Monday, August 27, 2007

Born Again in the Grace of the City

Lakeview was the neighborhood most of us think we grew up in, even if only vicariously via television. It is the sort of place the cast of Happy Days spun out their lives, bright concrete streets shaded by leafy trees and lined with an endless procession of smallish brick and clapboard homes as regular as the pieces in a board , where women sunned sheets in the back while children road bikes safely down the middle of level streets.

The neighborhood had it's oddball homes, like the one on West End Boulevard with the bright cobalt blue roofing tiles. This is, after all, New Orleans. Many of the homes on the south end were swathed in stucco or raised on piers, the typical sort of house one would see in the older neighborhoods. To me stucco was as routine as red brick, and the place I was brought home to from the hospital was a perfect stereopticon match for the world inside the glassy eyed television.

After the flood, Lakeview was transformed. All of the carefully tended lawns and trees were brown, and the homes water-marked ruins. It became a Mister-Serling-asks-us-to-imagine-the-unimaginable scene, like a street in some B-movie disaster in which the anxious crowds have abandoned cars and belongings in their flight. The panicked exodus is complete, the thing to fear has passed, and everything is left upended and empty, still except for odd things moving in the wind, all color washed out into sepia tones.

Two years after the Federal Flood, Lakeview is on the mend. Driving down West End Boulevard on Saturday I was stuck at the sense of normality. The broad neutral ground, a good city block wide, was green and empty again. The tower from which men had last year directed the collection of the debris of half a city into piles that towered over the grandest of the neighboring houses is gone. The irredeemable tear downs are now empty lots, and I passed only a few trailers. Most of the houses look habitable.

What struck me about the scene was not the absence of the marks of disaster, but a subtle change in the demeanor of the street. There was a certain gentile shabbiness to the homes that lined the boulevard, a feeling that I was not driving past the late twentieth century Lakeview of memory but was instead down some unfamiliar street a few blocks over perhaps from Napoleon somewhere in Broadmoor. Everything had aged, it seemed, half a century in the two years since.

It was as if Lakeview had woken up one morning and found itself suddenly elderly, like a person just past midlife who has battled some sudden and severe illness or a terrible grief and emerges clearly and prematurely aged by the event. Everyone remarks at how wonderful the survivor looks, hardy a mark and such energy! Mrs. Lakeview is grateful for their attention, and dearly wants to believe them, but every glance in the mirror and every difficult step up the stairs to bed tells the truth. One may have survived, but is no longer young.

And yet Lakeview does not look out of place. It has become just another aging neighborhood in a city as steeped in its past as it was in the waters of the flood, a city destroyed and rebuilt by great fires (so that the architecture of the French Quarter is uniformly colonial Spanish), a place tried and proved by past floods and epidemics. Time's imprint, so clear in the rest of the city, has reached across the railroad tracks and interstate highway that separate Lakeview from my neighborhood and the core of the city, just as the water found a way under and around those barriers, and has left its unmistakable mark.

Having come through the water, Lakeview was born again in the grace of New Orleans. It is draped not in the crisp, white cloth of the baptismal font but in the faded and a-bit-wrinkled cloth that speaks not of a blank newness but of wisdom won through time, like the cloak of a wise old woman. Each wrinkle and stain of her cloak renders a map of the safe paths through this boggy land, each mark is like hermetic writing in which are hidden the secrets of life in a place at the mercy of the waters that surround it.

Some in Lakeview, particularly the builders of McMansions, will lament and try to erase this change. I suggest they should embrace it as the vigorous embrace old age as just another step on the journey. They should raise their houses up as that old woman might lift her skirts to navigate a puddle, and settle gracefully into their recovering homes in the newest of the old New Orleans neighborhoods as that elder might settle into a wicker porch chair.


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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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