Sunday, December 25, 2005

"the New Orleans story without much passion"

More by Mark Fitzgerald:

The same national media that riveted us by showing the horror of the conditions endured by hurricane survivors at the Superdome and the Convention Center now tells the New Orleans story without much passion. It's all about numbers, like the levee appropriation, or bloodless debates about how--or even whether--to rebuild that great city.

Even when newspapers go down there to write about, say, the struggle to reopen such storied restaurants as Galatoire’s or Commander's Palace, the context of daily New Orleans living gets lost.

For instance, until I went to New Orleans myself, I had no idea that virtually no McDonald's fast-food sites have reopened inside New Orleans. I had no idea that traffic lights are non-existent outside of downtown.

I glimpsed one reason for this lack of context just as I was leaving Friday. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was holding one of his frequent town meetings at the downtown Sheraton hotel, and I figured I had just enough time to catch it before getting the last flight back to Chicago.

Before the meeting, he held a press conference, with the ground rules being that every reporter could ask two questions. As Nagin's harried press spokeswoman went down the line, it became apparent that the reporters were either New Orleans locals, or foreigners. There were two crews from Japanese television, and at least three correspondents from Europe. So far as I could see there were no newspaper or broadcast reporters from outside Louisiana.

So there are few from outside the city to tell the hard story of how New Orleans is an odd mix of civilization carrying on under almost survivalist conditions.

At night, the French Quarter can seem almost normal, its bars packed and the music spilling onto the streets as in days of old. But then you can hear two words I never expected to hear in New Orleans: "Last call." There's a 2 a.m. curfew, and long before that you notice that the streets are filled almost entirely by males, demolition and construction workers who have replaced tourists.

Friday, empty streetcars adorned with swags of Christmas green rode the tracks downtown in dry runs for the scheduled resumption of service this past Sunday.

Outside of downtown, the devastation is numbing and redefines normal. The tenth, or hundredth, time you see "2 cats found" or "house off foundation" spray-painted in orange on the wall of what used to be someone's family home, the fact is remarkable only in its familiarity.

During the day, whole neighborhoods of New Orleans are utterly deserted, and at night they are dark and silent. It would be a cruel fate indeed if this great American city were to similarly fade into darkness while the press remains silent.

Driving in the Lower 9th Ward early Friday afternoon, I saw orange graffiti on a wrecked home that thankfully wasn't an "X" with a body count. "Psalm 55:18" was all it said.

The King James version renders the verse this way: "He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me: for there were many with me."

Restless and unpeacable though we often are, we in the press must stay among the many who abide with that anonymous and hopeful soul in New Orleans.
Mark Fitzgerald ( is E&P's editor-at-large


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