When the guy rolling the giant wooden cross down Bourbon Street passed the “Pimps and Ho’s” party on the balcony of the Hustler Club, you knew that juxtaposition-rich New Orleans was getting back to business.
In this first post-Hurricane Katrina Mardi Gras, there is a willful effort to look forward instead of back at the structural and psychological scars left by what a recently released White House report calls “the most destructive natural disaster in American history.”
The atmosphere is not unlike the mood of New York five months after the attacks of September 11th. Extraordinary circumstances have begun to feel ordinary and everyone is encouraged to overcome trauma with the feel-good economic stimulus of conspicuous consumption. A trip to Mardi Gras this year is an exercise in patriotic tourism – the beads and the bacchanalia are all offered with a feel-good chaser of civic responsibility – by spending money and acting stupid we are doing our part to rebuild New Orleans. It is an appealing but misleading pain-free prescription.
People here have embraced the contradictions of the celebration. There is an appropriately irreverent quality to much of the revelry – t-shirts on sale proclaim that FEMA stands for “Federal Employees Missing Again,” while the acronym for New Orleans Police Department, NOPD, is said to stand for “Not Our Problem, Dude.” One group of women wore matching outfits and proclaimed themselves with acid double-entendre “Fema-a Fatales.”
One of the floats in the parade even managed to mock the recent disaster by proclaiming itself the Katrina 2005 krewe; showing painted images of a city underwater on the side of the float with an alligator and a school bus floating by a submerged Superdome. The front of the float is decorated with an abandoned refrigerator bandaged up with electrical tape while on the back a gray Wal-Mart shopping cart is packed with a stolen TV and a case of Mountain Dew.
On the high ground of the French Quarter, New Orleans can make a convincing show of getting back to normal, but even here casualties abound. For example, the classic Felix’s Oyster House off of Bourbon Street appears to be shut down for good. As a way of meager compensation, a new Penthouse strip club has opened up in a building next door. This is part of the slow transformation of Bourbon Street into a tiny Las Vegas, with authentic local businesses dangerously on the decline.
In one strangely reassuring sign of resurgence, New Orleans has quickly revived its traditional role at the heart of the Saturday night/Sunday morning culture wars. Amid the rowdy revelers would-be evangelists mill the crowd. Some seem primarily interested in engaging hammered frat boys in earnest conversations about God at 2 a.m., while others advanced a less conciliatory approach. One memorable banner on Bourbon Street singled out an exhaustive list of “Jesus rejecters, homos and lesbos, porno-freaks, drunkards, Muslims, Buddhists, unsubmissive wives, money lovers, unloving husbands, thieves, rebellious children, liars, lazy Christians, racists, Mormons, fornicators, Roman Catholics, adulterers, and baby killing woman” for eternal damnation. If that list is right, there’s not going to be anybody left in town to rebuild New Orleans.
Not that there is any shortage of people eager to vie for the privilege. In the midst this chaos, the city is trying to conduct – as New York City did – a mayor’s race which has been rescheduled for late April. The incumbent mayor, Ray Nagin, now trails in the polls behind Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu among a crowded field of candidates. Skeptics snicker that revived interest in the office is motivated by a “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler” Louisiana government approach to the billions of dollars of federal aid that will flow, but the task of rebuilding a city with 60% of its population still gone is too grave to approach in search of earthly rewards.
The real story of this Mardi Gras cannot be understood without taking into account the reality on the other side of town. Because across the river, in the Ninth Ward, there are no floats and festivities. There is no electricity. There are no people. There is only destruction.
Houses are smashed and collapsed, wiped off their foundations, spilling into roads. Hundreds of cars lie abandoned and upside-down. People’s lives have been slashed open and the details thrown about, within a few feet a spare women’s shoe, a bureau, an old 45 rpm record, and a decaying teddy bear all covered with dust, mud and other debris. It resembles nothing so much as a suburban Ground Zero, but unlike the 16 acres that defined Ground Zero, there is no neat perimeter – the devastation sprawls on as far as the eye can see. One comparatively intact house had a sign placed upon it which requested “No Bulldozing. Save Our Neighborhood.” But there is no neighborhood left to save.
For all the enjoyable distractions of downtown, a steady stream of cars filters into this modern ghost town. That is presumably what provoked one young man to ride through the neighborhood with a sign taped to the front of his bike that said simply “Tourism here is profane.”
The anger is understandable – gawking at human misery is the worst kind of pornography. But a visit to the 9th Ward is precisely what the revelers on Bourbon Street need to wake them up. The ongoing revival of downtown is heartening, and Mardi Gras is a needed statement of defiance against this destruction. But the destruction of Katrina is still in place, unaddressed, and the more people who bear witness to both sides of this year’s Mardi Gras, the better. They will instead go home with an appropriate determination not to forget the devastation that still exists, sprawling and incalculable, in the heart of one of America’s great cities.