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Salvaging a city's soul

By Cathy Frye , Amy Upshaw

This article was published December 11, 2005 at 4:12 p.m.

— In the mornings, Roy Richardson eats day-old fast food for breakfast while watching a small television powered by his car battery.

His house is dark and cold. But most of the time, Roy's too busy to notice. He's gutting the first floor of his twostory home, knocking out the moldering walls and putrid flooring. It's depressing work. Sometimes, he wonders if the job ever will be done, whether this place ever will be livable again. But the olive house on South Alexander Street has belonged to his family for nearly 100 years. He can't just let it rot.

A few houses down, Stephen Bergeron goes out most mornings looking for something to get him through the day, usually a box of gooey doughnuts and a bag of ice to cool his drinks. He pads around his home, studying watermarks on the furniture and wondering whether his wife's antique desk can be saved. He tells himself the material things don't matter anymore. And he finds his silent street strangely peaceful.

In the evenings, Roy and Stephen sometimes meet at the Banks Street Bar & Grill at the end of their block. Here, in this cozy neighborhood tavern, two dozen flickering candles soften the grim expressions of Mid-City neighborhood residents who gather nightly. Bartender Toni Atkins, 34, reigns over the makeshift bar - a tarp-covered pool table laden with bottles of booze. She warmly greets each regular with a throaty, "What can I get ya?"

As the locals sling back drinks, they swap home-repair tips, list the nearest stores selling cigarettes and complain about the politicians' slow response to their city's plight.

Outsiders don't understand how they can keep on living here, in decaying homes, in neardeserted neighborhoods, in a city operating under primitive conditions.

But while Hurricane Katrina stripped New Orleans of its life and color - leaving behind a macabre black-and-white landscape nestled against broken levees - the storm didn't steal this city's soul.

It surfaces, daily, in the residents who are living this surreal life, gathering the broken pieces of their homes by day, searching for normalcy in old haunts by night.

A LOST CITY

New Orleans still seems like a typical busy big city to motorists driving into town on congested Interstate 10 - that is, until they look down from the elevated highway.

They see blue tarps covering hundreds of roofs; raggedy, abandoned apartment complexes; a Home Depot with a chain-link fence and two security guards posted out front to protect the store's coveted inventory; the absence of cars on frontage roads.

After sunset, the darkness below the interstate becomes enveloping. In parts of the city, there are no streetlights. Few traffic signals work. Most of the office buildings, retailers and fast-food restaurants near the highway are vacant.

And then there's the smell - the musty, moldy stench that hovers over the entire city.

At the French Quarter, there aren't many tourists, and Bourbon Street is markedly quieter than it was before Katrina. But the restaurants and hotels are open, serving mostly government employees and construction workers.

The number of men who currently populate the city rivals the male head count of Alaska's most remote areas. The owners of several topless bars have been trying to accommodate this testosterone-driven crowd, but a sign outside one strip joint points to the difficulty of this endeavor: "Dancers needed."

Once populated by nearly half a million people, New Orleans now is home to an estimated 70,000.

Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, dumping rain on and around a city below sea level. The next day, much of New Orleans flooded when levees failed. The neighborhoods of Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward suffered the greatest.

Lakeview, a mostly white and middle-class neighborhood of 10,000, was deluged when water breached the levee along the 17th Street Canal. The Lower Ninth Ward, mostly poor and black, drowned from a break in the Industrial Canal levee, and the outer bands of Hurricane Rita brought more floodwaters nearly a month later.

In Lakeview, a few determined residents are living like squatters in their own homes. The Lower Ninth Ward, on the other hand, remains off-limits for overnight stays. Only in the past two weeks have city leaders allowed residents to return briefly to see what was left. They found very little.

The areas of New Orleans East and Gentilly also are deserted except for workers camped out in the parking lots of national retail stores. Only a few neighborhoods, like Algiers, remain as they did before Katrina.

In Mid-City, whole streets appear unscathed. Others, however, are lined with the pitiful remains of aging, gracious homes.

In this close-knit neighborhood, numerous residents are camping out in their brokendown houses, where they've become immune to the stink of mildew. Many, like Roy, sneaked back to the city long before they were supposed to. They hid in their homes, making surreptitious repairs and dodging the National Guardsmen who patrol the area.

