Urban environments are constantly evolving. Neighborhoods expand. Roads are added. Schools are built. Businesses come and go. Typically, these changes are slow, gradually accumulating over the course of years and decades. But in the strange microcosm of post-Katrina New Orleans, a similar sort of evolution (re-evolution? re-volution? Are we not men? We are Revo!) is occurring at a (relative) break-neck speed.*
The storm knocked the physical contours of the city back to its boundaries of 150 years ago, almost completely depopulated it, and shuttered nearly every single business. Then the city reopened, and life came back to the high grounds. Unflooded neighborhoods quickly filled up, and businesses reopened.
After the first few months, the high-ground filled up, and the city more slowly began pushing back out into the flooded lowlands. FEMA trailers sprang up in the wilderness. A grocery store opened here, a gas station there.** And this process is ongoing. People are moving back into their houses. Commercial activity is gradually is returning. Institutions are reopening. The boundaries are stretching out again, expanding week by week, to reacquire some semblance of their shape before the storm.
And this presents a curious challenge to the residents. We all have a mental map of the places we live in, a list of important personal landmarks, the places in our everyday lives. Normally, this mental map is relatively stable, only occasionally updating to account for some change in the cityscape. But here, it's in constant flux. We frequently find ourselves having thoughts like, "Isn't there a drug store around here? There used to be two a few blocks that way, but I think they're both closed still. Or did the Walgreen's reopen? I'm not sure. Hmm..."
It takes a lot of work keeping track of the changes. Early on, people eagerly exchanged information about what had re-opened like hot stock tips. Now, the pace is less feverish, but it's still chugging along. As each month goes by, our city is, yet again, substantially changed, and our tired, feeble brains have to try to keep up.
Oh, well. I guess it keeps us on our toes.
* Yes, the common lament is that rebuilding is too slow, and that's fair enough. But really it took generations to build most cities. We're having to rebuild one in a handful of years. (Sort of like that time in one of the Trek movies when Spock turned back into a child and then rapidly and painfully re-matured. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. Don't act like you don't.) Rome wasn't built in a day.
** The gas stations are an important issue. Initially they were few and far between. They're still pretty scarce in many parts of the city. And curiously, it's the Spurs, the funky little discount franchise stations, that are open first - the ones where you can't pay at the pump and have to go inside and stand in line behind the guy blowing his paycheck on lotto tickets and the sweaty contractor buying a six-pack and Slim Jims and then slide your money through the window in the bullet proof glass before filling up.