Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lower 9th Ward

I was reading in the Times-Picayune yesterday morning about how New Orleans has more blighted buildings than any other American city.  The number is going down, but I can attest that I think this statistic is probably true without my having visited  many other cities.  Empty buildings and lots are everywhere, more in some places than in others.

They are in Central City and Mid-City.  They are in Gentilly.  They are in the Ninth ward and they are in the Lower Ninth Ward, unsurprisingly.  I try to make it a point not to groove off other people's misery, but when visiting the Lower Ninth, it's hard not to be sad.  Happily, there is a lot of activity and renovation going on.  I visited last August and I could see differences for the better today.  There's still a long way to go.

The work seems to be progressing from the Mississippi inland.  North of North Claiborne Avenue has been mostly replaced by wilderness. I took Alabo Street and it was like passing through the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge in the North part of the city except for the house foundations left in the tall grass and the telephone poles still laid out in the neighborhood's former grid.  There are a few refurbished houses scattered along the streets, but most of this area has reverted to grassland.  Surreally enough, there is a new playground on Roffignac Street to serve the three houses across the street.  Built for future better days.

I climbed the levee to see Bayou Bienville north of the Lower Ninth.  A wet landscape of cypress ghosts.  A sign showed what the Louisiana coastline looked like 100 years ago compared to today.  When people argue that the environmental catastrophes in Louisiana are not natural disasters but man made ones, they are right.  A comparison to how much delta shoreline has disappeared in a century leaves no doubt.
I saw what were presumably volunteers working on damaged homes and I stumbled across the Lower 9th Ward Village, a community center for the neighborhood.  Nice folks.  They need to update the building's photo on the website though.  It's much nicer looking now than when that picture was taken.

I don't know if I would say it's very sad in the Lower Ninth but it got to me after awhile.  It's far from a cheerful setting.  The people who live there were uniformly friendly while they were going about their business, waving to me as I passed.  I stopped for a sno ball at a truck and passed the time with the other people gathered in the shade.  It was the usual motorcycle conversation:  "Is that a 600?"  No, only 250cc.  "250! I've never heard of a 250cc Ninja!"  It's the most popular model, maybe because it's the cheapest.  "What's it cost?  $6000?"  Half that.  "I'll have to get one of those."  I recommend it.

License plate questions followed as they looked over the bike.  I described my 2000-mile, six-day trip and said I am moving here.  "Here to the Lower 9th?"  Probably not.  "Well, welcome to New Orleans anyways.  We're glad to have you."  I'm glad to be here.  Thanks.

New Englanders take note:  sno balls are like Italian ice.

On another note, if you are curious how long Elysian Fields Avenue is, it's 5.2 miles from the LSU technology center rotary at one end to where the avenue begins at North Peters Street.  From Lake to River, it runs through suburban seeming neighborhoods with their share of abandoned homes to more cluttered and busy Faubourg Marigny.  The length of Esplanade Avenue is 2.7 miles from the old mint, where it begins, to City Park, where it ends.  Beautiful street.  Degas lived there.  Probably other noteworthy people too, but the French Impressionist is the only one who's got a historical marker at the sidewalk.  For the Bostonians reading this, Esplanade is pronounced essplanAID, not essplanAHD.

In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields were where virtuous souls went to spend their days in ease and enjoyment.  While those who inhabit New Orleans aren't yet dead, Elysium would be an apt nickname for this city.  It is a state of mind that extends to more than just this street.

4 comments:

Michelle H. said...

This is a good reminder. I had no idea they are still going through the effects even now. It seems like such a long time ago. I suppose renovation does take time, and news stories never pick up on the hard work done, but the latest scandal/tragedy/political stupidity.

Whalehead King said...

A nation of short attention spans has been distracted from the fact that one of its treasures is wounded. If I hadn't seen it first hand I wouldn't know that the damage is still fresh even though it's a half decade old, and I read the newspaper every day.

It is long, ongoing work rebuilding (not renovating) this wonderfully beautiful city.

Thanks Michelle.

Michael said...

On our visit, we got to see some of the Upper Ninth (and Gentilly), but did not make it to the Lower Ninth. The devastativon in these less-damaged places was pretty stunning.

Whalehead King said...

Micheal,
There but for the grace of the angels....

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