Notes From New Orleans

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Two days after the levees broke, New Yorker writer Dan Baum landed in New Orleans to cover the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. His nine-month stay was just a prelude to his full Gulf Coast immersion. In January Baum and his family left the purple mountains of Boulder, Colorado, for a different kind of local color: life in the Lower Ninth Ward.

When I got out of the car and walked through the ‘functioning’ parts of the city, I saw how beaten down they are. Beside a bustling restaurant on Carrollton Avenue lay a field of rubble. Flanking a rebuilt apartment were townhouses that resembled skulls with plywood eyes. Most buildings needed paint. Street lights and traffic signals still dangled uselessly. Many houses stood vacant — peeling and splintered, with shattered windows. Worse, the people on the street had acquired the worn-out, hollow-eyed look of figures in a Walker Evans photograph — their shoulders hunched, their faces sallow and puffy, their voices flat. Within a couple of hours, two strangers separately told us that they were ‘over’ New Orleans and scheming to leave.

Dan Baum, New Orleans Journal, The New Yorker, January 31, 2007

Baum has been posting daily dispatches on his blog. In his entries, New Orleans is as complex and robust and rich as a prize-winning bowl of gumbo. From male plumage, to quotidian crime, to arguing over pickled meat, Baum captures all the idiosyncrasies of a city that is still struggling to survive nearly two years after it’s been ravaged by Katrina.

In many ways, Baum, a self-described “balding fifty-year-old Jewish guy from New Jersey in pleated pants” is New Orleans’s Truman Capote — the proverbial fish out of water. Just as Capote’s flamboyance seduced the plain folk of Holcomb, Kansas, to give him the story of a lifetime, Baum’s no-nonsense work-like demeanor has compelled decked out, Big Easy denizens to sharing their stories of post-Katrina living.

There is so much ground to cover with Baum and not nearly enough time. Should we focus on the progress the city has made? Or on the escalating violence? Do you want to hear about the local heroes that are making the city better? Or the institutional red tape that is slowing recovery down? What questions do you have for Baum and for his New Orleanian neighbors?

Extra Credit Reading

Pie Throwing, by Dan Baum

Dan Baum, I Cover the Waterfront, New Orleans Journal, May 24, 2007: “The decline of New Orleans’s port is a tremendously complicated affair that can’t be fully told here. And it may be that part of the story is the way New Orleans does business. But it’s also worth remembering, especially as the city struggles to recover from Hurricane Katrina, that bad things happen to good cities.”

Harry Shearer, New Orleans Diary: Catching Up, The Huffington Post, May 15, 2007: “It was an amazing springtime in New Orleans; at one of my last dinners in town, the Formosan termites finally started swarming around the streetlights just outside the window, and, when I got home, the dreaded phrase “first named storm” was all over the local news.”

Tad Bartlett, oh, db, check your facts . . . again, swampytad — the occasional blog of tad bartlett, April 10, 2007: “Let me dispel a couple of things those well-meaning folks from the University of Colorado told you, their fellow Coloradan, about New Orleans infrastructure. (Of course, I would think any kind of journalist would have checked the facts himself before printing them in his blog on a national news and culture magazine website, but maybe my standards are too high.)”

Fotaq, New Orleans, Louisiana, Astoria Bike, April 20, 2007: “New Orleans was great. Still very f***ed-up, mind you. But a wonderful city. Good biking. Great food. An easy city to strike up a conversation with strangers. I was charmed. Too bad the city was destroyed and nobody seems to care.”

John Pope, Clinton blasts federal response to Katrina, The Times-Picayune, May 19, 2007: “Clinton said the program she envisions would cut red tape, attract workers to the area to help it rebuild, erect a reliable hurricane-protection system, provide affordable housing, fight crime, revitalize the city’s school and health-care systems, promote ecologically friendly development and revise federal disaster response procedures to be ready for the next storm.”

