The re­nais­sance of New Or­leans

It has been a decade since Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina roared through New Or­leans

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Preser­va­tion Hall in the French Quar­ter of New Or­leans is a low-lit capsule of whirring ceil­ing fans and crum­bling walls; it’s all cosily monochrome save for the Exit signs in red neon. At the front (there is no stage), Shan­non Pow­ell, “the King of Treme”, and the Preser­va­tion All Stars are serv­ing jazz as hooch — neat blasts of Panama Rag and Mood Indigo that go straight to my head.

“Joy” is the sin­gle word I scrawl in my notebook and it sums up the spirit of the city they call the Big Easy, where jazz was born. Be­yond the walls of this trad jazz venue on St Peter Street it is busi­ness as it has al­ways been in one of the most ef­fer­ves­cent neigh­bour­hoods in the world; din­ers are slip­ping down Oys­ters Rock­e­feller in An­toine’s on St Louis Street and pave­ment com­bos of as­ton­ish­ing tal­ent are turn­ing tourists into mar­i­onettes on Royal Street. On this buzzing evening it’s hard to be­lieve that 10 years ago a cat­a­strophic weather event known as Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina blew through the city. New Or­leans, in the words of Louisiana nov­el­ist James Lee Burke, “was a song that went un­der the waves”.

The mu­sic is soar­ing again in New Or­leans, but to un­der­stand what hap­pened when Ka­t­rina called the tune I am tak­ing a jour­ney east. The fol­low­ing morn­ing I cy­cle from the French Quar­ter in the com­pany of my guide for the day, Nick Fox, across a no-man’s land of rail­way tracks, as far as the city’s defin­ing fea­ture, the Mis­sis­sippi River, which slides Gulf-wards with ap­par­ent seren­ity. (“Un­der­neath it’s like a thou­sand freight trains go­ing by,” says Fox.) We push our bikes up the grassy slope of the levee em­bank­ing the river and reach the fron­tier of the St Claude Av­enue Bridge.

“Peo­ple hear hor­ror sto­ries about the Lower Ninth,” says Fox, re­fer­ring to the neigh­bour­hood we’re about to en­ter. “Then they come here and say, ‘ Wow, what a beau­ti­ful spot!’ ” The 100-year-old bas­cule bridge, with its mas­sive ce­ment block coun­ter­weight at the eastern end, crosses a wa­ter­way known as the In­dus­trial Canal. On the west side, from where we’ve come, is the New Or­leans that fea­tures on tourist maps; not just the French Quar­ter, but Treme (pro­nounced Tra-may, made fa­mous by the HBO tele­vi­sion se­ries of the same name), Marigny, Down­town, the Gar­den Dis­trict and all the other rev­e­la­tory places that make this one of the great world cities. On the east is a neigh­bour­hood that fea­tures on no maps I have come across — the Lower Ninth Ward, a grid of streets of scarcely three square kilo­me­tres that is re­garded by peo­ple who have never been there as a place of de­pri­va­tion and dis­or­der. “Lower” does not re­fer to el­e­va­tion, but means “down­river from the canal”.

Be­tween 4am and 5am on Au­gust 29, 2005, the Lower Ninth Ward bore the brunt of what would be­come the most costly nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in the history of the US, as flood­wa­ter surged down the In­dus­trial Canal and smashed through its flood walls, en­gulf­ing the neigh­bour­hood and killing dozens (pre­cise fig­ures for the Lower Ninth are not known; in to­tal, Ka­t­rina claimed more than 1800 lives).

“A lot of folks are look­ing at the tele­vi­sion and ask­ing, ‘Is this Amer­ica?’ ” wrote one news­pa­per colum­nist as im­ages of makeshift lifeboats and rooftop res­cues flashed across the world. Since then this pre­dom­i­nantly African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity has had to put up with its per­ceived vic­tim­hood even as it has re­built from the soggy ground up. Bus com­pa­nies even started tak­ing tours down here, whisk­ing tourists from the com­fort of the French Quar­ter on dis­as­ter sa­faris. “Drive past an ac­tual levee that ‘breached’ and see the re­sult­ing dev­as­ta­tion” is the sales pitch for one tour that still runs.

