February 7, 2006

Mansions and Rubble

A tale of two cities: impressions of a New Yorker from a recent trip to post-Katrina New Orleans.

Rachel Bialik

Some parts of New Orleans are looking pretty good, five months after Katrina. The mansions on St. Charles Ave., and on the private, gated streets, such as Audubon Place, just off St. Charles, are mostly in beautiful condition and appear to be inhabited. Slightly less wealthy neighborhoods have also recovered fairly well from the storm. A little further down the city's wealth scale, some modest houses aren't yet occupied, but people are living in trailers on their front yard.

New Orleans photos
Rachel Bialik
The wealthy side of town
In other neighborhoods, buildings are still standing, but they're boarded-up and look deserted. There are also piles of trash in front of houses in those districts where garbage collection hasn't yet resumed. Then there are the houses that no longer exist. In many areas of the city, piles of bricks or wood sit where structures used to be.

Some commercial areas are open for business. Magazine Street and the French Quarter have trendy stores and restaurants, many of which have reopened. The French Quarter was the most festive area I saw in New Orleans: People were walking amid buildings with Mardi Gras decorations up, six weeks ahead of time.

In contrast, the central business district was pretty quiet when I drove through on a Sunday afternoon (I visited the city with a friend while on vacation in Louisiana last month). There were no people walking around, and some sections looked deserted. Also, many windows were still boarded-up.

After shutting down for fall semester, Tulane University appears relatively pristine. The main administration building and lawn, as seen from St. Charles, are gleaming—especially the lawn, which is an unnatural green color. The landscaping elsewhere on campus looks more like I would expect after major flooding—the grass is brown or patchy, and shrubs and trees are missing. Many buildings on campus have held up well from the outside, although some basements flooded up to six feet. About 90% of students have returned to Tulane for the spring semester.

Much of the distinct flavor of New Orleans remains intact. There are many beautiful oak trees with branches that trail on the ground. There are gracious plantation-style mansions with porches on the first and second floors, with swings and overhead fans. There are also streets that serve as boundaries between white and black neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods appear to be segregated, and you know right away, even if the streets are empty, which type of neighborhood you are in.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for New Orleans. The residents who have come back (or never left) seem determined to rebuild and continue past traditions. There is a lot to rebuild. And the next hurricane season begins in June.

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Article by Rachel Bialik

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