Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Isle of Orleans

That is the sobriquet used by Rep. Peppi Bruneau ( R-Lakeview Lagoon) and my soon-to-be member of the Louisiana Legislature, as he argued for (and failed to win) the consolidation of Courts, Clerks, Sheriffs, Assessors, Registrars, Courtiers, Dressers, and Jesters in the Parish of Orleans. I understand they did agree to combine Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, as they are long dead and there was no one to object.

Of course the legislation for all of this reform predictably failed. Things change slowly in the islands of the south, and who are we to toss anybody with a job out on the street at this time? We have always been the northernmost outpost of the Carribean, the Northward Antilles, a place with more in common with Port-au-Prince than with Princeton, NJ, and predictably conducted ourselves accordingly.

The Isle of Orleans. The name smacks of some developer's fantasy of grand brick homes along canals in the mosquito-infested marshes of New Orleans East. Still, it's the best of all the lot I've heard. The Island simply lacks romance, while the Sliver by the River rings of a headline writer suffering from too little time and too much coffee.

I was looking at this map, squinting to see the bit of dry land that holds Toulouse Street near City Park Avenue where we have found a home. I have been trying to think of a proper new name for my own sliver, a tiny bit of land jutting out into the flood from off the City Park Ridge.

Because of its narrow peninsular shapre, I thought of calling it The Point. I am inspired by my own memories of times past when young lovers would park in the industrial belt that runs along the Bud's Broiler railroad tracks just behind the house, their cars rocking gently in the moonlight like the boats at the Southern Yacht Club.

It's not the Point, however. That was a unique geographical designation, a place that stood out from the rest of the city. My own place is one of scores of points scattered on the map. Looking at the scattering of blues on the page, you see the future layout of New Orleans. The historic city along the river may like to think of itself as the island, but it looms like a continent compared to the rest of the dry spots in the city.

We will be the islanders. I have to think that no matter what, land behind the Gentilly/Metairie ridge and so close to the Canal/Carollton Street Car line is going to fill in, even the worst flooded areas. The land is too convenient to the historic crescent and to Metarie Road and the dry lands to the west. I think this particular outpost seems a good gamble, that the city will fill in around us.

The rest of the dry city is divided into strings of greater and lesser antilles, some bits of land linked by the few high ridges running through the town the way the trade winds link the islands of the Carribean, some as isolated as the Galapagos or Easter Island.

So many people want to come home. If their houses are on these islands and they have work or the resources, I believe they will come. That is the problem wrestled with (unsuccessfully) by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, and the same politicians who failed to grapple with that plan: what will happen to the people of the islands, a small grouping of homes surrounded by so many empty and ruined ones? Will people insist on resettling in the scattered dry spots of Navarre and Filmore and Lakewood?

Should people settle in the most remote islands, surrounded by too many abandoned and undemolished homes that might fill with the sharks and barracudas which once hunted the housing projects of New Orleans? The simplest things may prove a challenge. Will the city be able to provide water service? How far away will the nearest police cruiser be? The nearest fire station?

I know people can adjust to this, but those who chose the islands will need to be ready. When my son was born in a small town in northern Minnesota (Detroit Lakes, the Waveland of the North), we went and took the birthing class at the local hospital as a refresher. One night was spent on training the husbands on how to deliver a baby, on the assumption that on a blizzarding night outside of town, we would be on our own.

People up here in the Dakotas know how to live when the nearest fire engine is a volunteer company a dozen miles away, where a sheriff's deputy could take 20 or 30 minutes to reach your house, where ambulance service is available only if there are enough volunteers to man the truck, and it's still a good 20 minutes away. Long enough to die.

It's a life they are adapted to, a life that after generations on the prairie comes naturally to them. But they are a tough people. If you haven't spent a winter up here, you have no idea just how tough they are. Today we all have central heat and electricity. I still have a hard time imagining the life my in-laws lived in the Dirty Thirties, hauling in a heavy lumps of soft lignite coal to warm the house, toting these through thigh deep snow in sub-zero tempratures.

I wonder if we are tough enough.

I am gambling that my own little bit of high ground will be part of the future footprint of the reconstructing city, continguous to all the rest. For those landing on the rest of those outer islands, those that as likely as not will be just that--islands--the future will be a challenge, one they perhaps have not fully imagined.

Before you move back to some of those areas, without some plan in place for the resettlement, I suggest your read Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast, or at least rent the movie. Dreams can die hard in a harsh land, if all you bring with you are dreams. I am bringing mine, just as every returning person will. But it will take more than that.

Ask yourself this as you contemplate returing to your own bit of high ground among the lesser Antilles: are you ready to deliver that baby?

Good to see the Isle of Orleans nomenclature making a comeback. The French named it that because it was (and still is).
On a very very minor point, I'm not sure that Peppi Bruneau was arguing for the consolidation of assessors. He's conveniently left that proposal out of most of his arguments, owing to a friendship with the assessor covering his district.

The T-P, however, recently seemed to quote him in the context of consolidating assessors, but I think this was a technical mistake, and very misleading on their part. I've been trying to follow this issue closely, but I could be mistaken. If Peppi unambiguously and specifically supported consolidating the assessors, I missed it.
I think its great that you are moving back and I think you will not regret it. As crazy as it seems to move to a devastated place I am only envious you are able to do it now. I hope to accomplish the same one day.
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