Sunday, June 27, 2010

A love song to New Orleans

HBO's incredible series "Treme" beautifully and powerfully portrays the source of spiritual energy that sustains community. The ten-part series is a gumbo where people, relationships, culture and sense of place are put in a big pot, mixed with lots of spices and allowed to boil and overflow.

When viewed through the lenses of geography, physics or rational planning, New Orleans really makes very little sense. Watching Treme helped me understand why so many people returned after Katrina and how New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf region will ultimately survive the BP oil catastrophe. (GW)

In New Orleans, defiantly facing bad luck

By Joanna Weiss
Boston Globe
June 27, 2010


BEFORE HBO started airing “Treme,’’ the New Orleans-based series that ended its first season last week, some civic leaders here were worried. They feared the version of the city the world would see, set in the months just after Hurricane Katrina, when the devastation was deepest and many wondered whether New Orleans would survive.

It turns out, the show was a love song to New Orleans, its food and music and spirit of drunken good humor, the way its people managed, even then, to stomach the long climb up. “Treme’’ even spawned a mini-tourism boom into neighborhoods that had seldom been on the path of conventioneers. Maybe it was a sign. Before the BP oil spill presented a dark new threat to South Louisiana, things had truly been looking up.

There are still ghosts of Katrina, plenty of them: the empty storefronts and the houses in half-rebuilt neighborhoods; the rescuers’ “X-codes,’’ showing date of search and bodies found, that you can still find spray painted on scattered homes. Some of those houses are still empty. In some, people just want to show their scars.

Still, by this time, nearly five years into the process of rebuilding, people have started to talk about silver linings. In flooded areas, homes have been rebuilt better, safer, fancier. New Orleans, known for its abysmal school facilities, now boasts sparkling new high schools. In St. Bernard Parish just to the east, residents can expand their yards by purchasing empty lots next door cheaply, and kids play baseball in a gorgeous new facility, complete with wall fans for the parents who watch in the scorching heat.

Even nature had seemed to pitch in; before the spill, the coastal fishing had been marvelous, and some believe the hurricane waves replenished the natural resources. And then there were the Saints, whose Super Bowl victory felt both unlikely and cosmically ordained, a gift to a city that desperately needed a shot of pure joy.

So now, this spill. A dark reminder that New Orleans and its suburbs are buffeted by forces beyond their control. A reason for more disaster shots on cable, for news anchors from New York to descend once again and unleash their outrage and pity. Outside Louisiana, people are confused: The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau has been fielding calls from people who want to know the state of the beaches. New Orleans has no beaches. It’s scores of miles inland. In the French Quarter, there is no oil.

There is no oil, but there is a blot on the psyche that seems to be growing slowly, like the maps the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts out every day, projecting the spread of the slick across the Gulf. This spill is big and amorphous, and worse, it has no obvious end. It will get bigger still before it shrinks.

So what to do? New Orleans has a tradition of using frustration as entertainment, channeling anger into satire, often through the medium of the Mardi Gras float. New Orleanians can be eloquent in their fury; you can buy T-shirts bearing the title of one especially profane and cathartic post-Katrina blog post by Ashley Morris, a since-deceased professor who served as a model for the John Goodman character in “Treme.’’

At the time, Morris’s enemies were many: the Army Corps of Engineers, the owner of the Saints, who had threatened to move the team to San Antonio; anyone who said New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt. These days, BP is an easy target, and you can spot New Orleanians in shirts with the company’s green flower logo, a drop of oil below it, beside the words “bad people.’’

But that’s complicated, too: BP is a villain, but also a lifeline. It’s a pillar of the oil industry that still sustains much of the region, a source of paychecks for fishermen who stand to lose their livelihood, but now make good money helping with the spill relief.

BP also sent millions of dollars to the Gulf Coast states for tourism marketing campaigns; New Orleans’ $5 million effort tries to channel the local spirit, with wry ads that pledge such things as “no moratorium on shrimp po-boys.’’ Another cheeky ad referenced the 1814-15 Battle of New Orleans, noting that “this is not the first time New Orleans has survived the British.’’

That one was leaked to a British newspaper, and the sarcasm didn’t go over well. The ad was pulled. It wasn’t worth the fight.

That’s perhaps the biggest shame of all, the prospect that this oil could sink a spirit that, as “Treme’’ showed, is difficult to quash. Some locals, in New Orleans and further toward the Gulf, are watching this BP spill with apprehension. They wonder what it is going to do, not just to the land, but to the people.

The other day, Brad Assevedo, a 25-year-old commercial fishing deckhand, stood on a boat docked in still-pristine Bayou La Loutre, an hour’s drive east of New Orleans. Trucks whizzed by on the way to an operations base for the oil cleanup effort. Assevedo sucked on a cigarette and sneered.

“Every time I see it, it makes me sick,’’ he said of the traffic. “Half of my family’s helping those people.’’

Assevedo had even tried briefly to join, but wound up chafing at the rules, the hard hats and orange vests and steel-toed boots, the prospect of working for the enemy. He wondered why everyone else was doing it, what kind of fire had gone out.

“Everybody’s rolling over and just taking the system,’’ he said. Which makes him question what will happen once this newest threat reaches his home.

“When it hits here, I’d say it’s over here,’’ he said.

They’ve predicted that before. And they were wrong.


Post a Comment

<< Home