Friday, March 28, 2008

Bertha's Place

1523 Basin Street
February 25, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

We were misfits.

Locals in first-name friendships with Bertha Bradley, the owner and bartender, wore fedoras and shiny-tipped shoes. The sign outside said, "No one under 30 allowed." None of us met the age requirement, but a girl in the group had met Walter "Wolfman" Washington, the night's act the week before.

Bertha said we were ok.

Bertha's Place is on the corner of Basin Street, curved like several of New Orleans' streets. Her bar sits where the road begins to straighten. I'd driven by it often, noticing the bright purple and white sign, a portrait of Bertha in a white hat bookending the right-side.

"Bertha's Place. Where customers become family," the sign says.

We found her on a Monday night. The group walked in and stood out. People watched us order drinks, talk in the corner. I felt out-of-place. This wasn't our spot. We were too young, too pale to be inside. But Bertha came over and introduced herself after setting down the buckets of beer. This was her place, she said. Thanks for coming.

The music and friendship were what you look for in a night on the town--good-natured and hassle-free.

Bertha moved to this corner 13 years ago when the area had seven bars. It was spot of hot nightlife for the Treme (tra-may) neighborhood. Today, Bertha and one other are the only ones left. Treme, New Orleanians say, is where New Orleans musicians are bred. When you talk to someone from the neighborhood, they tell you how Treme kids learn on trumpets taller than them.

Historians call Treme the oldest African-American neighborhood in America. In the late 1700s and into the early 1800s, African slaves who obtained freedom were able to purchase property in Treme. Hundreds of properties were owned by free people of color in this neighborhood during an active-slavery era in America.

Bertha's business takes work. She spent 80,000 dollars to repair from Katrina's damage. It's a lot of money for a woman who charges three bucks a beer and offers free catfish and potato salad on Monday nights.

"It's been tough," she said.

Most times, when insiders talk to outsiders, they give the glossy-eyed answer that's been in circulation during year two of the recovery. The "we're plugging along and we'll be back" answers. I've noticed this often in the outsider role.

Bertha was different. She teared up. Tired now of being one of the few small business owners to come back in this section of the City. Afraid of ending up like bar-owners who end up old and penniless.

"I don't want to grow old in a bar," she said. "But I felt I needed to come back."

Bertha is originally from Pensacola, Fl. She moved to New Orleans and worked for the phone company in the 80s. She also was a bar-maid at Club 38 in the area of
town she's now synonymous with. "I always wore gloves and had my hair done," she said. "We knew what brought the men in."

Today, close to 60, she's the same way. "I always need to have a hat on," she said. "I feel naked without one."

She treats her employees like family too. In this business, she says, if the bar-owner doesn't make money, neither does the help. Too often, she's heard stories where the help didn't get paychecks.

"She paid us out of her own pocket," Maura Batiste, an employee for Bertha since 1996, said.

Walter "Wolfman" Washington plays here every Monday. It's new, she says, acknowledging that Washington is helping her increase business on a typically slow

"1985 was the first event Walter worked for me," she said. "He said it was an honor to come back."



Saturday, March 15, 2008

Alternative Spring Breaks attract students to New Orleans

March 19, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends--

New Orleans in March was a do-gooder gathering. Thousands of different students came each week. They hammered nails. Read to kids. Built playgrounds and surveyed neighborhoods.

I've heard many times that the volunteer effort in New Orleans is the only reason why the place is where it is today. A credible argument, for sure.

But it's 2008 now, and the once-a-year week long visits are tripping some of these students up. They're stuck in a moment that down here most folks are desperately trying to put behind them. The summer of 2005 is burned in all of our brains, though, d when spring-breakers come here, these are the images that guide them.

When they look at a home with six-feet high grass and a hole in the roof, they wonder what happened to its owner.

Too often they don't wonder about the next-door-neighbor who is back. When a group of Howard University students volunteered last week doing surveying, they were asked to assess conditions of homes in some of New Orleans' flood affected homes. Good, fair or poor were the ratings.

"How is this helping the people in Houston?" a student asked fearful that what he was doing wasn't helping in the relief effort, but actually hurting.

I didn't answer it the way I needed to. I danced, trying to calm his concerns because the last thing I wanted was 200 students who drove 20 hours on a bus to get here and think they're somehow hurting the community.

What I should have said is this. The people in Houston, if they're coming back, are keeping up their homes-which typically means they're paying someone to cut their grass. The homes you see in disarray aren't coming back. Chalk it up and lets help the people who are here or who are keeping their property up remotely.

The fly-in volunteers, I hope, will move with returned residents in this paradigm shift.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day 365

March 6, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

My dad is here. He's come with an expectation of viewing a City patched with band-aids and duct tape. He wonders if the City staggers like a beat-up boxer or claws like an an unruly underdog. To this, I've told him, "It's a little bit of both."

In either description it's safe to say that, down here, the K-word will always be worse then the F-word.

Residents grit their teeth. About insurance companies. About naysayers who call them stupid for living below sea-level. About life, really. Loretta, my co-worker, has given up on the insurance companies. "I'm going to let my lawyer handle it," she says. She had flood insurance. She had hurricane insurance.

She received $1,000.

To the naysayers, the best response I've heard is something like this. Call it what you like, it doesn't have to be New Orleans, but there must be a city here with people to operate the port at the mouth of the Mississippi. It is and will always be fragile. But, a society must be here.

Then there's the bad stuff. Visitors expect it on the drive from Louis Armstrong Airport and are often surprised when they get to their downtown hotels without seeing what they watched in 2005. The bad stuff exists in areas outside of the bells and whistles of the visitor's section of New Orleans.

The bad stuff has left those areas bleak to the observer. But insert yourself one step closer. Attend a civic association meeting in a battered neighborhood and you'll find an illustration of how civic participation is supposed to work. There were over 200 people at the Lakeview neighborhood association meeting last Saturday.

They announced a post-office would be opening in the area soon, catalyzing applause and even more side conversations about how nice it's going to be when the three-day-a-week mail cycle increases to six.

I feel like the whispered-opinion in America at-large says that the slow recovery in New Orleans is the fault of the poor, black people who live here.

The whispers are wrong.

A drive through the on-its-heels New Orleans exposes that the politically- correct view of the storm, the one that says Katrina knew no race or class, is actually true.

Many people have asked whether I've seen any progress since moving here. For the first six to eight months I would say it's too early for me to recognize any changes. But, lately it's safe for me to say that yes, I do see progress during my trips throughout the City. Construction is steady, reports of returning New Orleanians put the Orleans-proper at a smidge over 300,000. Four-hundred and fifty thousand lived here before the storm. Several thousands of that loss though are people who've moved out to the greater metro area, not to Houston or Dallas. And any of them will tell you, they're still New Orleanians who work and play here, dine and dance here.

Wonder all you want about New Orleans future. But, know there are amazing people devoted to this place. I think most of the young people who've moved here will come and go gaining incredible experience in the process. At the end of the day, it's up to the locals. Like one resident told me last week at the neighborhood meeting,

"Don't worry about us, we're going to be ok."