For Gaithersburg Man, a Saint Of the Water Rises From the Dirt

A house at this address on Hastings Street in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward had been flagged for demolition, but an advance team that included Tom Cuddy of Gaithersburg found only a few hard-to-fathom relics on the lot.
A house at this address on Hastings Street in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward had been flagged for demolition, but an advance team that included Tom Cuddy of Gaithersburg found only a few hard-to-fathom relics on the lot. (Photos Above And Below By Tom Cuddy)
Thursday, August 24, 2006

A year has passed since a depression in the Caribbean was named Katrina. The storm gathered strength, then slashed and swamped the Gulf Coast, becoming the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. In many of today's Extras, Washington area readers describe how the storm affected their lives. Here is a report from Tom Cuddy of Gaithersburg, senior archaeologist with URS Corp., who has made four trips to New Orleans to work on a historic preservation team.

The address was supposed to be a demolition. It was on the Red Tag list after Hurricane Katrina, but when we finally found Hastings Street, the house was long gone. We stood in front of an empty lot at the burning end of a New Orleans summer afternoon. A blue man was all that remained, a plastic soldier propped on a broken iron fence post. He was a reminder that human activity had once graced this space.

But for the blue man, no one would have found the medallion.

We were the advance team making preliminary visits to demo sites. Our job was to record the historical characteristics of the buildings. Our group was composed of archaeologists -- I'm one, from Gaithersburg -- and architectural historians. It is a thankless job that comes with the built-in contradiction of trying to reconcile preservation with the reality of destruction. In the words of one friend, we were the red tape.

We had started our day in the Upper Ninth Ward and the Bywater. Even as veterans of structural damage, we never knew what we might see in the post-Katrina landscape. Whole blocks looked like they should be demolished.

Modern urban ruins are like a new-wave art form. We learned to critique the qualities of their unlikely existence and ponder their existential meanings. The stairways to nowhere and the free-standing walls were the most common. Their presence added poignancy to our days, emblems of unfinished business, or of a process interrupted, or maybe of futility. One favorite was a steel I-beam juxtaposed against a historic brick wall that spawned endless debate about old and new, past and present and continuity.

We affectionately referred to the "green-bean shotguns," shotgun houses overgrown with vines the locals call cat's claw, dangling three-inch seedpods. They brought new meaning to the green roof concept. The Army Corps guys called them Chia houses.

Around the corner from a Columbus Street green bean, we ran into Christian Demolition again. Their hearts were in the right place, but some other things weren't. They liked to chide us that they could do 200 demos a day, but we saw their work and were not impressed. They knocked them down and pushed the debris to the side of the road, creating dunes of rubble that wound through the city. They transformed one problem into another. Whether their youth-group volunteers had asbestos-awareness training was anyone's guess, but the trendy shorts and tennis shoes suggested not.

There were signs on every other telephone pole for the "Demo Diva," but that goddess of destruction has yet to be seen in the flesh. We suspected she was a figment, a brilliantly conjured marketing scheme exploiting the feminine mystique. The mirage kept us going, like the Lady in the Lake or the fountain Ponce de Leon searched for.

The long hot days had emotional ebbs and flows, brought on by some strange sight or sound or thought. Random smells punched through the thick city air, stirring sensations and realigning memories. The Chinese food was the best. The stench of rotting garbage was the worst. There were piles of garbage all over the city. On those summer days, you could smell the trucks collecting trash from two or three blocks away. The guys who collected those decaying piles of city in that steaming urban swamp must have needed the money badly. Many were Latino, some were black. A few blocks from Hastings, a dude in a black T-shirt jumped from his porch and gave each of them a $5 bill for clearing his stoop. I'm sure they'd seen it all at that point. I was personally encouraged by the humanity of the gesture.

Maybe that was the convergence that ultimately drew me to the coin. Some combination of ethereal forces had come together at Hastings, in the Lower Garden District. The address was the 18th visit of the day. The reason we didn't jump back into the air-conditioned car the second we saw that there was no house can only be attributed to dehydration and the consequent semi-delirium it brought on. I dropped onto the steps next to the blue man. And that's when I made out the roundish coin in the dirt. As the blue man watched, I kicked the dirt with my boot to see what was there.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company