There's still no electricity or phone service in parts of Mid-City, although a resourceful few have managed to bootleg power from the houses where electricity has been restored. Sometimes, late at night, looters still roam through here, looking for empty two-story houses. The good stuff can be found on the second floors, where people hurriedly moved their most treasured belongings when the water began to rise.

Despite all these hardships, Mid-City residents are grateful to be here.

Really, they say, it's not that logistically difficult to function in a nonfunctioning city. For groceries, they simply head to the nearby suburban towns of Metairie or Kenner, where Winn-Dixie grocery stores are booming and a recently opened Starbucks serves grateful caffeine addicts.

The suburbs now bolster New Orleans. They are retail meccas for the storm-weary, pockets of normalcy for the grieving.

LAKEVIEW: A 'BURIAL GROUND'

Going from busy, crowded Metairie to neighboring Lakeview is, as one resident put it, like watching a color movie that suddenly turns into a grainy blackand-white film without sound. A layer of dirt, yanked loose by the floodwaters that submerged this neighborhood, covers everything, hiding any color.

Still, for Mike Rihner, 45, a native New Orleanian, the pull is irresistible.

His wife has told him to quit visiting their decimated Lakeview home, to stop digging out his beloved jazz CDs from the front yard - especially now that he's developed what they're calling the "New Orleans cough."

"But this is home," Mike says as his car idles on Bellaire Drive. "As awful as it is, as terrible as it looks, it's hard to cut the cord. I guess it's like visiting a grave site. You have to pay your respects." He pauses and looks around at his dismal, monochromatic surroundings, at the houses whose doors and windows hang open like gaping wounds, and muses to himself, "It is almost like a burial ground."

After Katrina struck, Mike and his wife, Wendy, moved to Cleveland, with Wendy's parents. Mike, a musician, was getting plenty of gigs there. A new life seemed possible.

But when he heard his old job might reopen - teaching music at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts - Mike knew he had to give his city one more chance.

So he and Wendy, who still doesn't know whether she'll be laid off from Delgado Community College in New Orleans, found a cramped efficiency apartment in Metairie. They signed a six-month lease and moved in Dec. 1. Given the city's desperate situation - and the couple's strained finances - even this short-term arrangement is a leap of faith, Mike says. Right now, they're living off their savings and a couple of Federal Emergency Management Agency checks, one for $2,000 and a second to help cover rent.

Mike's return to work will help, but he's taking a 15 percent pay cut.

If the Rihners' circumstances get any bleaker, they'll go back to Cleveland, Mike says. "I would love to live here, die here, be buried here. But it seems the burial's already taken place."

What gets to him the most - and to other former residents who come to Lakeview regularly - is the silence. It's especially noticeable in the morning, in the absence of the normal sounds of an awakening neighborhood - children's voices as they depart for school, the turnover of car engines, the deep thrum of garbage trucks.

What was once the commercial section of Lakeview now lies barren of customers. The streets are busy - but only with motorists trying to go somewhere else, like Metairie.

Detracting from the giant oaks that line the main thoroughfares are dozens of brightly colored signs promoting tree-trimming services, house gutting, razing, mold removal and lawyers willing to take on the government's response to Katrina.

And toilets. Rows of portable toilets. Lakeview, like the rest of New Orleans, is dotted with them. Gas stations and restaurants remain closed. There's nowhere else to go.

The houses that remain erect have either been gutted by their owners or are festering, seemingly forgotten, with thick, fuzzy mold that grows in splotches up walls and onto ceilings.

Few valuables or mementos are worth keeping now, though more and more of the residents are making their way back home to see what is left.

Firefighter Billy Shanks lost almost everything except for a few Christmas ornaments. His home is about to be razed, yet he still meticulously hoses down his driveway. He can't explain why he even bothers, but theorizes it's because he's the type of guy who mowed his yard each week. He finds comfort in trying to maintain order.

Billy's still working for the city, but he and his wife spend much of their time arguing with insurance companies over who's responsible for what. Much of the debate concerns whether the damage to his home should be covered by his homeowner's or flood insurance.

Remnants of residents' pre-Katrina lives are scattered through the neighborhood - vacation slides, broken toys and a refrigerator covered with magnets, pizza coupons and a photo of two smiling adults raising colorful glasses and hugging a child.

Yards are now a mix of dried mud and tufts of brownish-gray grass. Like most of this neighborhood, they are devoid of life - except for one.

