Jazz Fest, Day 1: Fables Of The Reconstruction

Somewhere in the city there’s insanity around
That’s what you get when you bury above ground
The water that flows on past Magnolia Mound
Is what keeps us lost, and we’re never to be found.

Dash Rip Rock

We flew into Louis Armstrong International Airport on Thursday morning, the day before the second weekend of the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

From the air, New Orleans looks like anywhere else that’s had an encounter with a powerful hurricane in the recent past: blue tarps on roofs, swaths of downed trees, the occasional mass of twisted sheet metal where a warehouse or business has collapsed. I’ve lived in hurricane country for most of my life, and to the eye, approaching from the north, NOLA reminded me of similar damage I’d seen in Orlando, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City.

The drive in on I-10 revealed more destruction, more crumpled buildings, more bent signs, but at interstate speeds (we hadn’t yet experienced one of New Orleans’ now-infamous post-Katrina rush hours), a lot of the sights were still oddly familiar. I’d been through 1995’s Erin and Opal from a waterfront apartment in Fort Walton, and Veterans Boulevard in Metairie today looks a lot like FWB did that fall.

And then, of course, we followed I-10’s eastward curve towards downtown and the French Quarter, and suddenly there it was, the city’s enduring symbol of grandeur, folly, hope and horror.

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Up close, you can see recovery work on the Dome is underway.

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You try to think about what it was like before the storm. You try to recall how it looked for a bowl game or a concert or a Mardi Gras ball.

You try not to think about what happened inside, the last time it was filled to capacity.


Off the interstate, on to Claiborne Avenue, heading towards Uptown and breakfast, and then you really start to see not just the damage, but the aftermath. In my lifetime, Claiborne has never been what you’d call upscale; it was a rough street trending towards shabby, but it was still alive. The stretch of Claiborne between the Superdome and Napoleon had vitality. People were everywhere, at all hours, commuting, conducting business, passing the time, doing God knows what.

Now Claiborne is dead, or the next thing to it.

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Left on Napoleon, you pass the familiar old houses in various states of repair, or disrepair. In standard New Orleans style, this was an upscale neighborhood, right on the brink of the now-famous Ninth Ward. Take a right on St. Charles, and it all really starts to hit home. The old oaks lining the avenue mostly survived, but the streetcar obviously hasn’t run since the storm, and it will take many more months of repair before the line is fit to carry trains again.

Streetcar line.JPG

And then another thing, an almost-trivial thing, in a city full of boarded shops. The old K&B drugstore (yes, I know they’re all Rite-Aids now, but this one will always be “the K&B”), just a couple of blocks from my college roommate’s first house, closed, boarded, vacant.

K&B.JPG

We picked our way up St. Charles to the end of the line, dodging utility trucks and the odd bag of garbage. It was nearly ten AM, and I was more than ready for breakfast at Camellia Grill. But Camellia Grill wasn’t ready for breakfast, or lunch, or the late-night grease it’s so justly famous for. Camellia Grill is closed.

camelia.JPG

And that, friends, was the first thing that really shook me up.

In a million years, I never would have dreamed that Camellia Grill would still be closed, nine long months after Katrina emptied this city.

Isn’t that a hoot? Hundreds of thousands of people get run out of their homes, most of them won’t ever have homes to return to, a thousand souls are gone, and what gets to me? I can’t have breakfast in a diner.

Oh, granted, Camellia Grill is (was) the best damn diner in the world, but we’re just talking about eggs and burgers and maybe a milkshake here (don’t forget the pie, either). It’s not like a closed hospital (there are plenty of those). It’s not like a wrecked home (they number beyond count). It’s not like a dead body in the attic.

But it shook me to the core, all the same.

We got back in the car, and drove back down St. Charles to the French Quarter. Neither of us had the heart to take pictures on the way in, least of all of Canal Street. I’ve known Canal in all its shabby glory since I was a boy, but today it still looks a lot more like the immediate aftermath than I care to think about. One terrible image is frozen still in two words about a boarded storefront: Foot Locker.

By then it was too late for breakfast, but still a little too early for lunch. We parked the car and went to Cafe Du Monde for coffee and beignets. As we settled into the vinyl seats, a trumpeter on the sidewalk played Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” slow and haunting, and very quietly, my wife began to cry.

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14 Responses to “Jazz Fest, Day 1: Fables Of The Reconstruction”

  1. John Says:

    hey that was pretty interesting man

  2. Robert Kelley Says:

    Will, nice piece. For comparison, you should visit the Mississippi coast from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis. New Orleans must repair, Bay St. Louis, Kiln, Waveland, Pass Christian cannot be repaired, they are gone. They must be built anew.

