Monday, May 5, 2014

On Wreckage: Urban and Human

A few weeks back we found ourselves in New Orleans for a weekend. It was French Quarter Fest, but we were there for a wedding. We were only there for a few days, so we had fairly little time that wasn't structured or spoken for. As a result we really couldn't get out of the French Quarter while we were there, and what follows is from only that point of view.

The town felt crowded to me, and apparently exists on tourism revenue alone. I am not a big fan of crowds, so I am glad we didn't find ourselves there during Mardi Gras, or something similar, where the crowds are - I think - much larger.

French Quarter Fest is a big, free music show, with quite a few stages set up around town, in addition to the various existing music venues that were also participating. And that music was a good thing, though after a while the traditional jazz bands were starting to sound very similar. Still, we could walk just a couple of blocks and encounter some new group playing something different if we got tired of the group we were listening to.  We heard biggish bands, a middle school band, and a bunch of things in between. The music was the best part of the city in my opinion.

And of course, in addition to all the music on the stages, there were the various street performers. Quite a few jazz bands, as well as a number of smaller groups, more than a few human statues, some magicians, a transformer (honestly... watch the video), a bunch of artists selling their work, and more than a few barkers for various businesses.  (Huge Ass Beers, anyone?)

Everyone raves about the food in New Orleans, and we did eat reasonably well, but only if your definition of "reasonably well" includes "dramatically increasing your chances of dying from a heart attack or stroke if you stay on this diet for more than a couple of days."  And given our hotel was a block or two from the French Quarter, and the number of times we were woken up by ambulances in the middle of the night, it is pretty clear a fair number of people in the city were succumbing to various - possibly diet related - medical emergencies. A look at the people attending FQF supported that suggestion, if you get my drift.

But if that was all I had to say about New Orleans I wouldn't have written this post. Sadly there were a number of things I found problematic in The Big Easy, and those are what I really want to mention.

Some simplistic research on hurricane Katrina tells me that the French Quarter was not severely damaged or flooded during that event. There was some wind damage, and a bit of flooding, but apparently it wasn't too bad. However, looking at the French Quarter today I would have thought it had been flooded out.

Streets and sidewalks are uneven at best, and a serious hazard in general. Buildings - and the famous iron balconies - sag in obvious ways. Any steel or iron that hasn't recently been painted is rusted. In short, the French Quarter is decaying right before our eyes. On top of that was a nearly omnipresent stink of sewage - I think - which I found particularly distressing while we were attempting to pick a restaurant. There was always water pooled in sidewalk damage and potholes, but it didn't rain while we were there. Perhaps that was the source of the odor?

And walking down Bourbon Street was, well, fairly offensive. I guess the various strip clubs and what-not have all set up shop there, and I understand that's part of what New Orleans is famous for, but it was all so run down and ugly that it actually felt awful. Nothing struck me as upbeat, or a place where a dancer, bartender, or bouncer might go to get a break, even if they were doing something less than desirable in the eyes of society. Instead it felt like the run down, disreputable end of the city, where people wind up when they have no choice. I avoided Bourbon Street after I figured out how I felt about it.

And then there were the people. There, too, I saw decay and degradation, as well as the PR side of things that the town wants you to see.

How many homeless do you need to see sleeping in doorways? How many kids who should be in school but were instead out tap dancing to earn a few bucks? How many obvious health problems - obesity being the easiest to spot - are straining Louisiana's health care budget?

Yes, there were happy and healthy people. I have no idea how many were locals as opposed to visitors for FQF, but there are definitely health and homelessness problems in New Orleans that are difficult to address. Interestingly, though, nearly all of the people I talked to who actually worked there - in the restaurants and hotels - left me with the impression they would like to leave town, or were already planning on it. Perhaps two felt differently, but honestly it seemed like people who live there want to leave.

And after a while, walking down the streets and seeing the leaning, decrepit buildings felt a lot like passing the homeless people sleeping in doorways. The empty shop windows - and there were more than a few of those - had a similar impact. The whole place felt physically dirty - like it could be scrubbed with bleach for decades and never get clean - and more than a bit desperate.

By the time Sunday rolled around I was glad to be getting on a plane and going home.

Of course there are problems in every town, and maybe the Central Business District or the Garden District are in better shape than the French Quarter. I didn't get there, so I don't know, and I shouldn't judge an entire town based on such a small sample of what it has to offer.

But then again, it seems - based on my admittedly skewed view of the world - that New Orleans puts the French Quarter on a pedestal. It's the place people go to have fun, the home of Mardi Gras. I can't help but feel that it ought to be more attractive than it is. Better maintained. Healthier. Less downtrodden.

So now I've been to New Orleans, and I really don't feel a need to go back. I know people who love it there, and I can see there is history to be learned and a culture to understand, but it wasn't a place that I felt comfortable. The people were friendly - and even welcoming - but it just didn't feel like a place I would want to call home.