New Orleans: Calm after the storm

By Marcel Theroux

New Orleans is not the city it was, but you would hardly know it, wandering around the French Quarter on a sunny morning.

The place has the sleepy grandeur of a colonial capital in Central America. Beyond the levee by Jackson Square, the Mississippi looks flat and peaceable.

The St Charles streetcar rattles back and forth. Outside Cafe du Monde, the tables are full of people drinking chicory coffee and eating plates of beignets, its signature deep-fried doughnuts, which threaten to embalm the eater in a layer of powdered sugar.

An early, grim-faced reveller clutches a beer and claims to be on the hunt for "a titty bar". I share his slightly manic eagerness to prove to myself that everything has returned to normal after Hurricane Katrina, so I order a vast plate of Creole specialities in a restaurant - gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp creole, red beans and rice - stuff my face and totter out.

True, some shops seem to be closed or closing. There are For Sale signs above some pretty French Quarter houses. But the quarter is bigger and more beautiful than expected.

I was afraid it would be a beer-sticky Creole Disneyland, but there are nooks to explore, extraordinary lace-iron balconies to marvel at, and beignet sugar to be removed from my eyebrows.

I start to think that maybe Katrina has already been assimilated into the story of the city. On Bourbon St, alongside the voodoo paraphernalia, there are photo books of the disaster for sale and T-shirts with slogans making light of it: "I drove my chevy to the levee and the levee was gone" and "make levee not war".

With typical American savvy, they've added the hurricane sites to the tours of the city. I pile on to a bus to see what Katrina has done to the place. We drive through the Garden District, where the city's 19th-century shipping elite built huge houses. At one time, this was the wealthiest city in America. The streets are shaded with jungly oaks, resurrection moss growing on their trunks.

The gardens are heady with magnolias, azaleas, camellias, roses. The houses are extraordinary: fantasies in wood, with turrets, walkways, stained glass. Some still have slave quarters attached. Houses are being repaired where roofs were sheared off by the hurricane, but an old people's home has been abandoned. Some houses still show tide marks from the flood, up to 1m high in places. Yet the sense is of a district that has weathered the episode.

Much of New Orleans is below sea level. The original city was considered an island by the French. But in the swamp that surrounded it there were higher ridges; the rich had the smarts to build mainly on this safer ground. When we drive to the Lower Ninth Ward, between Claiborne and Florida, we see one of the worst-hit areas. Here, 2 1/2years after Katrina, the scene is still one of biblical devastation. Whole tracts of land have been scoured of houses.

We drive in shocked silence through the streets of wrecked neighbourhoods. The only sounds in the bus are gasps and cameras clicking. We see ruined houses marked with painted band-aids by their displaced owners, and stencils saying, "Roots run deep here." In a few places, new houses - on much higher foundations - are going up, but the general impression is one of desolation.

We get out to examine one house that was broken open by the water and find the land we are standing on is so low that you have to look uphill to the top of one of the levees that gave way. The water from the canal behind it poured on to the houses to a depth of almost 7m, more than enough to inundate them entirely.

I get different estimates of the economic damage from everyone I ask. One shop owner says business is down 40 per cent. At the Louisiana State Museum, takings are apparently down 70 per cent. The museum is eerily quiet and I am alone in a huge exhibition on Mardi Gras. There's something slightly distressing about the contrast between the energy and enthusiasm of the carnival exhibits and the big, silent rooms they're housed in.

Looking around the museum, it strikes me that Katrina is not so much a break with the city's history as of a piece with it. From the moment the French tried to settle here, it's been a continuous story of plans gone awry, disease, slavery, uprisings, fires, war, racial oppression, heat, and natural disasters. The museum plans a big exhibition on Katrina later this year.

In an attempt to cheer myself up, I enrol in a Cajun cookery class. I want to learn how to make gumbo, the dark, muddy-looking soup that Louisianians use as a metaphor for the mixed heritage of their culture. It's a history lesson in a bowl: the base of onions, celery and peppers arrived with the French who founded the city in 1718. It uses andouille, a twice-

smoked sausage brought by German Catholics who came here later in the 18th century at the invitation of the French rulers. Its meats can be anything, but are influenced by the diet of the French-speaking Acadians - "Cajuns" - ejected from Nova Scotia in 1755 by the British.

Displaced to the swamps of Louisiana, they raised chickens, and killed and ate anything furry or scaly they could lay their hands on. The soup can be thickened with okra from Africa, or ground sassafras leaves used by the native Americans. Finally, the spices and peppers are a legacy of the Spanish, who ruled New Orleans from 1763 to 1801.

As it turns out the toughest part of making gumbo is having the courage to cook the oil and flour to the dark shade that gives the soup its authentic, swampy colour. This one was delicious, aromatic and sweet from the long sweating of the onions, peppers and celery.

But almost nowhere can you escape the melancholy sense that the city is wounded. It feels like a terrible shame. There are few cities that are so beautiful - still - and characterful, and with such a strong identity. What's more, through its music, New Orleans has shaped the lives of people who have barely given the place a second thought.

I walk north to Congo Square, now called Louis Armstrong Park. This is where, in the early 19th century, slaves would gather on their days off to play drums and strange stringed ancestors of the banjo. But Armstrong Park is locked, and the French Quarter seems to grow more ramshackle and threatening as I reach North Rampart St.

I walk down to the Riverfront streetcar and take it to St Charles, where I pay US25c to transfer. I just miss the next one and end up chasing it down the street. I ride the streetcar all the way to the end of the line. This is South Carrollton, a leafy student area around Tulane University. I find the Maple Leaf, one of the city's stalwart live music venues. Next door is the restaurant Jacques-

Imo's, heaving with customers and painted inside to feel like a Cajun hut. Every Tuesday, the Rebirth Brass Band plays at the Maple Leaf, the first live music venue to reopen after Katrina.

The band doesn't start until 11pm so many of their fans come to Jacques-Imo's to eat first. As a lone diner, I'm whisked to my table ahead of the other punters. With misgivings, I order the shrimp and alligator-sausage cheesecake that the waiter recommends for a starter.

It's delicious - like a sticky, cheesy, porky slice of polenta with sweet shrimps on it. Then, because I've always wanted to try them, I have fried green tomatoes: cooked in corn batter, spicy with cumin, and served with a sticky shrimp remoulade, which tastes like a Cajun prawn cocktail.

Around 11pm, the band begin setting up. They amble in unhurriedly. One of the trumpet players and a percussion guy don't arrive until the others are already playing. Rebirth has been going since the early 1980s, with a line-up that's constantly renewed from the pool of the city's musical talent.

They face us like a firing squad, blasting their brass instruments until everyone inside is dancing. The music has real attack - the sound is loud and brassy and funky. The band feels like part of a living tradition, not New Orleans in aspic. It makes me feel hopeful that somehow, the city will find a way of renewing itself while staying connected to its traditions.


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