New Orleans' Recovery to Take Months, Years

Commentator Andrei Codrescu hears stories about what's going on now in his adoptive hometown of New Orleans and wonders if the pieces can ever be put back together. He says men dominate the city, an echo of the Reconstruction era. But he sees signs that things might be returning to "normal."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Getting the lights turned back on is only one step in the long, long process of recovering from a hurricane. For commentator Andrei Codrescu and his beloved New Orleans, it's going to be months and years.

ANDREI CODRESCU:

People are coming back to check on their properties, mostly men. Women and families are staying behind in their places of exile. The town is still full of soldiers, and the returning populace has a slight feeling of deja vu. It's an old deja vu: the aftermath of the Civil War. A woman friend feels uncomfortable walking by herself. She knows that the soldiers are there to protect her, but they are young men and they've heard about New Orleans. Last time it felt like that was after the Civil War, when Creole women in New Orleans were forbidden to look at Union soldiers.

The new reconstruction has other familiar aspects. My friend Jimmy says, `The town's swarming with carpetbaggers.' Indeed. Contractors from everywhere and workers are pouring into the city for ready, well-paying jobs. There is a years' worth of debris to be moved and much of it is personal stuff; people's belongings ruined by water, everything from baby pictures to travel souvenirs. It's better that out-of-towners do that.

There is a housing crisis as basic institutions start kicking back in and the real estate's gone through the roof. Uptown stayed dry, but it's returning to jungle. That's where the finer houses are and where the wealthier citizens employed armies of servants from the other side of the tracks to baby-sit their children and keep their gardens and lawns. Many of those servants lived in neighborhoods that don't exist anymore. Some of them are still in shelters elsewhere; others have already started lives in other towns.

Landlords can't evict because their scattered tenants haven't returned. Many young professionals whose tax dollars kept the city running won't be coming back, either. They've already bought houses elsewhere and taken jobs in other cities.

All the distress isn't stopping real estate investors from as far as California from buying tracks of flooded land unseen. Speculation is feverish. Jimmy predicts that the population will return to 1870 levels; that's where it stood after the Civil War. The sturdiest pioneers determined to keep the embers of the New Orleans spirit going are the artists. The Gold Mine Saloon is holding defiant open mikes every Thursday and serving free red beans and rice.

The secret of New Orleans is that it's never depended on the kindness of strangers; it has always held its psychic wealth secret in the night. America was never too keen on this city. Built by the French, shaped by the Spanish, divided by neutral grounds that kept Creoles and Americans apart, the city was more poetic and less rational than any other. It would have been nice for its history to march progressively forward. Instead the history of New Orleans moves in circles inside a mirror. Happily, the curfew's been pushed back from midnight until 2 AM, and it won't be long before the old nightlife returns. After that, it will be the Reconstruction, the Great Depression, the WPA and the golden age of the artistic malcontent.

NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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