Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ten Years Later (another Katrina reflection piece)

The apartment on Dublin St., 2005
In August of 2005, I had just moved into my own apartment in Uptown New Orleans, a 1 bedroom on a quiet street pock-marked with potholes. I had one semester left at Tulane, right on track in my 4 1/2 year plan. I was looking forward to quiet nights at home with my boyfriend and testing out living like a pseudo adult. But on Monday, August 29, 2005, as they inevitably tend to do, things took an unexpected turn. Hurricane Katrina came barreling in and kicked off a series of events that culminated in the city I had loved since childhood and adopted as my own being subjected to one of the most surreal tragedies in modern history--within hours the entire city was underwater.

When I came back it was like entering a strange yet familiar dream world.  Landmarks were missing, askew, or burned to the ground. The stop lights didn't work. The population shrank from 500,000 to 20,000 overnight, resulting in large swaths of abandoned neighborhoods, areas crowded with memories but containing no one. Escaped dogs who had survived the storm formed packs and lived in piles of rubble in the neutral ground. Periodically you would walk down the street and encounter a pack of them trotting past you like they were on their way to an important dog convention now that they had officially taken over the city.

Wreckage. debris 3 months later in the Lakefront neighhborhood 
Abandoned home, with previous water levels visible
The remains of a building, Carrolton St., Uptown
Here's the thing: before Katrina, I had never really considered what it means to lose everything, and all the tiny things that make up everything. My friend Ed lost all of his family albums, which meant when the storm was over there wasn't a single photo of him before the age of 16. I remember that really struck me at the time. Something as simple as baby photos, poof, gone to the water.

My great-aunt Billye and her sister, both widows in their eighties who had lived next door to each other for their entire adult lives had to move into a small 2 bedroom rental that they shared, and hated sharing. Before their homes were eventually demolished I went to see if there was anything left to salvage. The strata of the receding water levels started well above my head and mold bloomed on the walls in an astonishing rainbow of disgusting, putrid colors. The refrigerator had floated into the living room. Every conceivable item of value, including a fur coat, was covered in black mold. There was nothing left.

My Great Aunt Billye's home after Katrina
How could New Orleans bounce back from this? How, when 9 months later the stop lights were still out, the debris from thousands of demolished homes was still piled 6 feet high on the streets, waiting to be carted off? By who? The national guard? As far as I could tell, their main job was to park their big ass humvees on the neutral ground and generally contribute to the atmosphere of war-torn desolation, which they did quite well.

Debris from Katrina cleanup and demolished homes (St. Bernard Ave??) 
One of the "dollhouses" after Katrina
Months later, cars grown into the jungle

And of course, it didn't so much bounce back as claw its way back...surviving through some animal-like resistance to annihilation. The 'recovery' was at times so slow as to be imperceptible. But recover it did.

10 years later. New Orleans is arguably, quantifiably better off than it was before the storm. There are more restaurants. The population is finally, at long last, 94% of what it was before Katrina. It's been called the fastest growing city in the U.S. by Forbes. Everything is good, or as good as it can be in a place that still prides itself on being a little bit third world. When I visit (because I am just a visitor now, as I maybe and probably always have been) I'm continually struck by how much newness there is in the city. New restaurants, new roads, new construction, new residents.

And yes, the inevitable conversation about change being 'good' or 'bad' is coming up as well. When asked whether he's concerned about New Orleans losing some of its authenticity in the face of rapid development and demographic changes (see: whiter, richer), mayor Mitch Landrieu proclaimed he's not worried about outsiders coming in and changing the culture of the city because "there's no way you can change this city before it changes you." I guess if that statement could be true for any city, it would have to be true for New Orleans. But of course change is always a 2-way street, whether there are still alligator tours and voodoo gift shops and live music being played on the streets or not. The New Orleans of today is the same, and completely different from the city it was in August of 2005. And that in itself is both an inevitable tragedy and a cause for celebration.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Something to Watch

Filmmaker Sean Dunne is directing some pretty killer documentaries that probably best fall in the "hillbilly porn" genre, but two of my favorites are Florida Man, a touching portrait of the oft maligned and frequently ridiculed Floridian underclass in his natural habitat outside of liquor stores, dive bars, and behind random dumpsters, and American Juggalo, a not entirely unsympathetic look at the infamous annual gathering of Insane Clown Posse fans. In both features, Dunne trains his lens on a specific breed of white underclass, but his depictions, while raw and at times unflattering, never devolve into pure spectacle. The stills from these docs are sort of beautiful portraits in and of themselves.

You can watch all of his work on his Vimeo page here.

Monday, August 3, 2015

I'm nobody, who are you?

Vintage photo postcards, purchased at the Vintage Paper Show

Man, it's crazy isn't it? That endless spin cycle between life/death and the strange and sometimes inscrutable moments that end up being captured by cameras and then find their way into bargain bins at estate sales, flea markets, and trash cans. Who are these people? What are their stories? Take the lady (well-dressed for a farm visit, natch) kneeling in the mud next to a pig. Whose pig was it? Were they on friendly terms or did they grin and bear it for the camera? (The pig seems pretty relaxed, so perhaps they had some kind of report). What about the odd trio of two women and a man posing for a picture together...I so very much hope they were in some sort of sordid love triangle, but perhaps they were related, or childhood friends. Or maybe the tall lady on the right, who looks a little older, was the overbearing mother-in-law who insisted on doling out un asked-for household advice and criticizing everything about her daughter-in-law's cooking. And the lady chugging some kind of adult beverage in the first photo while "driving" seems like she knew how to have a good time. I'd go on a carriage ride with her any day.

I find myself pondering these questions and a bunch of other unknowable shit. I wonder if there will be any physical evidence left after I hit the Exit button. Somehow unearthing a forgotten hard drive and finding a machine that can still decipher its antiquated binary code seems a a lot less romantic and a lot less interesting than finding shoeboxes full of old photos. What will be left of us when we're gone? Who will wonder at my stupid duck face photos and think 'she seems fun, I wonder what ever became of her?' Probably no one.