Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Topography of Normal

When I talk to my friends and family who are elsewhere, they ask "what is the city like now?" And the answer is, "it's very hard to say."

The forces that have made New Orleans what is right now are so distinctive, so unlike anything that happens in normal life that there's really no meaningful comparison. The city has taken on a very strange shape, a widely varying topography of normal, which is strongly correlated to the physical topography of the city:
Normalish: Areas of the city which didn't flood, a band about 10 to 15 blocks in width running along the river from the Industrial Canal to the Jefferson Parish line, are moving forward rapidly. The contrast from when I was here a few weeks ago is startling. Then is was a semi-ghost town under military occupation. Now it's busy. There are people everywhere. Many, many businesses are open. Life looks something like it did in the old days. Although when I say "normalish" let me make clear that I really do mean "normalish". Traffic lights flash. Every intersection is a four-way stop. The neutral grounds are filled with signs advertising demolition, mold remediation, hauling, etc. Moving trucks are everywhere. "For Sale" signs are everywhere. Refrigerators are in the street. Houses have giant graffiti scrawled across the front. People hug and cry at the drop of a hat. Life is definitely back, but it's still pretty weird.

Borderline: Further away from the river are the neighborhoods that got from one to three feet. Because most houses are elevated, many homes are essentially fine. But the utilities are dodgy. The grass is dead. And some people did flood. Less people have returned. It's quiet. Where we are staying now is in one of these neighborhoods.

Flooded: These are the neighborhoods, like ours, with several feet of water: four, six, eight feet. Everything flooded. Nobody is living here. No traffic lights and few street lights work. At night, they're pitch black. During the day there is some activity, but it's not regular life. It's demolition and construction crews. Every house is either dormant or a construction site. The curbs are lined with heaps of rubble. It will be many months before these areas are alive, but they will come back.

Devastated: Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward. The destruction here is of an entirely different order. To see them, it's hard to imagine anyone ever living here (even though much of it will some day rebuild). On West End Boulevard in the neutral ground, formerly a large grassy expanse where people jogged and walked their dogs, there is a massive trash heap three stories high, extending out of sight down the street. I stumbled upon it unexpectedly the other day and it took my breath away. I've seen plenty of trashed homes now, but the scope of this was different, huge, thousands of lives in a pile. It's awful.
So there really is no one answer. The city is all of these things right now, and trying to find some simple way to make sense of and encapsulate it one single summation is impossible.


  1. Thanks for making some sense of a world that it's very difficult to imagine. I'm sure that it's very difficult to comprehend up close!

  2. "People hug and cry at the drop of a hat" -- this part of the new normal might even be worth hanging on to.

    (Depending, of course, on the frequency of the hatdropping.)

  3. Yeah, it's pretty nice. One of my favorite things about the city right now is the warmth that people openly show each other. And the sense of "we're all in this together."