“Peo­ple would go down in these tinted-win­dow buses, snap­ping pho­to­graphs out the win­dow like they were at the zoo,” says Fox as we wheel our bikes across the old bridge then ride south along the levee on the other side. “Ob­vi­ously, ev­ery­one in the neigh­bour­hood found that very of­fen­sive …” So of­fen­sive that in 2010 a New Or­leans tour guide and mu­si­cian called Reecy Pon­tiff de­cided to set up her own op­er­a­tion, Ninth Ward Re­birth Bike Tours, to the di­rect ben­e­fit of the com­mu­nity (10 per cent of the cost of each tour is do­nated to a lo­cal char­ity). “She put it to­gether be­cause she felt the neigh­bour­hood had been ter­ri­bly mis­rep­re­sented in the na­tional media,” says Fox, a writer who has been one of the guides on the bike tour since he moved into the Lower Ninth Ward in 2011.

The story that un­folds on Fox’s pedal-pow­ered history les­son is about ne­glect on the part of the out­side world and the “self-suf­fi­ciency” of the peo­ple, both be­fore and af­ter Ka­t­rina. The area’s first set­tled pop­u­la­tion, in the 19th cen­tury, was Euro­pean im­mi­grants and free blacks who were defini­tively self-suf­fi­cient, grow­ing crops, rais­ing live­stock and fish­ing in the river and sur­round­ing swamps. Peo­ple still fish and there’s a bu­colic air to the area im­me­di­ately be­low the river levee, made all the more in­con­gru­ous by the view west­ward to the sky­scrapers of the New Or­leans Cen­tral Busi­ness Dis­trict just 6.5km away. Fox in­vites me into his “own lit­tle slice of heaven” and un­der a blue sky sketched with mare’s-tail clouds we free­wheel down the grassy levee to the wooden shot­gun house he shares with a friend.

In the yard at the back there’s a chicken coop, a fire pit and a stage where bands play. In­side hangs a map of New Or­leans on which Fox traces the progress of the storm surge on that fate­ful morn­ing, along a man-made ship­ping chan­nel called the Mis­sis­sippi River Gulf Out­let (MRGO). The dev­as­ta­tion wrought by Ka­t­rina was not en­tirely an act of God, as for decades be­fore 2005 the wet­lands buffer­ing the city had been dis­as­trously de­graded

Clock­wise from top left; Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at a 10th an­niver­sary com­mem­o­ra­tion of the hur­ri­cane; per­form­ers from ‘Gallery of the Streets’ dance along the re­paired levee wall in the Lower Ninth Ward; a house and a store in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was dev­as­tated by flood­ing; a march­ing band in the French Quar­ter

by in­dus­trial in­cur­sions such as the MRGO. Ka­t­rina was just wait­ing to hap­pen.

In this south­west cor­ner of the Lower Ninth, we con­tinue our cy­cle tour past a house daubed with an or­ange X left by first re­spon­ders search­ing for vic­tims in the af­ter­math of the hur­ri­cane. Oth­er­wise, the im­pres­sion is of or­derly streets of re­built vil­las shaded with porches and palm trees and two cen­tury-old glass-and-gin­ger­bread houses built in the style of a pi­lot house on a Mis­sis­sippi steam­boat.

Fox points out that prior to Ka­t­rina the Lower Ninth had a high pro­por­tion of owner-oc­cu­piers (many of them, trag­i­cally, un­der­in­sured when Ka­t­rina struck). “Peo­ple get up­set when it’s called a poor neigh­bour­hood,” he says. “It’s work­ing class, not poor. There are no cars up on blocks.” The point is echoed by lo­cal res­i­dent Regi­nald W Lewis, who we visit by ar­range­ment.

