Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A spring afternoon

Holy Cross Neighborhood
Lower 9th Ward
April 16, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

I am not a New Orleans expert. I’ve only been here 24 days. Houses have no windows. Houses have no doors. Houses have no roofs. Concrete foundations sit isolated and open, almost waiting for a DJ so they too can serve a purpose again. Only this time, these foundations can only become makeshift dance floors. But there isn’t much celebrating going on in this neighborhood. Really, there isn’t much of anything going on.

It's been a year now, since I said the above, a description about a place I knew little about then and still know little about now. I went back to the Lower 9th Ward on Tuesday. Crossing over the Industrial Canal and into the face of New Orleans' despair, I hope the signs of progress will have appeared.

Grocery stores and gas stations.

The gas stations are beginning to come back, grocery stores are lagging. It still is, in many ways, a photo opportunity for what it hasn't become.

But, when you go out to the Lower 9th Ward, get away from ground zero and cross a street called Claiborne, a different more vibrant section of the area appears. Holy Cross, a junior and senior high school for boys, was the foundation of the community for over 100 years. The school moved sites after the storm. The neighborhood towards the river off of Claiborne has kept its namesake.

Neighborhood leaders have big plans for the Holy Cross campus. A community center with a focus on green, eco-friendly and sustainable living.

Until then, it's a time capsule.

The Holy Cross neighborhood isn't what you'd think it to be if you listened to the New Orleans' naysayers. Homes are nice. Yards are kept. People are active in the recovery. And by the river there are two steamboat homes that were built at the turn of the century. They provide the backdrop for Twain-like spring afternoons.

The Holy Cross neighborhood association as well as a cooperative by Tulane and Xavier Universities called the Center for Bioenvironmental Research invited scientists and academics from around the country and the world to talk environmental triggers in hormones. Stuff I can't and won't try to explain.

Know that the people were smart, very smart. I tagged along.

So when I said a year ago that there wasn't much celebrating going on, it's because at ground zero, there isn't much there. I had no idea what was nearer the river about 10 blocks away. On our afternoon, the Hot 8 brass band played, the Mississippi river behind them. The Hot 8 have become one of New Orleans most popular local live acts. Lil' Dizzies, a noteworthy restaurant and caterer, served red beans, crawfish etouffee and baked chicken.

Scientists danced.

The afternoon was the first time that I'd experienced happiness in this part of the City. I'm usually showing it to people while their jaws drop or stomaches ache when seeing it for the first time.

It's such a joyful place, New Orleans, but the celebrations are usually held on the other side of the canal. The sun set over New Orleans' skyline. The Holy Cross neighborhood has the best view of the City, its residents say.

There's nothing sad about that.



Friday, April 11, 2008

Little bit of NOLA everywhere

American Flyer Ski Lift
Copper Mountain, Colo.
April 8th, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

It contributes to pollution and maybe the ambassadors of environmental stewardship on Copper Mountain hate the Mardi Gras beads hanging from trees at 10,000 feet.

I'm stretching by saying that the beads hanging next to the Copper ski lifts somehow symbolize New Orleans. But I'd be willing to bet the what comes next for the skiers who say "look at that" is a fleeting image of New Orleans.

Leaving the City this time has boosted my battery. Living there is living in the center of joy and pain, optimism and doomsday. It takes energy, persistence and devotion.

I'm sitting at the gate now in Denver. We board in 20 minutes. The flight will be full. People are flying stand by. I just peaked over a woman's shoulder. Her itinerary is headed with "Girls New Orleans getaway." This, for lack of a better explanation, is positive.

She's not being dragged by her company to a convention. Judging by the pink stationary, they picked New Orleans for all it once was and continues to be. The guy behind me is also taking his wife to the French Quarter festival this weekend. "We wanted to go down and spend some money to contribute to the recovery" he says to the women sitting next to him.

The women are going for a healthcare conference. I'm a total eavesdropper.

The man goes on to tell them how the doctors in New Orleans are well-versed in gun trauma. "The turf battles" he says. I already knew this was how conversations outside New Orleans go. He then goes on to butcher some French Quarter street names. But to them, he's a New Orleans' authority.

New Orleans:

Sympathy from the storm
Great Food
Wonderful Music
What about the Violence
How about my Safety

And so it goes. On and on. Over and over in boarding areas and inside of airplanes the perception of New Orleans' instability rules.

The couple I sat next to on the plane are on a weekend getaway from San Francisco. "We've never been to New Orleans," the man said. "Our friend told us we had to come."