Driving

IMG_0070PD: We’ve been told to meet Laura [Paul] at ‘Orleans and North Rampart’, outside a bar called Voodoo Lounge. The bar’s red paint is sun bleached, its walls cracked and crumbling slightly. The bar seems friendly enough but we can’t see anyone that we can immediately identify as our ‘tour guide’ [2]. Waiting outside I become anxious about having missed Laura somehow. I’m also preoccupied thinking about how much of a donation we should give the organisation (lowernine.org) if and when she does take us to the area of the city most heavily devastated by Katrina and the subsequent levee breach on the Industrial Canal. I’m probably also a bit jet-lagged which doesn’t help.

After some minutes of furtively popping our heads around the door to see if we could identify Laura (what were we expecting, I wonder? Branded t-shirts, a sign with our names on it…), she comes out and asks if I’m ‘Peter’. After the initial awkwardness of correcting her on my name, we shake hands and do introductions whereupon Laura leads us to her car, a beaten-up, well used pick-up truck (a Toyota I think) and we climb in. I get in the front passenger seat. Stuart comments on our having been noticing the size of such cars, some so large the bonnets are at chin height on him. She seems confused by the comment and I wonder about the clash of cultures that it might signal; I suddenly feel that there is something decidedly British about small talk. I notice the seat is loose and that it slides back and forth on its fixings as we break and accelerate. I hope we won’t crash.

SA: For what seems a sizeable truck, I am struck by the small size of the side windows. They appear as portholes of a kind, the view outside marked by the frame of the interior. I feel enclosed, secure but separate from the places we pass. Laura begins by talking to us both but quickly talks more to Patrick. I find I spend time looking through the rear window, seeing houses, streets and empty plots through the neat lines that in frostier climates would heat the rear window. My gaze is less directed, my view is of left, right and the road behind, rather than entirely determined by the way ahead.

PD: Immediately after we get going, Laura invites us to a barbeque for lowernine.org volunteers that she is hosting at her home in the Lower Ninth that evening. It is a disarming invitation, one that I hadn’t been expecting. I find it awkward to know what to say; it seems a beautifully generous offer that is designed, as Laura says, to help us to understand the Lower Ninth better. But we only know the area by reputation and so, unsure of how we would get there – or back – and having commitments nearer our own ‘home’ for the trip we decline the offer. I wonder if it is a choice I will regret.

The day before the drive, we had been told that people in the city were ‘done with Katrina’, bored of talking about it. We mention this to Laura and her reaction suggests that it is an over simplification at best, and a profound articulation of privilege on the other: one can only be ‘done’ with it if one is no longer facing it. On the drive from the bar to the St Claude Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal (some 3 stop-start miles), Laura is animated about her work and what brought her to the City: she is Canadian, we discover, and was a volunteer in the immediate aftermath of Katrina but never left. She tells us that this will be the most biased tour we could ever have. I’m glad of the disclaimer at the time but its importance recurs throughout the hour and 40 minutes we spend with her.

Laura’s (near) monologue is incredibly fast and she moves from one register or topic to another without pause or acknowledgement of the shift: complaining about some erratic driving in front of us merges with statistics about the city merges with politicised commentary on the tour or the city. I find myself concentrating very hard on trying to ‘tune in’. She ‘helps’ me by intermittently but frequently moving her hand from the steering wheel to tap me on the arm with the back of her hand. Later, after the tour has ended, I’m struck by how familiar this movement and touch was but also how insistent I found it in its breaking of my personal space and in physically punctuating the monologue on my body. It also made me acutely aware of being in the car.

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SA: As tour groups go, this is small. I’d expected there might be more conversation, that there might be more down-time between particular stops. I find myself disconcerted by the lack of small talk, the lack of connection, of conversation. It became clear that this isn’t a place where we might have anything of particular value to say, it is about listening, being present, not negotiating, reflecting on and responding to the experience.  But, of course, lowernine.org offers tours and we’ve booked a tour, Laura is keen we discover the place, that’s the purpose of all this. Yet, it was odd trying to make sense of a place from inside a car. And, it was unsettling sharing the space of a car and remaining in the mode of a tour. As the tour continues, I am struck by the contrast between the relative ordinariness of sitting in a car and the enormity of events that have had such a significant and sustained effect on the places at which we stop, and those we pass by. I wonder what it would have been like to have stayed for a barbecue, and whether we might then have all slipped from the conventions of the tour, when we would not be looking at a place through windows, but there, in person, out for an evening. I begin to think that might be more difficult, that suddenly we would need to have words with which we might engage with people and place.

 

PD: Pulling up at the bridge, Laura barely nods towards the traffic jam evolving before us and to the bridge beyond saying that we are now encountering first-hand the ‘environmental racism’ that divides the Lower Ninth from the City. The bridge is up to let a ship along the canal and we have to wait. This can take up to 30 minutes, we’re told; and we’re asked to think about the implications of that in terms of emergency services getting to a crisis given none are based on the Lower Ninth side of the canal.

