At 4 p.m. one Saturday last month, my wife and I were passing New Orleans’ Johnson Avenue. To be more accurate, we were passing the sign for Johnson Avenue. The street was gone. And not just the asphalt — everything that had lined Johnson Avenue for years before August 2005 was gone: the houses, the landscaping, the sidewalks, the fire hydrants. We were deep in New Orleans’ Holy Cross neighborhood, better known as the Lower Ninth Ward.
It had an eerie resemblance to the early stages of a Monopoly game. You could see where the streets were supposed to be, but there were only a few houses plopped here and there, the result of either lucky or plucky homeowners who were rebuilding their lives.
A cataclysmic rush of flood waters changed the face of the city in a matter of hours, and the scars of Hurricane Katrina (or “the storm,” as a well-traveled friend advised me to call it) still mar most of New Orleans. Hospitals, hotels, and shopping malls downtown and elsewhere in the city are still closed.
But that wasn’t the end of the destruction we saw. On this same weekend, I began to fear that New Orleans is facing a different kind of Katrina. This destruction isn’t happening over night, but over time, and it’s happening in the one place that escaped most of Katrina’s wrath: the French Quarter.
The same day we took the tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, we met a contractor in the French Quarter. He was working on a job near Pirate’s Alley, adjacent to the St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. He was a California expatriate named Edward Jones, whose team was working in a bathroom where the boards beneath the shower pan had rotted out. Jones told us that he was the third contractor brought in to fix this particular condominium. The first two had done the minimum necessary to alleviate leaking, but not fixed the actual problem. Where they trying to make a fast buck? Or did the homeowner ask them to skimp? I don’t know.
All I know is that Jones told me that many buildings in the French Quarter are being neglected by their owners, he said, because they can’t or won’t fix them properly. He took us out on the rooftop patio of the particular condominium he was working on, and started pointing out irregularities you rarely see from the street — windows that had long gone out of plumb, or been replaced with substandard or stylistically inconsistent materials; balconies ever so tilted (see photo).
New Orleans has long been both sustained and plagued by the Mississippi River. The French Quarter is on higher ground than most of the city, but “higher ground” is a relative term in New Orleans. This is a city whose cemeteries are above ground because the water table is so high, coffins buried in the ground used to pop up and float down the street during storms. It’s no wonder that these centuries-old buildings are settling.
But they’re also deteriorating. Jones rubbed his index finger across mortar between exterior bricks to show us how easily it turned to powder. Jones suspects these buildings one day may simply fall over. They’re being destroyed not by floods, but by time.
But why aren’t they being restored properly? Here in California, seismic retrofitting — what we have to do to accommodate the vagaries of the ground beneath us — is a major industry. Is it because Katrina destroyed the city’s economy so horribly that homeowners can’t afford to fix their homes? Or is it because the preservationists so strict that fixing a simple window requires unimaginable resources? Or are the contractors laissez-faire fly-by-nights (it is the French Quarter, after all)? I don’t know the answer. I wish I did.
The French Quarter is in the middle of a different kind of catastrophe, one happening in slow motion but which may be no less destructive than the one that took place in a single night five years ago. I find this unforgivably sad. I first fell in love with New Orleans as a teenager in 1972. It reminded me of San Francisco — a port city full of history, proud of its sinful past and unapologetic for its occasional outrageousness.
As you get older, the places you lived in and the places you loved inexorably change. I would like the French Quarter to be the exception.