If you look it up at a map it would appear to be one of the most southern cities of the US. In fact, it is the most northern Caribbean city. Its aura and its colours match more an exotic central-American temperament. You feel it from the first moment when you land at Louis Armstrong Airport: you feel a tropical wind seducing you and luring you into a unique wandering in the colourful streets and alleys of the city and its crystal rivers. You see, New Orleans is indeed liquid; it is surrounded by water. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Built along the Mississippi river, as a former French colony, it incorporated all the contradictions of the modern world, becoming associated with the slave trade, racial segregation, the maritime industry and jazz. And although most of these dimensions nowadays seem like something of the past, their imprint remains alive in every square inch of the city.
Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the fifth most deadly that has ever landed upon US land, with approximately 1800 deaths (the exact number of victims has yet to be determined), with damage costs estimated at 151 billion dollars, according to Data Canter Research, was a turning point for the city, marking a dividing line in its trajectory in time. Even if the city finds again its contours and skyline, it will never be the same city again. Ten years after, its inhabitants are still healing their wounds, returning to their houses, reconstructing their everyday life and orient themselves using street art and music as their compasses. In the French Quarter, the city’s most historic neighbourhood and one of the few that remained unscathed after the hurricane, life attempts to find its rhythm among the grandiose buildings of the past century, its open markets and its nightlife. An endless caravan of tourists is moving incessantly through it, dancing to jazz rhythms and tasting Creole-inspired recipes.
In the French Quarter you can’t miss the MarketCafé, which is always filled with locals and tourists that insist on ordering Gumbo: “It is the most popular dish in New Orleans. A kind of soup made of meat, seafood, rice and red beans”, as the owner, Aggeliki Tsatsoulis, explains to me. The first reference to this dish can be traced all the way back to the distant 1802, and French, Spanish and Africans quarrel about its origin. The truth is that it also represents a sample of the multicultural character of the region and you can find it in many taste variations. Along the surrounding street artists paint, play music, offer small performances. Here one can also find some of New Orleans’ most interesting museums such as the Conti Historical Wax Museum, which has wax figures of important personalities or the Historic Voodoo Museum, dedicated to voodoo. On a parallel street one can find Bourbon Street, where Tennessee Williams used to hang out and which today has become a major tourist attraction, running the danger to alter the character of the neighbourhood and to offer less quality regarding the service. Nevertheless, tourism remains a basic source of income for the locals, especially after the economic crisis and the destruction brought upon New Orleans as a result of the disastrous impact of the hurricane.
And things are even worse for those that did not manage to return to their beloved city. According to official data, around 100,000 of the 1,000,000 that had to flee the city in a hurry after Katrina have not managed yet to return, either from fear or because their houses were never repaired. The majority of these are African-American, as it is with almost 60% of the city’s population. The racial divide is somewhat visible in all aspects of social life. A little bit further from the city’s centre are the run-down suburbs where members of the black community mostly live. The Lower 9th Ward is the most exceptional case; this is one of the most impoverished areas that was almost completely destroyed by the hurricane.
Walking along Tennessee Street amidst signs that called for the government to mend the streets and the graffiti of a generalized discontent upon the walls, I notice on top of a two-storey building an improvised monument. Robert Green constructed it as a constant reminder of the pain and loss that New Orleans experienced in August 2005. The 61-year-old man, a symbol of the destruction after the really moving image that was caught of him on camera waiting for help wrapped with the American flag on the ruins of his home – is standing in front of me, courageous and scarred at the same time, offering back at me a wet stare.
He explains to me that in the hurricane he lost his mother and granddaughter. Ever since, he dedicated his life to the struggle of restitution for the victims. His house is a small museum full of his 10-year confrontation with this struggle. “I made all this in order for me not to forget, for anyone not to forget. I will never rest, if justice if not offered for the events of 2005. President Obama came to see us. It was a symbolic move that we are no longer invisible for the State. Our neighborhood has to be rebuilt and those that left must find the way back and find new roots in the city”, he told me.
Luckily, in this area there are tens of volunteers active from every side of the planet that can help the locals rebuild their house and also personalities that who by means of the charitable work manage to raise money for those that are weaker. After the Initiative of Brad Pitt, for example, a model neighborhood has been constructed with modern and environmentally friendly constructions. Moreover, after the initiative of Ellis Marsalis the Musician’s Village was created, a groundbreaking project with houses for those musicians that had been hit by Katrina as well as a musical centre where children from the poorer families can attend, thus turning it into a passport for an exit out of social exclusion. “For us music can be therapeutic, giving a tribune for these children to express themselves and opening up for them a prospective for the future, away from delinquency, addictions and marginalisation”, Michelle stresses as she is guiding me around the centre. Moreover, the founder of the centre, Ellis Marsalis used to say that in New Orleans music was “pouring in the streets.”
A little bit before I boarded the plane back, a tropical storm erupted which both cooled the body and slowly watered the dry soil of the tough and adventurous American South. In my eyes it seemed like a goodbye ceremony: New Orleans was saying “goodbye” in its own distinct and almost impossible to repeat manner.