Requiem for the Crescent City

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, January 13, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- Assemble the brass band and let the funeral march begin, because the old New Orleans is dead.

The passing of our most distinctive city, so prominent in American imagination and lore, became official Wednesday when a blue-ribbon commission presented its plan to rebuild on the mud-caked ruins. One way or another -- through a proposed moratorium on rebuilding in the areas flooded when the levees failed, or through protracted argument over whether to have a moratorium -- the plan all but guarantees additional months of delay and rot. Every day, meanwhile, more evacuees will decide to make new lives for themselves elsewhere.

Play a mournful dirge for the lost city they have left behind.

The old New Orleans was unique in so many ways. The cityscape was like no other, with its thousands of little Creole cottages and shotgun houses. Before the flood, the city boasted 38,000 recognized historic structures; about 25,000 were badly damaged. All told, according to the report from the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, 108,731 households -- half the city's total -- were inundated with more than four feet of water.

Some echoes of the old New Orleans live on. The anything-goes atmosphere of the French Quarter persists. There will indeed be a Mardi Gras. As for the glorious cuisine, most restaurants in the dry parts of the city are functional, if barely -- a lot of the people who used to cook, serve, bus tables and wash dishes are scattered around the country.

And of course there's the music -- the city's greatest contribution to modern culture. You can still go out at night and hear jazz being reinvented. The city's "cultural ambassador," a young trumpet virtuoso named Irvin Mayfield who can make his horn sing like an angel or growl like a hungry dog, is trying to use his fledgling New Orleans Jazz Orchestra as an instrument of civic renewal. He envisions a living institution that honors the birthplace of the 20th century's most important musical form.

Mayfield's father, Irvin Mayfield Sr., lived in the devastated Gentilly neighborhood and did not escape the flood. Several weeks after the putrid water was pumped out of the city, authorities identified his body.

The great musician Fats Domino did manage to flee his home in the Lower Ninth Ward by boat. The plan city officials unveiled Wednesday envisions much of Domino's neighborhood being condemned and turned into parkland or sold to developers. Several property owners reacted angrily and threatened to resist the bulldozers, with physical force if need be, but the plan just recognizes the inevitable. The Lower Ninth will never be the Lower Ninth again.

Neither will Central City or a half-dozen other big neighborhoods that the city wants to condemn and sell for development. Much of what has always been considered the heart and soul of black New Orleans has in effect been wiped off the map. Former residents are dispersed; the few who got housed in local hotels are under pressure to get out so the hotels can make room for the Mardi Gras tourists.

The numbers are merciless: New Orleans has a sprawling "footprint," or infrastructure, to accommodate the more than 600,000 people who lived in the city at its height. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, the population was down to 462,000 -- meaning that some neighborhoods were already blighted. At present there are only 144,000 souls, and the city estimates that in September 2008, the population will still be just 247,000.

The reason the old New Orleans is dead is that the people who made it special are gone and there is no path for them to come back. I doubt there's anywhere else in this country you could find so many black people who look white or so many white people who sound black. I know there's nowhere else you could find all the Creoles and Cajuns, nowhere else you could hear that odd New Orleans accent that sounds more like Brooklyn than Biloxi.

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission envisions a city with lots of green space and a new light rail system; it sees revitalized schools and world-class medical research centers, all protected by invincible levees. It might be a nice place to live, but it won't be the old New Orleans.

In the old days, at a jazz funeral, the "second line" of followers would sing and dance the departed to heaven. The music is still playing in New Orleans, but there's nobody to form the second line.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company