Still Singing the Blues
'Do you want to take the long way or the depressing way?" Andy Correro deadpanned as he and his family headed out for lunch in the French Quarter.
It was Christmastime in New Orleans, and his neighborhood 4 miles uptown was only now beginning its revival from the fetid deluge that had rendered most every house on his block unfit for habitation.
A left turn at the corner, onto Freret Street, would assure a jolting, potholed drive through one of the city's most disheartening stretches. But if they continued on just a few blocks to St. Charles and Magazine streetsan arch of high ground that locals have dubbed the "sliver by the river"the Christmas lights and tinsel draped from the mansions would twinkle as if nothing had ever happened.
"Let's take the long way," he said before anyone had a chance to answer.
Such coping behavior is understandable. In fact, save for drinking, it has long been the preferred method of survival here. Even before Hurricane Katrina shot a hole in New Orleans's heart, nearly everyone who could took the long way around the central-city neighborhoods where New Orleans earned its "murder capital" reputation. And when the newspaper headlines say that only about 1 in 1,000 homeowners who applied has received "Road Home" money to rebuild or that New Orleans's water and sewer system will take a quarter century to repair, what else is there to do but turn the other cheek?
Indeed, in a city where the average life span is shorter than almost anywhere in America, the secret to long life may rest in one's capacity to avoid reality entirely. "I know a 300-year-old man who occupies the stool at the far end of the Saturn Bar," local author Andrei Codrescu writes in his recent book, New Orleans, Mon Amour. "His longevity is the result of having no idea what time it is. He hasn't seen a newspaper in 200 years."
Solace. With the bad news pouring faster than a Bourbon Street barkeep, people here are doing what they have done for years when their beloved city's more weighty troubles might otherwise drive them to tears: They're watching football. That, too, usually leads to heartache. This year, though, with the Saints in the playoffs and LSU competing in the Sugar Bowl in the refurbished Superdome, this diversion may finally pay off.
And if it doesn't, they can always pursue their second-favorite pastime: making jokes. "What could possibly be weirder than the year in which your city gets hit with the worst natural disaster in U.S. history?" asked Gambit Weekly editor Clancy DuBos last week. "The year after."
Such dark humor is on full display in the French Quarter, where vendors who once trafficked in party beads now do better hawking bumper stickers that read, "New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home."
One of this year's popular Christmas gifts was a talking key chain called Da Mayor in Your Pocket, which blurts out quotes from Mayor Ray Nagin's now infamous post-storm radio interview.
Press one button: "Excuse my French, everybody in America!"
Press another: "But I am pissed!"
Not that it has done much good. After more than a year of false starts, Nagin's re-election promises for the city's resurrection remain as broken as the neighborhoods he insisted would come back if only given the chance. The city's population has stalled out at about 200,000, less than half its size before the storm. And far from the "chocolate" New Orleans he envisioned a year ago, with a majority of its residents African-American, a recent survey found that the city's blacks make up only 47 percent of the population, down from 67 percent before the storm, while whites account for 42 percent. (Hispanics, who are providing much of the backbreaking labor for New Orleans's rebuilding, are now the city's fastest-growing population.)
But while many have given up on returning and a third of those here now say they are likely to leave the area in the next two years, a resolute few are determined to stayall coping with reality in their own way.
"I keep it together by not being here much," jazz singer Topsy Chapman said as she prepared to board a plane for a gig in New York City last week. Chapman had spent Christmas Eve singing her heart out at Preservation Hall, where she'd brought the sold-out audience nearly to tears with a rendition of Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" Given the reaction from the crowd, apparently the answer to the question was "Yes."
This story appears in the January 8, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.