Terry Lonatro's yard is a vibrant green, covered with thick squares of new grass. A flower bed, which holds pink, purple and white flowers, is partially shaded by a palm tree. And it's clear, just from looking at the jaunty red Christmas bows that adorn the trees, that someone is living in this two-story brick home, which backs up against the levee.

"I just felt like this house could be saved," explains Terry, who renovates swimming pools for a living. (His own backyard pool, which won a design award several years ago, is already clean and ready for use.)

"This neighborhood's going to come back," he insists.

And he wants to help make that happen. His mother taught him the importance of fending for himself.

"You don't wait for people to tell you what to do. We love our home. We love our neighborhood. And even with our neighborhood in this condition, we're still back at home," the gregarious man contends. "People are stopping by and taking pictures. Maybe we'll give them some hope and inspiration."

Terry's house still held a foot of water when he began gutting it.

As he cleaned the yard and stripped the walls, he watched the helicopters overhead, imagining how he must look to the pilots - "What are these lunatics doing?"

Four weeks ago, Terry moved his wife and 10-year-old daughter back to Lakeview. At night, a humming generator lights his home, giving off the only light for miles. A temporary electric pole sits out front, limp wires waiting for power that Entergy keeps promising but has yet to deliver.

Sometimes the family uses the microwave to cook meals. Most nights, however, they head to the suburbs for dinner or shopping. There's not much else to do once the sun sets.

Yes, Terry says, it feels a little creepy to be the only ones here. So at night, he pays a lot more attention to his home-monitoring system, which includes cameras pointed at both the front and back yards. He hasn't seen anything suspicious, but he has a gun just in case.

He spends many of these solitary evenings on the computer, rallying support for rebuilding Lakeview.

The most recent thorn to puncture these plans is a new proposal that would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to appropriate land along the levee, including Terry's property.

"We'll just have to wait and see whether that happens or not," Terry says, adding that he's been calling officials to protest this plan. "It's frustrating. There's a new proposal every day, but nobody can seem to move forward."

Terry knows of two others living close by - a man and his dog who have taken up residence in a newly paneled garage, and a guy named Al who somehow, mysteriously, has electricity.

Most former Lakeview residents, however, are staying elsewhere - with friends, family or in one of the few apartments and rental homes they could find.

Maria Guth, who, along with her husband, Greg, owns the Banks Street Bar & Grill, is one of Lakeview's many displaced residents.

They now live in the office over their bar.

MID-CITY: RAVAGED BUT RECOVERING

Nearly every day, afternoon or evening, you'll find Larry - a man so casual he doesn't bother giving his last name - lounging at Maria and Greg's bar.

The Budweiser-drinking, Willie Nelson-look-alike refers to the bar as "my living room." These days, however, he's not the only fixture. For many Mid-City residents, this place has become a haven. Maria, a petite, motherly woman, offers free dinners - red beans and rice on Mondays, spaghetti on Wednesdays, and barbecue sausage on Fridays - to this faithful crowd.

On Thanksgiving, a disheveled but grateful group celebrated at the bar, where they polished off four turkeys and an array of potluck dishes.

The Guths bought the bar six years ago. Greg, an attorney by day, had always wanted to own one. Because the popular pub had been around for years, the couple inherited a crowd of devoted patrons.

After Katrina, Maria, Greg and their loyal staff hurriedly cleaned up the bar and made what repairs they could. They reopened the first week of October. And while the place still doesn't have heat or lights, nobody seems to mind. In fact, some of the regulars say they've come to prefer the candles.

Reopening has turned out to be a good thing for Maria. As long as she's busy, she doesn't have time to think about what she's lost. Here, she doesn't have to explain the melancholy that often overtakes her.

"Everybody comes here and shares their stories," she explains. "We all have the same loss. You can tell me that you understand, or that you can imagine this, but you can't."

She swings an arm toward the patrons gathered around her liquor-topped pool table. "But they know."

On Nov. 28, the eve of Katrina's three-month anniversary, Larry sits at one of the tables just outside the bar, his ready grin barely visible in the dim candlelight.

"Hello!" he calls out to each newcomer. And then - "You stop that!" - to silence two barking dogs at his feet.

Inside, Toni, the red-haired bartender, pulls beers from two giant ice chests and stuffs money into the cash drawer beside her, flirting lazily with her customers.

