New Orleans — A city council meeting is in session. On a high dais at the back of a dim, dilapidated committee room — a room as far from the spirit of an old New Orleans townhouse as it is possible to imagine — sit the council members. Below them sits a group of young black men, part of the “Lower Ninth Ward Economic Development Council.” The name of the council is optimistic: Much of their neighborhood is still a jumble of houses that have been smashed into wooden matchsticks by floodwater, houses that floated on top of one another, houses that sit sideways in the middle of what used to be the street.
But the young men are optimists, too. They testify about the good work they used to do in the Lower Ninth Ward — the teenagers helped, the advice dispensed — and the good work they want to do. Afterward, the council members thank them and heartily promise that the city’s neighborhoods will be rebuilt. Then one member grabs the microphone and announces that a word has been forgotten.
“Simultaneously!” he roars. “Our neighborhoods will be rebuilt simultaneously!” Everyone applauds, while knowing full well that the simultaneous reconstruction of every wrecked neighborhood in greater New Orleans is not just unlikely, it is impossible.
It’s the kind of scene that gets repeated daily in New Orleans, a city where deep emotions and hard, tragic logic are at constant war with one another, where the understandable impulse to tell everyone he or she can go home is in direct conflict with the immense scale of the damage. Every version of every plan so far presented to the city’s residents imagines a smaller, more easily protected New Orleans, a New Orleans with reconstructed historic neighborhoods on higher ground — and a New Orleans without the hundreds of thousands of newer, often cheaply built, currently uninhabitable houses on lower, wetter land. Yet, when anyone speaks about his own neighborhood, logic falls away: Yes, a smaller New Orleans — but one in which my house still stands and my neighbors come back.
Sometimes irrational optimism wins. Across the city, even in the most damaged neighborhoods, people are stripping and gutting their houses, just in case their neighborhood turns out to be one of the lucky ones. “It’s like the twilight zone, isn’t it,” one man shouted to me from his rooftop, and indeed it was: He was the only person on an otherwise deserted block.
Sometimes irrational fear wins. A recent attempt to clear storm debris from the Lower Ninth Ward prompted spontaneous protests, “No Bulldozer” signs, and a temporary suspension of trash collection in the neighborhood. However much they wanted the debris gone, people were even more afraid that the bulldozers meant eviction.
Most of the time, though, there is confusion — a confusion personified by Ray Nagin, the city’s mayor. Nagin sometimes sounds rational about what can be achieved in a smaller city, and sometimes promises everyone everything, and sometimes makes no sense at all. “He was just having a ‘Katrina moment,’ ” one New Orleanian told me last week, trying to explain Nagin’s recent comments about God and chocolate. A “Katrina moment”: It’s when the conflict between reason and emotion becomes too much, or when the post-hurricane highs (“We’re going to build a better, cleaner, smarter, more integrated New Orleans!”) crash into post-hurricane lows (gloom, doom and talk of moving to Atlanta). One of the odder things about New Orleans at the moment is that you can sometimes hear this crash take place in the course of a single conversation.
The rest of the country can help the city move on. Rebuilding the levees, at least to the standards they were meant to meet, would help convince people that it’s worth rebuilding houses — and that is beginning to happen. Passing a version of the legislation proposed by Louisiana Rep. Richard Baker would help, too: Baker’s bill would allow people to sell their wrecked homes to a state-run development corporation, and possibly buy new homes in higher, drier parts of the city.
But no one can help the city’s residents make the psychological adjustment. No one can help them accept the fact that New Orleans will never be the way it was on the Sunday before Katrina. No one can console them for the loss of the extraordinary historical continuity that was the city’s best and worst feature. Above all, no one can help them navigate what a New Orleanian called the city’s “bipolar landscape”: the amazing vitality of the French Quarter, the youthful teams of volunteer historic preservationists, the crowded restaurants that cheerfully operate with half the staff they had before — and the flood-damaged neighborhoods, which are much vaster than most outsiders can imagine. Five months after the hurricane, New Orleans remains stuck in a strange holding pattern. And until the city accepts the idea that its future will be different from its past, there it will remain.