Crossing the bridge I’m struck by the vastness of this manmade waterway. Even from above it is a scale that dwarfs the architecture on either side of it, and while I do not know it yet (for it will be some days until I witness it for myself) – you have to look up at passing ships from the street level. We turn a hard right immediately we exit the bridge, the car pulling up to an abrupt stop. This is the area farthest from the Levee breach that devastated this area, so the part of the Lower Ninth least impacted (though still flooded). It’s now gentrifying quickly and I’m shocked to discover that there are even AirBnB properties in the neighbourhood (an issue of some contention in the city as a whole). Laura asks us to note the vernacular of the architecture, extoling the virtues of good, old design practices that enable homes to be cool in the ferocious heat of the summer.

We drive on, crumping over huge potholes, being shaken around the cab of the truck. Still at the southern end of the district, that area ‘least’ impacted by the flooding that was a consequence of the Industrial Canal levee breach, we pull up at a shell of a home destroyed by the flooding and subsequent neglect over time. It seems to me in need of tearing down and starting again: “we could fix that up easily, it’s actually in pretty good shape”, Laura says, before explaining that the barge board [3] inner skin of the house still looks strong. A few yards further on we pull up at an abandoned home, it looks in better condition but the orange ‘Katrina cross’ still marks it out as ‘blight’. We’ve already seen a number of houses in other parts of the city that have been done up but that have kept their cross. Laura explains how the X system works, with each quadrant containing specific information in an internationally agreed code and I’m relieved that no one died here [4]. I ask if it would be ‘deeply inappropriate’ to take a photo. Laughing, Laura ribs me for the phrase but says it would be fine before thanking me for asking. I don’t really understand why one wouldn’t ask, this was someone’s home.

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We drive past two beautiful, ornate properties that we discover were built by a Steamboat captain called Doullut and designed to flood up to the first floor. I want to pause here and look more closely but we move on. We pause surrounded by (mostly) renovated houses with neat gardens and are asked to look around and remember the scene, and to look north along the 1.7 miles of Flood Street that is to our left. Later we will be asked to recall that moment, noting the extraordinary difference that 2 miles makes.

We swing right into property owned by the Port of New Orleans, a gravelly track leads up a short steep hill that we accelerate up. At the top we can see the Mississippi River and realise that we are on a river levee. A woman runs towards us along a dirt track at the top, I wonder where she has come from, how far she is planning to run, and how she is coping with the heat. After talking about the port a little, we accelerate back down the hill in reverse; the car moves unnecessarily fast in what is evidently a practiced manoeuvre but one that is unnerving nonetheless.

SA: I find myself looking back through the lines of the rear window. I become aware of lines on the land, the waterways that bisect the land, the high watermarks on houses. Laura stops to show us the industrial canal on her phone. It takes a while for her to load the map, but it’s clearly important. The canal is not natural, she explains, this isn’t the meandering way that water flows. As we pass houses, and the remains – or lack of remains – of houses, so she indicates the strategic decisions that are at play here, that led to the building of the canal, and the decisions that have followed Katrina. These streets feel a long way from the city, I wonder how many people visit the ward in their experience of the city, of how places away from the centre of a city are understood as being part of that city (and as being implicated in discussion with those central areas). We are seeing plans, decisions, structures, the work of recovery – and the limits of this work.

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PD: We turn to face north and begin moving up through the district, Laura waves at everyone, a friendly and familiar greeting but I can’t work out who she actually knows and who she is just greeting because it is the friendly thing to do. We stop at her house and she calls to her dogs who stare at the car, seemingly ambivalent to our arrival. We drive on. Some blocks later, we approach a house that is being renovated, there are some teenagers smiling and chatting outside it and a coach a few meters further on. This is one of the houses that lowernine.org are in the process of doing-up. It’s nearly finished. As we approach, the car slows to a stop and Laura asks how the group outside are doing. A moment later, a man emerges from the front door and waves enthusiastically, asking if we’re stopping in to have a look. Laura beckons him over and he bounds down the front steps, along the path and up to the car. They chat and Laura explains she doesn’t have time to stop. They have just hung the kitchen cabinets. The house is nearly finished. We are not introduced which feels odd: there is an odd distancing effect enacted as the man clearly notices us but we aren’t afforded a chance to say hello. The result is that I find the encounter unsettling, as though I have been unwillingly made a voyeur. Or that I am on some kind of human safari. I feel my (white, male, middle class, educated) privilege heavily weigh in this encounter and although I am here for what I would consider legitimate (research, not tourist) reasons, I cannot help but feel I am participating in something ethically troubling. We drive away and I meekly mumble goodbye. I wonder who he was. I really wanted to see the house.

