It is common knowledge New Orleans, Louisiana [NOLA] is a City of resilience and soul. A few months past the ten-year anniversary of Katrina and I am enthralled by it. Yes, there are people committing crimes and/or taking advantage of the touristy folk, who (like me) get caught up in its dazzle and want desperately to take it home. Yet, there are foundations in place by the survivors to commemorate the importance of the rebirth, to which their bricks are set. They are the living reminders. The Lazarus. The ones who have lived to tell.
Around town, emblems are placed as silent souvenirs to the disaster. They are taller than you and read “Water Line – 2005.” They do not exist as shrines, or as a requirement of solace; in most ways they show up the same way a flowerpot may be placed, a sort of offering to consider as you sit to eat.
In fact, the city has an overwhelming sense of humor to it in spite of the horrible memories. Publicly demolished and demoralized, New Orleans has managed to rebuild their sense of spirit in the most charming ways. The roots of the city feel unshaken by the ruins, and instead they are left half way repaired, wrapped in neon and most likely layers of colored lights. The people are the exact same way. They are a tribe of spirited resistance joined together by a collective “fuck you.” Their homes, decorated with a wink, declare: we won’t be removed! Even the design of the districts feel like a carousel ride, where a street aimed north suddenly ends up headed west. It’s difficult to decide if it’s an unplanned element to the place, or all part of the process to get you to slow down and stay awhile.
The determination of folks to start anew is evident in many businesses that have capitalized on the opportunity to buy cheap land. However, the collaboration of old traditions seems to be thoughtfully ingrained in everything. When faced with the quick decision of what to save in an emergency, most of us would grab heirlooms and photo albums. New Orleans feels like a giant scrapbook of irreplaceable institutions, warmly preserved even after the prospect of an ‘easy-out.’
Willie Mae’s is one of those places. Bragged as having the “best fried chicken in America” (not just the Treme) Willie Mae’s is a family run business for over 30 years, and continues to be run by the niece of the original owner. What began as an accidental establishment, cookin’ chicken in the back of a neighborhood beauty salon, eventually expanded past its patrons. The demand for its love-spun meals overrode the barbershop, and now, you have to wait in line to try it. The food isn’t the only thing to love, it’s the worn out seats and no-nonsense display of the diner that welcomes you inside. Despite its framed accolades, it has maintained the impression of a relaxed Sunday at Grandma’s house, seven days a week.
In addition, the community has pooled resources to protect many of the destinations that make new Orleans such a unique place to visit. The infamous graveyards are funded by non-profits such as Save Our Cemeteries, who host educational tours for a low fee. For five bucks you can visit the Pharmacy Museum and spend an afternoon pondering century old medical practices and medicines (bourbon, one of them.) Peeling paint and lopsided portraits season the 200-year-old Napoleon House, where you can enjoy real wormwood Absinthe next to a fire. You can easily walk right past this place and never know the magic hiding inside, but to me the patina is part of the appeal.
This is not the first time New Orleans has been submerged by a natural disaster. I found this out at the Presbytere Museum inside the St. Louis Cathedral. The entire ground floor is devoted to experiencing the trauma of Katrina in all it’s entirety, beginning with the warning of the previous Hurricane of 1915. The exhibit is raw, but necessary. I got halfway through the front room before a ball of emotion formed in my throat. The labyrinth-like formation of the gallery takes you from the eye of the storm, with actual footage of absolute horror, to vignettes of interviews with locals explaining the disbelief, lies, and neglect from government, alongside stories of heroic neighbors who saved 400 people with one boat. The ephemera inside is damaged, heartfelt, practical, horrendous. People died saving cats, cats ate cats, neighbors formed alliances. Those with some sort of float had a better chance at everything.
Fat’s Domino was believed to be dead, his piano recovered from his home in shambles. There was no communication available to let anyone know he was OK. He made it out, but many did not. One woman said the city just died. They didn’t just lose their homes; they lost their grocery stores, their streets, their churches, but mainly their dignity, respect, and faith.
And then, it came back.
Communities began the slow construction of putting the pieces back together. The Saints won a miraculous football game against the Dallas Cowboys, and the fans went nuts. The WHO DAT Nation exploded. Mardi Gras gathered the next year with more flair and glitter than ever. The continuation of festivities and the ceaseless developments despite so many setbacks represent excitement toward a victory on many levels. New Orleans got back on it’s feet and it could not, would not, be beat.
Katrina may not be the last Hurricane to go up against NOLA. There are many repairs still needed and many families shattered, but I am certain the unshakable spark of the city will not be easily extinguished. It is a place of eternal transformation and creativity, a home for all incurables.