HERE THEY COME! Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & the Golden Eagles are one of the more venerable Mardis Gras Indian tribes.
“Is much better! The tourists is coming back!” That was our cab driver from Louis Armstrong Airport into New Orleans — a transplanted Haitian from Jefferson Parish. But the signals were mixed during the first of the 39th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s two weekends (April 25-27 and May 1-4). At the chic bistro Herbsaint, our waiter, a transplanted New Yorker who’s lived in the city for 10 years, said he and his fiancée have been telling each other ever since Katrina, “We have to get out of here.” He’s studying to be a trauma nurse, she’s a graduate student in education. A house that would have cost them $95,000 before the hurricane would run them $265,000 now. And the city’s long-time chronic problems would be the most dispiriting for anyone in their professions: for her, widespread illiteracy, and for him, “Most of the traumas we see are gunshot wounds.”
In a way, it’s the same old story for New Orleans — every day, it seems, another murder. On Saturday, the Times-Picayune reported three people shot in a home invasion about eight blocks from the Fair Grounds Race Course, where the festival is held. It was termed a “targeted attack” — masked gunmen dressed in black, leaving two dead at the scene, wounding another who died later at a local hospital. They were the 62nd, 63rd, and 64th murders in the city this year (compared with 20 in Boston as of April 21).
There are, of course, the signs of improvement. The Lower Ninth Ward, which took heavy damage from the breach in the Industrial Canal flood wall, is virtually wiped out — former neighborhoods now nothing but weed-grown lots, with only a few signs of rebuilding. The Upper Ninth is faring better, buoyed most of all by Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village, several dozen shotgun-style homes in bright Caribbean colors on neat plots, rockers on the front porch, rosebushes facing the lawn. A new street — and more houses — are under construction. And around the Village, there are more signs of renovation. But for every home that looked pretty as a French Quarter postcard, there were two that were collapsed or abandoned, the tic-tac-toe spray-painted codes of the Katrina rescue workers still visible.
In the Central Business District adjacent to the Quarter, one sees fewer boarded-up buildings and more construction. The Footlocker at Canal at Bourbon Street — which was boarded up the year after the storm, and where my wife and I watched the To Be Continued Brass Band play a great set — is up and running. (And though we didn’t see the TBCs this year, they had taped a cardboard sign to the store’s side.) The Quarter, of course, looks to be thriving — the one indicator that the city is still suffering from a lack of a resident workforce is that late-night spots like Coops and the Clover Grill aren’t back to their former all-night hours. Across Canal, in the Central Business District, the Donald has signs up in the lot down Poydras Street from the venerable Le Pavillon hotel for a new Trump International Hotel & Tower.