Suz, Nwalins, the wonder keeping the stars apart, May 17, 2007: “After Katrina I got in regular arguments with folks who actually felt comfortable saying out loud that New Orleans should not be rebuilt. I know Charleston is a cleaner, safer and tamer version of New Orleans, but I can’t imagine even conceiving of this city being destroyed and it being an option to not rebuild its beauty, its charm, its uniqueness in an age of overwhelming homogeny.”

Invitation to Reflect, agitcorp, September 27, 2006: “She said that all of us here are asking the questions, Why here? Why now? Why have we decided to return?”

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  • bumpyjonas

    I just spent some time in New Orleans at Jazz Fest, and a legal conference, and it is, in many ways, the same city; however, it is still a city on the ropes. The tough talk is good; the city needs to be tough but what the city really needs is an influx of jobs, permanent economies (small and large), and the return to community. Don’t view the city’s from the standpoint of the “lower nine” as they call it; we know the poor got reamed by the storm and the government. Check out East New Orleans, middle class, African-American, and for the most part, wiped out. They are coming back but that more than any other section reveals the class issues in the city that are troublesome.

    I also took a trip out to Baton Rouge and that is another interesting story.

  • hurley

    Quick, Call Harry Shearer. He lives part-time in New Orleans, and has been a serious and impassioned witness to what has happened there. He would doubtless make a great guest — and maybe even throw in an imitation of Chris while he’s at it.

  • loki

    “Do you know what it is to miss New Orleans” A great song sung by Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong would great background music to the show. Jason Berry would be a good addition to the show: he covered the melton in the Catholic Church and lived through Huricane Katrina as a companion to Fats Domino!

  • hurley

    Ioki says:

    “Do you know what it is to miss New Orleans” I lived in New Orleans for a spell as a small child in the 60s, and oh do I miss it. The zoo! The library! The horseshit in Jefferson Square! The trees along the Esplanade, the elephant leaves in the courtyards, the French Quarter mysteries just beyond comprehension, but spinning inexorably toward you nevertheless. Mardi Gras then seemed not just a local, but almost a private affair, people on the floats guiding the beads into your hands, etc. I haven’t been there for 20 years and, after Katrina, don’t know that I’ll ever return. But then again I just might, and for the very same reason.

    Another guest you might consider is Robert Stone, whose novel Hall of Mirrors evoked New Orleans of the period very well. Also James Sallis, who has written a series of superb mysteries set in the Big Easy.

  • erin

    I was born in New Orleans and as a small child loved playing in City Park. My parents took my niece there last year and said that not only was there no longer a place to buy a child an ice cream but that bathroom facilities no longer existed. I’m interested in the little things that were lost that make a city worth living in. If you can’t take your kid to the bathroom in the park, the trip is going to be a short one if it happens at all. Beyond the appalling lack of educational and health infrastructure, what are the little things that are missing that cause people to decide that the city is unliveable?

  • nother

    The Kaiser Family Foundation just finished a house to house survey in New Orleans.

    Among other statistics:

    “Twice as many African Americans as whites in Orleans (59% vs. 29%) reported that their lives are still “very” or “somewhat” disrupted.”

    “In addition, seven in 10 African Americans in Orleans Parish (72%) reported a problem accessing health care, more than twice the rate reported by whites in the parish (32%).”

    “Despite all the challenges they face today, area residents also exhibited real hope for the future: Most (69%) are optimistic about the future of the city, with only a modest 11% saying they plan to leave or are seriously considering leaving New Orleans.”

  • hurley

    Harry Schearer’s site difficult to navigate, but some of his post-Katrina commentary and interviews (Interview with Dr. Bob Bea…) can be found here:

    He’s on it, been on it, stays on it.

  • hurley

    …the apple the pedlar gave me, stolen by my step-mother to spike with cloves and season my father’s underwear, sweeping up the remnants from the corn-barges on the Mississippi to feed to the chickens, the restaurant down by the levee where the divers gathered, eating cheap spaghetti and washing it down with what was it?, etc. You open a nice vein of memory on a stricken place. I look forward to the show.

