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A New Orleans oasis

SHIRLEY HAS BROUGHT a little bit of New Orleans to Las Vegas.

I didn’t think it was possible. My 72-year-old cousin and her husband are native New Orleanians who lost their house in the flood. After months of uncertainty, they settled -- very gingerly -- in Henderson, on the burgeoning southern rim of Vegas.

I felt as displaced as anybody by the move. Shirley and her husband, Ed, are part of a contingent of my New Orleans-born family who had stayed put, resisting the siren call of the West and its standing invitation to make over or make right what was wrong with the place you came from.

Shirley stayed, which confirmed to me that the city was a place worth keeping. For all its faults, New Orleans was something that Los Angeles could never be. Las Vegas didn’t even rate a comparison.

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Yet Shirley and Ed were here now, in a gleaming white house that looked like many other white houses on squared-off lots that could have been laid out yesterday. In the midst of such aggressive sameness, under the harsh Nevada sun, I feared for Shirley. But when I walked into her new house last weekend for the first time, I was startled to see green. Potted plants, trees, vines and flowers that looked very much like Shirley’s garden back home. Grass out in the small backyard, with roses. Shirley’s cats and cockatiels, miraculously rescued from her New Orleans home, were here too. This was not New Orleans. But it certainly was Shirley.

Shirley was stalwart about not looking back. She had done her grieving, which came early on. Sitting in the lobby of a Baton Rouge hotel in the hectic days after the hurricane, she saw her New Orleans neighborhood under water on the TV news.

“I cried then,” she recalls. “Not loud. Just tears. I thought our street was safe, you know. High enough.”

It wasn’t. But for Shirley, the grief is history now. She is more than accepting of Las Vegas; she likes it. She tells me defiantly that it is better than New Orleans, which had been decaying for years and had lost whatever appeal it had when she was younger and surrounded by more family.

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I am pained by her dismissal of a place I had learned to revere. Why did she stay? Shirley laughs, then shrugs. “I didn’t know what I was missing,” she says. “I guess I didn’t have sense enough to leave.”

I want to agree. I want to say that, ultimately, none of the concern about rebuilding New Orleans matters, that where you live is simply about geography, that culture will always find a way. I want to believe that modern Las Vegas, with its lifestyle malls and suburban bubbles, is at least a clean start, that it can’t be so bad to live so well.

But land does matter. Without bayous in New Orleans there’d be no boiled crayfish; without the mercurial rains there’d be no umbrellas in second-line dances. All of that survived for a while in L.A.'s semi-desert terrain, only because the Creoles who came brought it with them and nurtured it. This post-Katrina migration lacks a similar sense of initiative. It is essentially defensive.

Blacks have gotten exceedingly good at defense, at making do, at abruptly leaving one town for another because we have no choice. Even as we protest, we adapt. Even when we stand up and demand to be treated as citizens -- as many of us did when the media rudely but tellingly called poor, mostly black New Orleanians “refugees” -- really, when have we not asked for such consideration? The indignities of Katrina have simply become part of a historical continuum that should have leveled off long ago but that inches ever upward.

The unqualified upside to Las Vegas is that Shirley has found a purpose here that she could not have found anywhere else. Her last surviving aunt moved here from L.A. years ago in a second migration from a city that, like New Orleans, was losing its luster. My great-aunt has shoeboxes of family photos that Shirley had never seen and is now archiving, one by one, on the computer.

As the future of New Orleans floats in the balance, Shirley is busy saving some New Orleans history in a bubble of her own in the middle of the desert. I’ll be back to visit soon.


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