
|It's easy to confuse the French Quarter with France itself.|
|Closed shutters in New Orleans only mean that life goes on in the back of the house, facing the courtyard, atrium or garden.|
|Bourbon Street at the noisy end.|
|Sunrise on the mighty Mississippi.|
|Sunrise in the French Quarter, when the streets are beautifully empty and quiet.|
|In the early morning they wash the streets and sidewalks with lemon juice.|
|Morning drills on Bourbon Street.|
|Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.
Visit her at: caroljoynt.com. Follow Carol on Twitter.