New Orleans

A city's legacy of sadness

by Bill Conlin

Philadelphia Daily News

12 January 2007


PHILADELPHIA - By any measure, an Eagles team one victory from another NFC title game is the best local feel-good story since the 1993 Phillies went worst-to-first.

All the classic elements are in place. The Birds were a floundering 5-5 when franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb went down with a broken leg. They promptly fell to 5-6. Jeff Garcia played reasonably well in the county-fair butt-whipping laid on the Eagles by the Indianapolis Colts. The rest of the Birds fled the crime scene without bothering to leave forwarding addresses.

But of all the grim places in all the grim towns in all the world, the 11-6 Eagles have to walk into the Louisiana Superdome on Saturday night. For the second time this season.

The Birds have a few guys with green paint on their faces strumming banjos while belting out the hideously unoriginal anthem, “Fly Eagles Fly.”

New Orleans had Aaron Neville, who teared the eyes of a nation when he performed the haunting words of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” during a TV benefit in the wake of the worst natural disaster in American history, Hurricane Katrina.

The folk song tells of the historic Mississippi River flood that year, when levees upstream were dynamited to divert water away from the white neighborhoods of New Orleans. The Mississippi had swollen to 100 miles in width in some places and the diversion destroyed many parishes north and west of New Orleans. An estimated 330,000 poor and homeless African-Americans were herded into refugee camps by the FEMA of that era and exposed to months of unspeakable hardship. It remains one of the great, forgotten stains on a nation that always has performed so energetically and generously in far-away places and so dismally at home.

But with the fetid, corpse-littered waters still engulfing much of the Crescent City, Aaron Neville connected the dots between 1927 and September of 2005 with Randy Newman’s sorrow-laden words:

Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain

It rained real hard, and it rained for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The river rose all day, the river rose all night

Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away alright

The river had busted through clear down to Placquemines

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, Louisiana

They’re trying to wash us away,

They’re trying to wash us away

Oh Louisiana, Louisiana

They’re trying to wash us away

They’re trying to wash us away

The song’s damning reprise points a finger at an Army Corps of Engineers ordered to save New Orleans, leaving many poor and rural parishes under water for weeks. When Neville sang the song on national TV, FEMA’s appalling performance had become a hot-button issue. The hulking, roof-damaged Superdome, filled with despairing masses who had waded, paddled and floated their way to what was supposed to be the any port in storm, became the core of a vast, suppurating boil on the body of America.

So that’s where this important football game will be played Saturday night. It is part of the paint-up, fix-up that gives a shallow impression the French Quarter and its once-throbbing tourist industry are back in business. It is back to a certain extent. After all, in Miami Beach’s art nouveau SoBeach clubs, it was business as usual shortly after Hurricane Andrew flattened South Dade County.

There was a disturbing slice of reality in Tuesday night’s “Boston Legal” episode on ABC. Alan Shore was dispatched to New Orleans by the dysfunctional super-firm of Crane, Poole and Schmitt to help defend a doctor charged with euthanizing five hopeless, dehydrating patients in an abandoned hospital littered with dead bodies. The other doctors had split. While Shore, played superbly by James Spader, assists a local attorney in the difficult and ethically challenging case, Denny Crane (William Shatner) tags along to let the good times roll. While Denny frolicks with whores in the jumping Quarter, there is a powerful undercurrent that not far from the blaring jazz, souvenir Hurricane glasses, crawfish etoufee, cafe au lait and sugared beignets, there is still the 9th Ward. There are still many shattered neighborhoods where decayed bodies continue to show up. A New Orleans friend asking if I was coming down informed me that, “squalor abounds.”

Outside the bright NOLA corona seen by tourists, Katrina’s legacy of sadness and despair endures. There are still the FEMA trailers and the scattered, shattered lives of hundreds of thousands forced to be part of the greatest American exodus since the Dust Bowl.

Some of the images from the anarchic, reeking, desperation-driven Superdome of Katrina are indelible. No matter how hard you squint at your TV set when the Eagles and Saints line up to play a game that will enforce the notion that New Orleans is still a functioning city capable of performing the works of God and the National Football League, there will be nobody you can recognize. The unhappy throng of unwashed, homeless poor that arrived and left with only the rotting clothes on their backs will not be chanting, “Who Dat?” or cakewalking under umbrellas.

So this is not about dueling, feel-good stories at all, although that will be the palpable surface theme the media will play. The Eagles have their mojo, to be sure, and it is well-deserved. The Saints are acutely aware of their status as a symbol of hope for a region knocked physically, emotionally and financially flat. They have performed it well all season.

But the glitter is like a flash-bomb on a moonless night. It penetrates only so far into the darkness. Down Poydras, toward the river, down Canal toward the Quarter, up St. Charles toward the Garden District, you can still get almost anything you want and much more if you have Visa. In the restored Superdome - the place should have been smart-bombed and replaced with a monument to all Katrina victims, living and dead - the Eagles and Saints will play for the right to keep on keeping on in the NFL postseason.

And if you are really looking to connect the dots between the nice, little feel-good story of the Eagles’ resurrection and continued life and the overarching role thrust on the Saints, try this:

All the ornate, lovely, wrought iron adorning the entrances and balconies of the classic French Quarter buildings and many stately, private homes have a powerful Philly connection. A vast majority of New Orleans ironwork was manufactured in mills like the vast, long-gone, Kensington Iron Works during the middle and late 19th century, when Philly manufactured a third of the nation’s iron output.

That balcony railing on Bourbon or Royal you’ll be draped over Saturday might have been forged by your great, great-grandfather.

//Mixed media


Authenticity Issues and the New Intimacies

// Marginal Utility

"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.

READ the article