Two chairs in the bar are souvenirs from the Convention Center, which housed thousands of evacuees during the flooding. An Army Corps of Engineers hard hat perches on top of the bar's mascot, a statue of a large monkey that crouches on all fours atop of the wooden, flooddamaged bar. (The monkey was swept away by floodwaters but was eventually recovered.)

Joe Moriarity, who grew up in a house five blocks from here, comes to the bar for a sense of community. "Seeing this place open - it gives people hope."

Joe was a regular long before the hurricane. After the flooding, he helped his landlord clean up the house he rents. He also started working on his childhood home, reporting regularly to his anxious mother, who's still living in Houston.

And then, one October night, he passed by the Banks Street Bar & Grill and saw the candles flickering inside.

Surely, he thought, this place can't be open.

"So I figured, 'Hell, I'll stop for a beer,'" Joe recalls. "If they can open a bar with no lights, I'll stop."

Joe works downtown, on Canal Street, for Sports Avenue, one of a couple of dozen stores open at the Riverwalk Marketplace, a retail center. But several nights a week, he makes his way here.

This place reflects the "pioneer spirit" that has permeated Mid-City in recent weeks, he says. "The neighborhood's come back alive. You see people working on homes, wanting to get back to their lives."

Just this morning, renewed optimism surged through the community when Jesuit High School, a refuge for 50 or so residents during the flooding, resumed classes.

"You measure progress not so much day to day, but week to week," says Principal Mike Giambelluca.

Of the 1,450 students, about 600 have returned to the private school. Things still aren't quite back to normal. The cafeteria, on the first floor, is out of service, so students must brown-bag it, sitting on the concrete floor to eat.

But nobody seems to mind.

Another reopening that excited residents was that of the Mid-City Burger King.

Each day, restaurant employees are bused in from Baton Rouge. They call out cheery greetings to the bedraggled customers who wander inside throughout the afternoon - some in search of a hot meal, some in search of familiarity, some in search of a bathroom.

The hours are limited - 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. - because like most businesses, the restaurant must contend with a staffing shortage. In the French Quarter and on Canal Street, where the curfew is 2 a.m., most places offer pared menus and close early.

But many businesses are months from reopening.

Toni, who lives a few blocks from the bar and one block from Canal Street, misses her old hangouts. Robert, the closest grocery store, is being gutted. Across the street, her favorite local restaurant is closed. The owners, Toni says, don't plan to reopen. Wit's End, another popular neighborhood bar, was looted. Now, the door is jammed shut. Heavy machinery is parked in front of a shuttered Blockbusters and the World of Wings restaurant.

So on her days off, Toni heads to the French Quarter, where she sips Bloody Marys and mimosas, and shops for groceries when she can find an open store.

Stephen, who lives down the road from the Banks Street bar, also frequents the French Quarter. He goes there at night to shower at his brother's house. Sometimes, he has dinner there, too. When he returns, Stephen sits in a lawn chair on his front stoop in the darkness.

He's lived here on South Alexander for 20 years, his wife five years longer. The couple's home was built four feet off the ground.

When the flooding began, Stephen and his son moved as much as they could upstairs, ultimately saving more belongings than most residents did from the hellish water.

"Damn, now I have to deal with all this stuff," he jokes. "There are a lot of people who could just walk away."

But really, Stephen wouldn't walk away even if he could. He loves his neighborhood, dubbed in tourist books as the "heart" of New Orleans. So each day, he wakes early in a house with no electricity, no heat, no hot water. Stephen's probably living a lot like the people who built it 90 years ago.

He doesn't make breakfast because there's no place to cook. A trip to the store kills at least an hour, depending on how many other city folks are driving to the suburbs.

Meanwhile, Stephen's wife lives and works in Houma, a city 60 miles to the southwest. She visits when she can. On their 20th wedding anniversary - which fell on the three-month anniversary of the hurricane - they were apart.

Daily, Stephen cleans the watermarks off of furniture and boxes up things to take to the apartment his wife is renting. That way, she can wake up to something familiar.

Only the 100 block of South Alexander - closest to Canal Street - has electricity. Stephen lives at 212 and questions why the electricity isn't all the way down the street by now. He came back two months ago and immediately began working on his home.

Stephen estimates that repairing his $325,000 house will cost at least $100,000 and will take months. He hopes insurance will cover much of the cost but like many others here, Stephen isn't sure how much money he'll receive.

