Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Terminal Condition

Everyone on the plane looks so depressed, my wife said, as we came out into the terminal at Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans after our flight back from to Washington, D.C. How could they not be, she asked, coming back to all this?

The B Concourse doesn't look so bad. It's not as if there are debris piles outside of the mostly shuttered shops. Then I think about those shops, notice the emptiness at the far end of the hall. It's one in the afternoon on a weekday, a time when the concourse of any decent sized airport should be teeming with people, when even in August tourists and business people and even the odd conventioneer should be shouldering their way through the outbound crowd, the shops busy with early drinkers and late souvenir shoppers.

This afternoon it appears as deserted as a terminal at one am, half of the shops shuttered. I don't see the faces of excited tourists or determined business travelers. Everyone looks a bit tired, set at the mouth, the look I'd expect to see watching a planeload of National Guardsmen deplaning at Baghdad Airport. They look around quickly as they come off the plane, then heft their bags up and square their shoulders as they set off down the concourse, slightly bent as if walking into a strong wind.

Its not an easy place to come home to lately, the Big Easy.

Washington, D.C. is an unfair comparison. The major monuments are as usual scrupulously clean, the stones gleaming in the oppressive heat of a mid-summer heat wave. As a national treasure, these get the full attention even as the government tightens its grip on the funding for the National Park Service. And it's not just the monuments and parks. Washington is a city on the move, construction everywhere and property values skyrocketing, even though it was a place itself near collapse when I left there in the early 1990s, wracked by crime and under a thoroughly corrupt and ineffective government. Would you trade C. Ray Nagin for a crackhead? The vibrancy of DC suggests that there is still hope for New Orleans, in spite of ourselves.

Today areas of the nation's capitol I wouldn't walk at night ten years ago are developed and busy. The housing projects of Anacostia in the southeast are gone, replaced by a development much like River Gardens in New Orleans. On the last block I lived on, the flop/drug house with more foot traffic than a 7-11 is nicely redone, a bright brass address plaque on the brickwork. When my daughter needs bandaids for a blister, I begin to notice that our downtown neighborhood is overrun with Rite-Aid and CVS stores. I don't have to go more than a few blocks in any direction to find one. The restaurants are open and busy, the hours long and the menus extensive. It is a stark contrast to the city we left behind just a few days ago.

It is not all perfect. The extensive redevelopment is driving rents through the roof, putting the recovering parts of the city out of the reach of many renters. On the mall, there are vast patches of dirt and dead grass, an unthinkable condition even in midsummer a few years ago. It appears that the vast urban garden that greeted me almost 20 years ago is suffering from the first signs of government neglect. The homeless are as they were then, everywhere you turn.

Still, DC is so clean, so functional compared to NOLA. It is too easy to start to take the debris piles and rutted streets for granted, to expect to drive out into the suburbs for simple necessities, and worry if you'll find the store open, to drive past blocks of shuttered businesses and empty houses only occasionally relieved by signs of recovery. As much as the people of New Orleans put up with before--crime, litter everywhere, dysfunction at every level--they cannot be expected to live this way forever. We want, as one speaker reminds us every meeting of our recovery planning group, to rejoin the United States.

Our family vacation was not so much an escape from the stress of life in New Orleans as a subtle and constant reminder that we had returned, if only for a few days, to the United States, to the developed first world; that we had escaped for a bit from a place on the edge, a city just barely clinging to the skirts of America, where people long for the days when there was a store on every corner, when things mostly worked, like ex-patriots in a tropical paradise of dysfunction muttering darkly in their cuba libres that it was never like this back in the States.

I would not be here if I didn't have hope. I know that someday the airport will be the place I remember from the past: the boisterous conventioneers already into their second cocktail, the college kids draped in beads before they reach Bourbon, the aficionados bobbing their heads at the first strains of jazz coming from the airport record store. I can see this entire crowd stumbling out into the subtropical sauna and stopping for a minute, with a distant cast to their eyes and smile on their faces, the look that tells me they have reached the place they dreamed. The renaissance going on in Washington DC tells me this is not a fantasy, but an entirely possible future, because so many have that dream of New Orleans. But today I only see the sonombulant crowd trudging down an eerily silent corridor, returning for another tour of duty.


Comments:
great post. i feel a little better about taking a weeks vacation in two days.

i was torn between leaving to recharge the batterys or staying home and doing some much needed hurricane preparedness stuff. the later won out . your post gave me enough of a vicarious experience to have no regrets.
 
You make me yearn for my own visit to the US in Oct when I go visit my future mother in law. I do not plan on leaving the city for good, but I need to get some time where I am not surrounded by the devastation.

Tell me, did they stamp your passport when you got into DC from NOLA?
 
i am going to new york for 4 days next week. my family is dragging me out of here. I feel like I will miss The...Most...Important...Event...EVER
What we have here is a combination of chaos and stasis
 
I recently discovered your blog. A N.O. native (and a homeowner there still), I moved to Europe several months after Katrina. When I read this entry, I quickly identified with how you and your wife felt when you came back to N.O. from your vacation. Also, I just read about you and your family in The Los Angeles Times. I hope you'll share that article with your readers. All the best to you and your family.
 
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