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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