Big Easy’s hard-won resilience
First came the storm. Then came the flood. And then came what was, perhaps, a bit more predictable: the surge of books about Hurricane Katrina and its nightmarish aftermath: Eyewitness accounts; photo documentaries, dense investigative texts attempting to explain why the levees broke, why people didn’t (or couldn’t) leave; and most poignantly, a stream of poetic elegies to a New Orleans culture that people feared would evaporate when the water finally retreated.
Journalist and essayist Julia Reed wasn’t planning to write a Katrina book. In fact, her memoir, “The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story,” isn’t a Katrina book like Douglas Brinkley’s “The Great Deluge” or others that are about the catastrophe itself, she says after ordering a glass of rose in an Old Town Pasadena cafe before an evening reading at Vroman’s. “I wanted it to be about New Orleans.”
In fact, says Reed, she’d been thinking her next book, after 2004’s book of essays, “Queen of the Turtle Derby,” would be a “memoir/history of the Mississippi Delta where I’m from and got the last of its cultural heyday.” About a week before the storm, she met with her agent to discuss it. “She told me: ‘Go home and write a proposal.’ And then here comes the hurricane and I’m thinking: ‘Well, my current home is a lot more interesting than my former home all of a sudden.’ ”
This month marks Katrina’s third anniversary, yet Reed’s book is less about the lead-up and aftermath of the storm and its devastation and more about life: the varied nature of it, the value of it, and ultimately, the uncertainty of it. She was lucky: Hers wasn’t one of the families which had had a roof torn off like a pull-tab, nor did she have to sit in the purgatory of the Superdome as all that water that rushed through, carrying away with it all manner of shrubbery, houses, bodies and dreams.
But all of that plays a part -- it has to. It’s what happens when your life becomes entwined with a place as curious as New Orleans. “The House on First Street” is not just about Reed’s slapstick-esque struggle with rehabbing her house pre-storm with men-for-hire -- “A sort of ‘Year in Provence’ meets ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ as one friend put it,” she cracks, in her mentholated, party-girl drawl. It is about how the meaning of house, home and family redefined itself for her over time. Reed’s book tackles what is often difficult to quantify: the stitching-together of a life that doesn’t follow a traditional path; the gradations of privilege; a widening understanding of community. Writing the book “helped me make sense about how I got seduced by the city, and how I got seduced by my husband and, I guess, seduced by the idea of a house.”
A city unlike any other
New Orleans is Reed’s adopted home. A native of Greenville, Miss., her affair with the Big Easy began as a teenager. “New Orleans was always our far more storied older sister to the south,” she writes early on in “The House on First Street,” “a genuinely cosmopolitan city, and one where everything, from world-class restaurants to transvestite hookers, was available.” Some say it’s the juxtapositions -- church and debauch; chastity and corruption; have and have-not -- but things happen in New Orleans that don’t happen anywhere else.
By her 20s, she’d become what locals refer to as “a regular out-of-towner,” there to partake in the sort of music and food and excess that only New Orleans could lay out on a table -- and expect you to save room for seconds or thirds. Years later, as a contributing editor at Vogue and Newsweek, Reed had an apartment and a life in Manhattan and began to think about residence -- her version of residence, anyway -- after “falling hard for a man I knew I shouldn’t have,” and hearing herself tell someone late-night at a party that she was coming back to cover the historic gubernatorial race among then-incumbent Charles E. “Buddy” Roemer III, ex-Klansman David Duke and three-termer Edwin Edwards staging “his final comeback.”
Whether it was the lover, the governor’s race or the city itself that pulled her back in 1991, Reed wasn’t so sure. But one thing was for certain, she’d missed being in the South. “Simple things,” she writes, “like riding around in a big car with the air conditioning blowing and the radio blaring and all the windows rolled down. . . . It felt like home because it was.”
What sealed the deal was meeting a different man and settling down to wed for the first time at 42, setting up house in a historic fixer-upper in New Orleans’ Garden District. “Now here I am, not committing to jack, and all of a sudden, I’m going to commit and I’m going to get the whole shebang -- the husband, the house -- which over-extended us without a hurricane,” she says. A series of contractor nightmares ensues -- and ensues some more -- and then four weeks after she and her husband, John, move in, Katrina sets down. The house emerged largely unscathed. “In retrospect,” she says, “I can’t say that I was smart enough to say that I planned it this way, but writing the book sort of helped me make sense of my own trajectory. When I have to describe the book at readings and such, I say part of it is a coming-of-age story -- except it’s middle age. So here I am. I mean it took me so long to decide that I was going to straighten up and settle down and be a grown-up something and put down roots somewhere.”
She picked a marshy place -- both in a literal and figurative sense -- a city as old-fashioned as it is eccentric; elegant yet intrinsically corrupt and militantly iconoclastic.
Her community becomes family -- an elastically extended one: Count among them the well-meaning handyman Antoine, whose crack problem was of the “social-drinker” variety; Rose and her family who pitched in on house-cleaning and kitchen-assist; local chefs; her tree guy; “the crazy naked rug dealer” who kept watch on her house during her evacuation; a collection of old running buddies -- they all added to her blood-ties in the uncertain weeks into months after the storm.
The soul of the city
What was most at stake for her, beyond the human toll, was the character of the city. In those early days, the persistent question was whether New Orleans would lose all those things that make it not just the “storied older sister,” but the peculiar uncle with his stash of stories: “I was on ‘Charlie Rose’ with [writer] Walter Isaacson, a local boy, just five or so days after Katrina hit. And he was saying, ‘I fear for the neighborhoods’ -- because the specific neighborhoods -- the Treme, the 9th Ward, Uptown, the Irish Channel -- create these certain characters.”
That was the real worry, she says, the fear of losing that “lively collection of disparate personalities.”
Yet as it happened, the chefs led the way back, along with the musicians, and then the rest began to follow. “Most people saw that it wasn’t going to be Disney World.” This third anniversary, she hopes, might offer a new phase.
“People were saying, oh, the third one is when everyone is getting over their post-traumatic stress syndrome. But when you’re driving around seeing all that stuff, there ain’t nothing ‘post’ about it,” says Reed.
In the past, “the main phrase you used to hear in New Orleans was, ‘Whatcha gonna do?’ -- so, the City Council is pretty corrupt, Whatcha gonna do? We don’t have a school system, Whatcha gonna do?” The silver lining in all of this, if you squint really hard to envision one, suggests Reed, is that now, “well, what we’re going to do is a lot. There’s plenty we can do.”
It started with feeding the National Guardsmen in the weeks after the storm and has extended to large-scale fundraisers (including Rebirth New Orleans, which she helped put on a few months after the storm), rebuilding efforts, working with local charter schools.
“Before the storm people would say, ‘How could you help the school system if you couldn’t do it from within?’ And there is nothing like an epic flood of biblical proportion to wipe it all away for you to be able to start anew. So there’s this educational petri dish, the Samuel Green Charter School that’s part of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard program,” she says.
“You can’t make a decision this big and then become this rat leaving a sinking ship,” says Reed. “That would have been kind of unseemly. But there is nothing like a big old piece of real estate and a lot of debt to let you know where you are.
“But really, there were so many things that you can do on the ground, in remaking a city,” she says, still undeterred, still clearly in do-it-yourself mode. “A city with a chance to remake itself.”