For now Stephen and his family are living on his wife's salary and the $4,500 FEMA gave them. For years, he's made a living building swimming pools, but there's no need for any right now. He isn't getting many bills so there's not much to pay at the moment.

But he knows that won't last long.

So in January, Stephen plans to leave his beloved city, even though his wife may be back by then. Maybe the 59-year-old will find work in New Mexico or Arizona. "It's just going to have to be a two-house family," Stephen says. "I can't work here."

Roy and his wife, Holly, however, plan to stay.

After a breakfast of cold, leftover chicken nuggets from Wendy's, Roy returns to tinkering with his power washer, the one that was submerged during the flooding. Like Stephen, he's grateful that the second floor and the belongings he stored there were saved.

Still, he spends a lot of time searching for his 9-year-old daughter's toys. "Daddy," she asked a day or so ago, "Did Elmo survive?"

Roy, 36, laughs wryly. "We're still looking for a My Little Pony."

Roy's wife and daughters (he also has a 9-month-old ) are living in Jefferson Parish with relatives. Sometimes, Roy sleeps there. Lately, however, he's been staying in this dank, chilly house. It's easier to get up early and get started. Roy's also working on other houses in the neighborhood owned by his mother, who rented to numerous tenants.

He gets paid for these jobs, but they take away from the time he could be spending on his own home. It's a no-win situation, Roy sighs.

As he begins to fiddle once again with the power washer, Holly arrives with a thermos of hot chocolate. Roy had called her earlier this morning, complaining about the cold. But he's not quitting, he says firmly. "I'm going to be living here by Mardi Gras come hell or high water."

NO ONE LIVES HERE ANYMORE

Lakeview and Mid-City now have much in common with their poorer neighbors to the east: Gentilly, the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

They are bound together by the pessimistic outlook offered by urban-planning experts who have deemed portions of each of these areas unworthy of redevelopment.

Shopping centers in all of these neighborhoods are empty, their parking lots now home to the trailers and tents belonging to workers trying to clean up the city.

The hardest-hit, however, was the Lower Ninth Ward, once home to about 14,000 people. Now, no one lives here.

For blocks, there are only piles of debris where houses once stood, washed away when the flood wall failed and sent water rushing in. A barge that came ashore is dwarfed by the size of the section of the Industrial Canal levee under repair.

Shelita Simmons lived in New Orleans all her life. She wouldn't mind rebuilding in the Lower Ninth Ward.

"No!" her husbands yells when she suggests the idea. Most of the others who roam the neighborhood, looking for any little treasure they can find among the trash, agree with Shelita's husband.

They will never return. There's nothing to come back to.

Shelita's eyes fill with tears. "Everybody lost everything," the 51-year-old grandmother says. She and her family are staying in Houston for now but desperately need a permanent place to live.

That place won't be the Lower Ninth Ward, at least not anytime soon. Houses were pushed off their foundations, the walls knocked out and the roofs caved in. The only thing left of a house down the street from Shelita is the front porch and piles of broken bricks.

No house here was untouched.

Yet Mayor Ray Nagin is optimistic. This city and its residents are resilient, he says. He believes people want to move back and rebuild their homes and lives. At year's end, city leaders expect to have a completed plan that will help bring home the displaced.

Darlana Green, whose house is now a crumpled pile in the middle of the street, rolls her eyes at talk of reuniting this lost city and its people. She now lives in Allen, Texas, and plans to stay there.

"You've got the mayor and his silly a** saying, 'Come home to us.'" Darlana says, laughing harshly at the thought of living in this neighborhood again.

"Come home?" her voice rises an octave. "Come home to what?"

Just level this cursed place, she says. Level it and let it be.

As usual, the Banks Street Bar & Grill is filled with candlelight, laughter and loud debates over how to fix this broken city. Two men huddle at the pool table, where they use flashlights to read Time magazine's latest report on Katrina.

Bar owner Greg Guth laments the need for more jobs - that's what it'll take to save the city, he contends - while a bartender's raucous stories and jokes keep the rest of the crowd entertained.

In the midst of all this, Stephen, clad in a loose-fitting jogging suit he bought at Wal-Mart, wanders in. He's looking for Roy, who, surprisingly, isn't here.

Stephen chats idly for a moment.

Then he steps outside, clicks on his flashlight and follows the narrow beam home.

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