IN NEW ORLEANS
My ingenious wife found us an 1840s-era apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans in which to celebrate my 53rd birthday last week. Having both lived in Louisiana in the past and visited New Orleans many times, we were curious and concerned to see the city post-Katrina.
Driving in from the airport, the Crescent City had the foreboding feel of a ghost town, with blue tarps still covering the roofs of blown-out houses in Elysian Fields. Street art of often heartbreaking intimacy materialized around us. In someone's yard a sign stuck up out of a toilet: "We were up a creek with a turd for a paddle." Many houses had "LOOTERS SHOT" scrawled in red paint on side walls and homemade STOP signs filled some side streets.
T-shirts were sarcastically blazoned with the "FEMA Motto": RUN BITCH RUN!! and a small memorial read, "Here lies Ada S., killed by a hit-and-run driver on September 29, her body left for five days untouched in the street, after the storm.
Nevertheless April 22 (my aforementioned birthday) was also Election Day in New Orleans with 22 candidates in the running for Mayor, and dozens of candidates running for the post of Assessor, a potentially lucrative if not sinister job, in light of the rebuilding that may or may not come. Orleanians were out in force with the traditional signage. Often people pile up a dozen or more yard signs, boosting an array of candidates, in the local equivalent of a Christmas tree. The candidates themselves, garishly dressed in shorts and Mardi Gras beads, lined St. Charles Avenue to regale a voter or two, easy to do because the street cars are still not running eight months after Katrina. The Magazine Street bus, which arrives sporadically, is free.
Far from tar-and-feathering these political opportunists, many locals welcomed the electioneering as a mimesis of normalcy. Merchants on Magazine Street, the antiquing center of the world, greeted us like pilgrims. A young brunette named Laura sat in her boutique, "I'm glad you two have returned. I was back in my shop the week after Katrina. They smashed my windows and looted the displays, but at least the water damage missed my inventory. I sure miss the National Guard, though. They were friendly, polite and fun."
Such was the scene in store after store: a single woman in residence in a receding shadow of violence.
New Orleans has never been a place to find good contemporary art or much good fine art at all. The only such piece we saw was a black tubular Tony Smith sculpture outside the John Minor Wisdom Federal Courthouse. Local galleries showed mildly poignant Katrina-inspired group shows, redolent of kitsch. The street artists in Jackson Square are perhaps the worst in the world, but a hurricane of bad art can still have a soothing effect. For what is a connoisseur in the face of a hurricane? Just another tattered hobo.
By the weekend, the city inaugurated a Quarterfest, full of street food and hungry musicians. The best was a young rabbinical student, fiercely attacking a slide guitar outside Antoine's on Friday night. The tune was Robert Johnson's Stop Breaking Down, a phrase the bearded white kid wailed repeatedly down St. Louis Street, begging the city to stop doing what the rest of the USA thinks is New Orleans' inevitable just desserts.
Everywhere we went, people thanked my wife and me for coming down and "helping the economy." The ambiguous mood was summed up by a sign in the back of the Quarter adorning a gorgeous makeshift garden, "Thinks must be getting better, because people are stealing my plants." Every time we return to the City that Care Forgot, it steals a piece of our souls. Take the risk and go.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-editor of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).