  • Chelsea


    Harry Shearer is a great idea. We’re going to give this entire hour over to Baum but Part II with Shearer would be a memorable show.

  • RobertPeel

    Another Great Lousiana write is James Lee Burke. He evokes New Iberia. But I can feel New Orleans on a steamy, humid, summer day. I speant a week at Dillard University.

    Great Literature has been written there Walker Percy, John Kennedy O’Toule even Ann Rice-and ah the music!

  • plnelson

    Here’s another vote for Shearer. (Public radio listeners in the Boston area have no idea who he is unless they use the Internet . . . )

    Should we focus on the progress the city has made? Or on the escalating violence?

    This is off-topic but I have long advocated that ROS do a show about violence. You’ve touched on it in many shows but I’d like a show with serious scientists who can explain WHY humans are that way.

    If you’re poor and in distress and (being poor in a broken city or country) have limited access to healthcare, then violence would seem to be a particularly irrational response to poverty and social distress. And yet from New Orleans to Iraq to Palestine to Boston to Africa to plenty of other places, violence is the response. Given all the different possible ways one MIGHT respond to poverty and distress – political organizing, social activism, self-education, getting together with other poor unemployed people to build or repair something, etc, why is violence such a popular option?

  • Potter

    This is a great listen.

  • Ghost Rider

    A friend from Rhode Island sent me the link to this site and it looks very interesting. I look forward to reading more about Mr. Baum and his book. I live in New Orleans and have stong ties to the city. I was born and raised here so I’ve got deep roots in this city. You may have heard the story about a Katrina survivor named “Rockey” who towed his FEMA trailer to the White House and invited President Bush to dinner so he could deliver his message of “Thanks, but the job is not done.” I am the guy behind the story and I made a feature length documentary film about Rockey and his misson to the White House. The film is called “Forgotten on the Bayou: Rockey’s Mission to the White House” and it’s represented for distribution by David Garber of Lantern Lane Entertainment out of Los Angeles. This film will make a positive impact on the world and particularly New Orleans because this is a story about the little guy getting his message to the big guy. It’s a story about hope and it’s the only story that has anything to do with Katrina that will make you laugh. It’s what we truly need in New Orleans right now…a little bit of HOPE. Check out the website for more info about the film.


    Steven Scaffidi


  • New Orleans is the poorest per capita of America’s large cities, in one of the poorest regions in the nation. This despite a thriving tourism industry and a major port facility. I suspect the real problem with New Orleans is in it’s culture of poverty and a corrupt local political machine. No amount of reconstruction is going to make those problems go away.

  • Beau Ross

    Dan Baum is a really cool cat, he was very accessible and put on no airs. He made a lot of friends here in Nawlins and he will be missed. And that pink hat of his was the shit! reminded me of Tom Wolfes white suit and I hope it becomes a trademark of his wherever he goes. I’m looking forward to his book. Please gang at open source, do more shows on my city, there are so many stories to tell. How about a show about people who have moved to New Orleans Post-katrina and still have fallen in love with the city–like Dan Baum.

  • erin: You can most definitely buy icecream and gelato in New Orleans (pretty close to City Park) and the bathrooms work now. Yes, there are small and LARGE things here that irritate often, but where else in the States can you find such cultural uniqueness? What other city boasts so much in this nation? Wait until your new city rebuilds and you will find that icecream and public restrooms are way down on the priority list.

    hurley: Harry Shearer is a regular blogger at Huffington Post and spends most of his writing and advocacy time there. Here’s the link.

    loki above not to be confused with local blogger Loki.

  • I’m just catching up with your podcasts but I wanted you to know how much this story tocuhed me. My husband and I met in New Orleans so watching the city struggle is unbearable. Hope stories like this remind the government that the residents need more than financial aid.