Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Orleans in December

Rumbling across the country from Los Angeles to Charlotte, Ma’ikwe and I had an overnight on Tuesday in New Orleans as we changed trains. We swapped the eastbound Sunset Limited for the northbound Crescent, and it gave us the chance for an evening out and a night’s sleep in a stationary bed.

It was the first time I’d been in the Crescent City since Katrina, and I was curious to see how it was faring (and eager to sample again some of the prized oysters that that Gulf jewel is famous for—I can personally recommend a charbroiled dozen at Drago's).

It’s been almost 40 months since the storm surge breached the levees, and much of the damage from that disaster has been repaired (or is out of sight of the tracks). While the population is still only 60% of what it was before the hurricane, the center of town seemed fully repaired and back in business. We were only in town for 15 hours and didn’t explore much beyond the modern urbanity of the Central Business District or the uniquely mixed antebellum charm and Fat Tuesday flash of the Vieux Carré—where sumptuous antique furniture stores stand chock-a-block with hole-in-the-wall emporia for Hurricanes, a frozen alcoholic concoction served in souvenir plastic to-go cups; all-night pizza joints share walls with soft-lit pedigreed restaurants where gentlemen are required to were suit coats to enter; and praline specialty shops rub shoulders with transgendered peep shows. There is really nowhere quite like N’awlins.

Though we were cautioned by the hotel concierge to not stray from well-lit streets in our after-dark stroll, everything seemed safe and (mostly) charming. It was a muggy night in the high 60s, and easy to get around in just shirtsleeves. We noticed fresh green leaves on some of the trees coming into town and it’s hard to credit that we’re midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (The sports page of this morning’s Times-Picayune was fretting on behalf of the hometown Saints, who must travel to Chicago to play the Bears Thursday evening in outdoor Soldier Field, where temperatures are expected to be about 40 degrees less than they were on Bourbon St last night. Talk about home field advantage!)

As an Amtrak aficionado I can tell you that there is only one way to cross the Mississippi by passenger train that doesn’t take you through Chicago, and that’s the route we’re now taking. While I typically enjoy excuses to go through Chicago (where half of my siblings live), it’s nice to have a change of pace, and enjoy some of the other routes. Understandably, the southern route is a standout choice in December, and we’ve been lucky enough to ride the edge of a storm front as we wind our way eastward, enjoying unseasonable warm weather all along the way—with forecasts of deteriorating weather right behind us.

I’m wondering though what the forecast is for New Orleans. As lovely as our overnight respite was, I’ve been told by Louisianans that most of the poorer sections of the city have not been rebuilt at all, and it’s unclear if they’ll ever regain their lost population. Due to the heavy silting of the Mississippi, New Orleans is no longer a viable deep water port, and the northern shore of the Gulf recedes steadily to the south as farmers continue to over-cultivate the cornfields of the Midwest and exports its topsoil downstream.

It may be December for the Crescent City in more ways than one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Laird - I LOVE the third paragraph, and the vivid picture you paint. I'm sitting here in the middle of an ice storm in Missouri mentally strolling around New Orleans...thanks for the trip!