View from New Orleans: America’s cultural jewel post-Katrina

By Kevin Bloom 30 September 2011

It’s known as the home of American music, the city where the African drums of homesick slaves met the operas of privileged Europeans to forge a sound that’s now unparalleled anywhere on Earth. But does New Orleans still have the charm and allure it held in the years before Hurricane Katrina? KEVIN BLOOM considers the question.

At 624 Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans’s French Quarter, just off Jackson Square and behind the Cabildo, sits a book store that’s supposed to be one of the most famous in America. The store is known as Faulkner House Books, and its ground floor, where the books are located, is the room where William Faulkner wrote his first novel. The Mississippi native boarded in the house with the artist William Spratling, who was then also in his mid-20s, and while there the two got up to all sorts of no good – like stirring up pitchers of Pernod and bathtub gin, and shooting BB guns at passersby in a game that involved an elaborate scoring system. These stories and others were told to me recently by the current owners of the house, Joe DeSalvo and his wife Rosemary James, who returned from New York to buy and convert the place in 1982. For almost a quarter-century things went excellently for the couple, but in 2005, along with the rest of the city, they came close to losing it all.

“The first few years after Katrina were terrible,” said Joe. “Last year we started to pick up again. This year, with the economy the way it is, it’s looking bad again.”

Joe’s sentiments have been echoed all over New Orleans over the last few days. Hurricane Katrina, which landed on 28 August 2005 with 135 mph winds and a 14-foot storm surge, was the sixth strongest hurricane on record, and the deadliest since 1928. As the Bush administration failed the city’s poor and thousands evacuated, New Orleans dropped from the 35th largest market in the United States (with a population of around 1.3 million) to the 59th largest (with just under 800,000). According to data company Nielsen, as of 2010 it had moved up to 46th position (at around 1.2 million), and yet the effects of Katrina remain: the fact is that New Orleans has shed more than ten positions in size relative to other markets, and its unlikely to regain its former glory with the economy moving towards recession again.

Also, Katrina has fundamentally altered the city’s demographic. Since the storm, New Orleans has become older (from an average age of 34 to 38.8), less diverse (as a percentage, the white population has increased substantially) and richer (median income has risen almost $8,000). The reasons for this are obvious – Katrina hit low-lying, African-American dominated areas the hardest, while the French Quarter and the richer suburbs remained undamaged. “If your house received 10 feet of water, it cost a lot to repair it and many insurance companies didn’t make settlements for almost a year,” a spokesperson for the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center told Nielsen. “People needed money in the bank to start rebuilding their homes, and the neighbourhoods that came back the fastest were the affluent ones. Those in poverty tended to be renters, and there was little assistance for rebuilding rental properties.”

More’s the pity. Just one block down from my hotel, in view from my balcony, is the Louisiana Supreme Court, where the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson was heard in 1896. New Orleans had always been a progressive island in the conservative and racist American south, a city where “free people of colour” numbered in their tens of thousands, and so was the perfect place for Homer Plessy – who was one-eighth black – to challenge the Separate Car Act, which decreed that whites and non-whites could not ride in the same rail cars. Although Plessy lost the case, symbolically it cemented New Orleans’s reputation as a place apart, a city not as much American in character and outlook as it was “the northern outpost of the Caribbean”.

In 2011, does the past tense really apply? Not across the board. Preservation Hall, a jazz club as legendary as the Blue Note in New York, may have lines of middle-aged white couples from Ohio and Idaho waiting outside, and Bourbon Street may be home to blind-drunk college kids who’ve decided they need a break this vacation from Vegas, but there’s still plenty here that’s authentic. Like the jazz clubs on Frenchman Street, where you can watch a trombonist who’s a hundred years old and plays once a week.

As Rosemary James said to me, in the distinctive native drawl that the visitor never tires of hearing: “Nawlins sure is an old whore, but she can surprise you. On some days, she can be charmin’ as hell.” DM

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