Tom Planchet / WWLTV.com
Of all of the things former Mayor Ray Nagin said after Katrina, at least one of them rings resoundingly true. He said it would take 10 years to get this city back to normal.
At the time I was incredulous. 10 years? Why not just throw in the towel now, I thought. That would mean that kids in kindergarten wouldn’t see a fixed city until they were in high school. Fourth graders would be in college. People in their mid to late 50s wouldn’t see a normal city until they retired.
What he said, and I know he wasn’t the only one to say it – was true, sort of.
You see it’s been eight years. In some ways, the city has come back and is even better than it was before. Many things that were strong are now stronger. But, in many ways the city’s weak areas are the same or weaker.
Realistically, the solid parts of the city include Uptown, the Garden District, the Quarter and CBD, parts of Algiers, and much of Lakeview with solid rebuilding going on in Mid-City and Broadmoor.
Gentilly is a mixed bag. I grew up there. The flood of 1995 devastated the area and Katrina 10 years later knocked just about everyone else out. Holy Cross High School and Lake Area public school are in majestic new buildings, but there is nary a place where your children can walk to grammar school where I used to live.
Many of the neighborhood blocks there still resemble the Jack-O-Lantern effect of empty lots, re-done homes, homes on stilts and those in progress. And Gentilly has it better than New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward.
The Superdome is back, now with a Mercedes-Benz name, and the team that plays in it has been a constant top contender. Say what you will, but the Saints have helped lift the spirits of the area. The professional basketball team stayed, when many thought it wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Now, stable local ownership and top young players combine for a promising future.
There are new restaurants (lots of them, in fact) and new school buildings.
The Saenger will open soon, but the Municipal Auditorium lays empty. A massive building project promises a new Charity Hospital, while the future of the hulking old one remains firmly in doubt.
Brand new school buildings are emerging here and there, but the lot of former public school stalwart Jean Gordon, in the aforementioned Gentilly, hasn’t returned, the site currently houses Audubon Charter in trailers and Booker T. Washington High’s building near Earhart is in a state of semi-demolishment. Those are just some examples.
The city’s public school system is a series of OPSB, RSD, OPSB Charter and RSD Charter schools that often have parents shaking their heads. Whether the children are better served now or pre-Katrina is a subject of much debate, but stories of families struggling to figure out how to apply to schools for their children and how to get them to those schools are prevalent. It seems a sort of ‘everyman for himself’ attitude that leaves some behind and has many waking up before the crack of dawn to trudge to the bus stop for long rides and long days.
Mid-City’s marketplace has just opened to large crowds in what was an abandoned and blighted former strip mall, and an ambitious Whole Foods project is underway on Broad Street while New Orleans East still struggles for grocery stores and entertainment venues and the shopping area near Paris and Robert E. Lee remains vacant. Circle Food Store, long a Treme stalwart, remains unopened but under construction.
The police force is much smaller and crime could be up, or down, depending on whose statistics you use and whether or not they are per capita. However, there is little doubt that there is still too much crime and still too many poor. The condition of local streets remains as much a part of the local conversation as “How’s your mom and ‘em?”
I recall saying, about a year after Katrina, that there were days when I didn’t get to see the damage from Katrina. I lived in Algiers, brought my child to school Uptown and worked in the CBD. There were days when only the images from our station’s cameras reminded me of the devastation.
You can easily forget about it, providing you still aren’t in an area affected by the storm. You can go the Quarter, eat a great meal, get some beignets, watch the street performers and go to a club for live music. You can stroll on Magazine Street to shop or eat, perhaps you can find somewhere good to dine on Harrison Avenue in Lakeview. In City Park you can play golf, or mini-golf, ride boats, amusement rides, walk your dog, have a picnic and feed the ducks. You can take a streetcar ride – now, in more parts of the city than before.
Soon you’ll be able to attend a great play at the Saenger and Le Petit is on the way back.
We’ve hosted a Super Bowl, a Final Four and an NBA All-Star game. Jazz Fest is just as big as ever.
But, you can’t send your child to elementary school in parts of Gentilly, can’t buy groceries easily in New Orleans East, can’t get fried seafood in West End Park. Your homeowner’s insurance has likely tripled – or more. Property values in the areas that didn’t damage or have been rebuilt are expensive. That’s good if you own there, bad if you’re looking to buy.
But Katrina will forever be with us, and we will forever be defined by it, at least by others outside of the city. It will be our Chicago fire, our Bay Area earthquake. Some, like me, don’t really want to dwell on it any more. At Jazz Fest it was a bit disheartening to hear Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac talk about Katrina. It’s eight years later! Is that what others really think about first when they think about New Orleans?
Eight years after Katrina, much of what is good about New Orleans is still there – some of it even better than before and much of what was lacking, still is.