“The media dealt in mis­in­for­ma­tion from day one,” he says. “They called it the poor, poor neigh­bour­hood of the Lower Ninth Ward.” If any in­di­vid­ual can be said to em­body the true spirit of the Lower Ninth it is this for­mer union or­gan­iser, who was born here in 1951 and lived through not just Ka­t­rina but Hur­ri­cane Betsy in 1965. “Ka­t­rina was much worse,” he says. “The house I grew up in was de­stroyed by Ka­t­rina. Got washed away.”

As did the pro­ject to which Lewis had ded­i­cated his life since re­tir­ing in 2002. The House of Dance & Feath­ers was a mu­seum he built in the yard of his home in Tu­pelo Street to celebrate “Mardi Gras In­di­ans” and the world of New Or­leans’s African Amer­i­can car­ni­vals in which rev­ellers wear flam­boy­ant Na­tive Amer­i­can cos­tumes. He has re­built the mu­seum with the help of vol­un­teers and since Ka­t­rina there’s been a resur­gence of the Mardi Gras In­di­ans tra­di­tion.

“You know what makes the bi­cy­cle tour a suc­cess? Be­cause it’s in­ti­mate,” Lewis says, af­ter de­cry­ing tourists who come to “gawk” on buses. “Peo­ple get a clear un­der­stand­ing of what hap­pened here and what we need now.”

What the peo­ple of the Lower Ninth do need now be­comes clearer as we con­tinue north and east. Block af­ter block has been re­claimed by weeds. The homes that once stood here were splin­tered to noth­ing. There are few shops, lit­tle public trans­port; some new fa­cil­i­ties, but not enough. The ini­tia­tive that gets most at­ten­tion is the zone of 100-plus new houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foun­da­tion. But there’s a long way to go.

At least 14,000 peo­ple lived in the Lower Ninth preKa­t­rina. The fig­ure now is not much more than 3000. The Lower Ninth’s north­ern bound­ary is formed by the Bayou Bien­v­enue Wet­land Tri­an­gle. Fifty years ago, it was a fresh­wa­ter cy­press swamp that of­fered pro­tec­tion against flood­wa­ter surges.

Now, thanks to un­reg­u­lated de­vel­op­ment along the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, it has been re­duced to a brack­ish lake,

Peo­ple still fish and there’s a bu­colic air to the area im­me­di­ately be­low the river levee

stud­ded with the stumps of dead trees. By the wa­ter’s edge, an old guy named Wal­ter rem­i­nisces about the days be­fore Hur­ri­cane Betsy, when he hunted rac­coons here: “We used to catch ’em live from the trees. It was a beau­ti­ful swamp.”

It might be again, be­cause a pro­ject is un­der way to re­store the bayou (cy­press saplings have al­ready been planted). And that’s how it feels in the Lower Ninth, a decade af­ter near •ex­tinc­tion. “It took as hard a hit as any neigh­bour­hood in this coun­try ever has and it’s still fight­ing its way back — with very lit­tle help,” says Fox as we pedal down Ten­nessee Street.

That night, on the edge of the French Quar­ter, I find another mu­sic venue that blows me away. It’s Snug Har­bor on French­men Street, where Delfeayo Marsalis (vir­tu­oso trom­bon­ist and brother of Bran­ford and Wyn­ton) and the Up­town Jazz Or­ches­tra play a be­witch­ing set of Dix­ieland jazz. Chat­ting af­ter­wards, Marsalis talks of “the soul and joy of the African tra­di­tion” of black mu­sic that has helped the city get back on its feet. But he ac­knowl­edges that New Or­leans has changed. “It’s like when you lose your in­no­cence. The cov­ers were pulled off.” I am left with a haunting mem­ory of Marsalis play­ing

What a Won­der­ful World, a song for­ever as­so­ci­ated with the city’s most fa­mous son, Louis Armstrong, on the trom­bone. There was so much joy in it, but sad­ness, too.

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