Driving further north we see an increasing number of empty plots, absences in the landscape where houses used to stand. Earlier in our trip we had interviewed someone who described the Lower Ninth as ‘a bit rural’, I wonder if this is what they meant. Of course, these lots are not really empty – they have been overtaken by nature in a curious sort of way. The boundary lines between properties are discernible, either marked out by some kind of fence or, more often, by the differentiation between one lot being mowed and cleared of debris, and another being wild, overgrown, and “given back” to nature in an eerie kind of way. This is a particular kind of staging of absence and wreckage, one that acknowledges the disparity in those who can make it back to the area to work on their plot and those who can’t. These are the traces of lives not (yet) recovered. We are told that the City insists lots are cleared or that they will reclaim the land. I remember Laura’s statement that this is the most ‘biased tour in the world’ and wonder if there isn’t a more complex, nuanced element to this statement. I feel guilty for doubting it.

There are no sidewalks (although there are corners of sidewalk at cross-roads). There are no streetlights. There are very few working fire hydrants. There are uncovered storm drains everywhere: they are at least two feet wide, 4 feet long and 5 feet deep. These cavernous, gaping mouths seem symptomatic of a broken bureaucracy. They are also violent in the threat that they pose to anyone using the streets. Some stretches of the road have been resurfaced, maybe twenty meters in length. There seems no logic to the repairs and they abut other bits of the road that are potholed, cracked, riven. The pickup truck is bounced and bucked remorselessly, my seat shifts back and forward violently throughout. Piles of construction debris and dumped domestic waste are often interrupting the flow of the road. Apparently people drive to the Lower Ninth to burn out cars. It feels like a place out of time and out of place, it is dislocated and isolated. But people smile and offer a wave as we pass. Across a clear stretch of greenery we spot a large and new building. It’s a high school; we don’t go to see it properly.

We come to the other end of Flood Street. Unlike the southerly end, the scene here is one of abandonment. Scrub has grown up on what would once have been the places where homes stood. The area would clearly have been well populated. It feels lonely now, haunted by the regular and rectangular outlines of plots of land where families once lived. A little further to the west, we arrive at the very edge of the district. Marked out by a sloping grass verge, atop of which is a tall, hash, sharp line of dark grey wall that parallels the street below. The Industrial Canal and its new levee wall. We are dwarfed by the architecture, made small by its height and length. We pause under the wall, at right angles to it. This is where the most catastrophic breach of the levee system in the city took place during Katrina. I’m struck by how much the looming architecture of the levee wall makes me think of being inside a prison [5]. There is one, fairly large house to our left, its front porch addresses the levee. Stuart asks how people who live looking out at it feel. ‘Safe’, Laura says.

Canal

We drive along the levee for a few hundred meters before turning off to find our way towards a bridge back over the canal and towards the city centre. We’ve been in the Lower Ninth for about 90 minutes. We have not passed a single café, restaurant, or grocery store. Apparently a ‘drug store’ has recently opened near a bridge across the Canal. As we cross the bridge, I start to feel a bit broken by the experience. I want to be very quiet and to be with my own thoughts but I try to listen diligently to the information being imparted. We drive past what I later learn is an ‘evacuspot’ [6].

We pull up, back outside the Voodoo Lounge and get out of the truck. There is an awkward moment where we try to negotiate the handover of our contribution for the tour, neither of us really too sure of how this works. We hand over the money. Laura thanks us for our interest in seeing the Lower Ninth and in her organisation’s work. It seems a generous acknowledgement, after all it was she who has shown us around. I am exhausted and overwhelmed. I cannot process the experience nor describe to Stuart how I am feeling (about and in light of it). We head into the French Quarter and it seems a million miles from where we have just been. I find that I am fairly shaken up but I can’t quite work out why. Talking about it the next morning I find it similarly unnerved. I know that I will write about it.

NOTES (relating to PD’s entries)

[1] I am in the process of developing an academic essay that, in part, explores the experience of this ‘tour’, it will be published in a special edition of Performance Research entitled ‘Staging the Wreckage’ (24:4, Summer 2019).

[2] I use scare quotes here because while this is a tour, it isn’t a commercial one. Indeed, Laura later tells us that the ‘Hurricane Katrina Tour’ run by Grey Line (and other commercial tours) is no longer permitted to go into the Lower Ninth and that the only way to see it as a ‘tour’ is with a Non-profit organisation like hers.

[3] See: https://adamickarchitecture.com/2016/06/07/historic-home-barge-board/

[4] See: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Katrina_x_large.png

[5] In Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s wonderful book Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs presents a short essay entitled ‘Of Levees and Prisons’ which outlines the connections and parallels between the history of the development of the levee and penal systems across Louisiana and in New Orleans itself.

[6] See: http://evacuspots.evacuteer.org/ (somewhat troublingly, these figures are often referred to as ‘evacumen’)

 

 

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