  3. doctorj Says:

    I didn’t know you were a New Orleans native. That explains a lot. My freak out moment occurred shortly after the city was re-opened and it was on Claiborne. I had driven to town to check on the family graves at Metairie Cemetary. I then drove down Canal to go to the Quarter. My jaw dropping moment occurred at the intersection of Claiborne and Canal. The lights were not working and they had stop signs placed at all the intersections. So here I am stopped at Claiborne and Canal and I was the only car there! Folks, this is a MAJOR intersection in the city! It felt like the world had changed its direction of rotation. Maybe the mind can only handle so much and it has to pick smaller things to react to when everything is so wrong.
    As an aside, I know you are a Chris Rose fan. He had a good commentary today: http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/stories/05/8katrina_edit.html

  4. Will Collier Says:

    I’m not a NOLA native; I’ve never even lived there, but I have visited so often I probably ought to start paying local property tax.

    My college roommate and his wife lived on Carondelet near Pascale’s Manale for six years after we finished school. I mooched off their place shamelessly.

    Chris Rose is doing a book signing here (Atlanta) in a couple of weeks, I’m looking forward to seeing him. I’ll write a little about his book later in the week. I’d have caught his signing at the Fairgrounds, but it conflicted with Dirty Dozen’s set, and a man has to have his priorities.

  5. Peter Jackson Says:

    Will!

    Thanks for the pictures and report. I went down for Mardi Gras and was as dumbfounded as you to find the Camelia Grill closed. I was kind of hoping it would be open again by now. I used to live about five blocks up at Carrollton and Plum, one block from the K&B at Oak Street.

    Reading your post gave me another flash of that panicked feeling I’ve been fighting since the storm, that feeling that I have to go get back there now. Anyhoo, I hope you had as much fun at Jazz Fest as we had at carnival.

    yours/
    peter.

  6. Steve Teeter Says:

    I’ve used the The Rite-Aid you shot as my corner pharmacy/liquor store for many years. It still gripes me that I can’t just drop in there to grab what I need in a flash, and have to go stand in line at the Save-A-Center on Tchoupitoulas.

    You can get used to hanging by your thumbs, they say, and while I see the things you saw every day, often I can just not notice them now. Recently Chris Rose wrote about taking a visitor on the Misery Tour, in an area where he saw enough signs of repair among the ruins, compared to what he rememberd, to make him comment, “Looking pretty good.” His New York visitor was shocked and said, “It does NOT look good!” Chris admitted he was right, it didn’t.

    I guess we need fresh eyes to see, now and then, and remind us.

  7. Lyric Mezzo Says:

    Nice post – instead of pointing an accusing finger “America has forgotten,” you very quietly describe what you saw…and we realize that we have indeed forgotten.

    I guess I thought that since the city was reopened, that the cleanup and rebuilding was well under way. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. cliff Says:

    Darn Will, had I known you were that close, I’d have invited you up to Baton Rouge to Mandina’s. Yes, Mandina’s. It’s open up here with the kitchen crew from New Orleans. And the turtle soup is still wonderful!

    I could have shown you round Lakeview (I am a native) if you really wanted to see that.

    All the best!

    …..CLIFF

  9. Flyer Says:

    Will – thanks for the pics and the story. Hope you had a blast at the Fest.

    I recognized the Rite-Aid in your picture, as well as shots of Claiborne. I lived at Coliseum and Race St. for four years, not far from the Prytania Theatre, which recently burned down.

    Sad to see that Camelia Grill is still closed, but as for diners, do you have any idea if the Bluebird Cafe on Prytania, across from Touro Hospital is operating? That was walking distane from my apartment and was a regular Satuday morning meal. Not as interesting as CG, but the food was fantastic and they played WWOZ on the radio.

  10. Kevin S. Says:

    Isn’t that a hoot? Hundreds of thousands of people get run out of their homes, most of them won’t ever have homes to return to, a thousand souls are gone, and what gets to me? I can’t have breakfast in a diner.

    Don’t feel bad about that. My heart skipped a beat too, I loved Camellia Grill. But the scale of what happend is so huge that it can’t possibly be real to us until one tiny little detail – like Camellia – hits us. Then it becomes real, and that’s a good thing.

  11. Steve Teeter Says:

    Flyer, that must have been a typo. It was the Coliseum Theater in your old neighborhood that burned down a month or so ago. The Prytania, on Prytania St. near Jefferson, is just fine and is currently showing, God help us, Mission Impossible III.

    Just didn’t want to alarm anybody.

  12. Steve Teeter Says:

    Oh, and the Bluebird Cafe is open, at its usual erratic and unpredictable hours.

  13. Flyer Says:

    Steve, thanks for the correction. Typing faster than I was thinking and didn’t go back to check the story about the theater. It was the Coliseum that was near me. My first four five there I lived at Bordeaux and Prytania, not far from the Prytania, though. After being gone five years I’m prone to a mixup.

    Glad to hear The Bluebird’s still serving. Sadly, I guess the usual line to get in isn’t as long.

  14. Cybrludite Says:

    What really brought it home to me was learning that O’Flarety’s wasn’t reopening. That really hurt.

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