Signs of Progress

“I understand Lakeview is gone,” the caller told the Times-Picayune columnist. The writer was stunned. “Gone?” he said. “Yes,” the caller said. “I lived there and lost my home. We’re now in (some distant state) and a group of people want to come help the city rebuild. I know we can’t work in Lakeview, so I was wondering where you think we should put our efforts.”

The columnist assured the lady that Lakeview is most definitely not “gone,” and that people are rebuilding everywhere throughout that area.

In Saturday morning’s paper, another columnist told of a face-to-face conversation along similar lines. A man, perhaps a tourist, was riding a bike through her neighborhood. He saw her in the yard and commented on how sad everything looks and maybe these empty houses will sell in time. The columnist, food editor Judy Walker, had a ready answer for him.

“Sir, that house is already sold. Also that one, and this one over here.” Furthermore, she pointed out, the people who bought them were young adults, people who will be bringing children and raising families, and they’re already working on restoring the houses.

Judy Walker points out that what may look like a mess to a casual visitor is a sign of progress to residents. That pile of junk on the sidewalk in front of the house means someone has cleaned it out and is planning to restore it. That vacant lot means a damaged house has been demolished so a new home can be built. FEMA trailers being towed from the neighborhood indicates that people are moving back into their homes.

All of this leads me to a conclusion I’ve been a long time in formulating: the awful traffic is a good sign. The break-neck traffic up and down Elysian Fields Avenue at any time of the day would say to us that a) Brother Martin High School is in session, b) the University of New Orleans is going full speed–and that the students are late for class–and c) construction workers are hard at it. Yes, there are plenty of vacant lots where stores and homes once stood, lots of gutted out empty houses staring at the world through dead dark eyes, and the occasional untouched house with weeds to the eaves–but all in all, good signs, positive trends.

Every so often, we get these reports that the Road Home Program is still doling out the big checks to homeowners who have survived the labyrinthine application process and persevered to the end. But with 100,000 applicants, it hardly seems worth celebrating to learn they’re now up to number 3,000 (or whatever). Meanwhile, the newspaper prints both the puzzlements and frustrations of our people. Two recent ones, for instance.

A family that received their full $150,000 from the program deposited the money and began making plans to rebuild. A few days later, another letter arrived saying they had been approved for $150,000 which would be arriving soon and that they should disregard all previous letters. The only fitting comment is, “Say what?”

A letter to the editor from Ilene Powell, formerly of New Orleans, now living in the suburb of Jefferson, tells of her frustration. “I called my Road Home resolution team supervisor (my 14th) for days and left messages on the phone number he gave me. The recording says you reached the extension, but the extension has no name for that mailbox. When I called their Baton Rouge main switchboard, I got ‘the operator is not available.'” She called other official numbers, only to hear “we can’t transfer calls” and “no one by that name works here.” When the supervisor finally got back to Ms. Powell, he admitted he never checks his voice mail. She ends her letter with a question: “Is it time for a lawsuit yet?”

Anyone still with me on this is obviously interested in our situation down here, so here’s something you’ll find fascinating as we did. The April 21, 2007, Times-Picayune ran a front page article entitled “Higher Ground,” to point out that New Orleans has plenty of real estate above sea level that is being underutilized. Staff writer Leslie Williams begins the article, “A yearlong topographic and demographic study of New Orleans arrives this month like the latest installment of the television series ‘MythBusters’–and may forever change the notion of the Big Easy as a below-sea-level city.”

The study shows that half of New Orleans is at or above sea level. And–on a humorous note–it turns out that Monkey Hill in the Audubon Zoo is not the highest point of the city at 25.4 feet elevation. Instead, the apex of this city is a rise in the Couturie Forest in City Park, which stretches upward to 27.5 feet. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

(I’ve sometimes teased our visitors by showing them what surely must be the only traffic sign of its kind in this city, one on Franklin Avenue where it hits Lakeshore Drive. Just before you go over the levee, a sign announces “Hill.”)

Back to the study conducted by the Center for Bioenvironmental Research (jointly sponsored by Tulane and Xavier Universities). “Innumerable media reports following Hurricane Katrina described the topography of New Orleans as unconditionally below sea level. This oversimplification is inaccurate by half, and its frequent repetition does a great disservice to the city.”

And, as we frequently point out here, that’s just talking about New Orleans proper. Fully half of the metropolitan area lies outside New Orleans, with cities like Metairie (population over 300,000) and Kenner (from 70,000 to 90,000, depending on who’s talking)–all above sea level. So when people question whether New Orleans should be rebuilt, it’s good to remind them that most of “greater New Orleans” is still in place and still functioning.

The study identified 2,000 parcels of land in New Orleans proper that are being underutilized or are vacant and available.

Want proof that statistics can drive you mad and prove absolutely nothing? We’ve got it. According to that study, Lake Pontchartrain’s surface is one foot above sea level. And the Mississippi River flows at 4 feet above sea level in normal times and up to 14 feet above during the Spring thaw.

Which proves that “above sea level” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. You can be there and still drown!

This weekend and next, the annual JazzFest celebration takes place at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. This event rivals Mardi Gras for the number of visitors it brings to town, which is not to say it also brings in some of the most famous singers and musicians on the planet. And don’t let the “jazz” in the name fool you. The music runs the gamut from gospel choirs to Rod Steward to Norah Jones to Charmaine Neville to Jerry Lee Lewis–and a whole bunch of groups your children know but I never heard of.

Signs of progress in a city that needs all the encouragement it can get.