I guess I’ve missed my chance to visit New Orleans. I’ve wanted to go, I’ve talked about going, I’ve been close enough to just drive on in, but I never went. Best I can tell, the New Orleans I wanted to see is gone. It’s soaking in a marinade of poison water that’s full of living things that ought to be dead, and dead things that ought to be living. There’s fire in the water, and water in the fire. If that’s not an early preview of hell, I don’t know what is. The worst is likely over, but there’s plenty of trouble yet to come.
When the fires are finally put out and the toxic water has been pumped out, a whole lot of New Orleans homeowners, renters and landlords are going to find out that their houses just can’t be fixed. The wood will be hopelessly warped, and the plaster and wallboard will be soggy as bread dipped in milk. Everything porous will be full of bacteria, viruses and poisons. Likely as not, most of the houses will have to be leveled. The old houses—which were a big part of New Orleans’ charm—will never be the same. In a time when a sheet of plain-Jane plywood costs $30, few people are going to be buying turned railings or stick-and-bead ornaments for the front porches on their shotgun houses.
One thing about hellish ruination: when your house is bent, broken and crumbling, and it’s been soaked through with poison besides, there’s little temptation to fix it. Whether you like it or not, you’ll most likely just have to start over.
Sure, people like old houses, and only slumlords, weasel developers and hardcore philistines actually enjoy tearing them down. I’m an old-house-fixing man from way back. I’ve brought four old houses back from near-death experiences and had some near-death experiences of my own doing it. I enjoyed most of the work. Even so, if somebody gave me a swell old house in New Orleans tomorrow, I’d be tempted to wait until it dried out (if it ever dried out), then set fire to it. Hot fire, too. With accelerants. Just to make dang sure that I killed every squirming bacterium dangling from a splinter, waiting to jump into a break in my skin and eat my flesh. And as soon as nobody was looking, I’d set fire to it again.
I wouldn’t advise anybody to try to restore a house that has been wholly or partly underwater, especially when the water contained stuff that could kill you.
Understand, I am fully in favor of rebuilding New Orleans. The good folks down there built that city, nurtured it and are making superhuman efforts to save it. I hope, and believe, that they will succeed. Heck, I know they’ll succeed, because this country has to have the port of New Orleans.
If my suspicions are correct and just about every building in town will have to be flattened, let me gently suggest this to the New Orleans city planners: if you’re going to rebuild the city from the ground up, do it right. Bring in some fill and get the town up higher than Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Now that every al Qaedan knows that blowing up a levee will put New Orleans under 20 feet of water, it’s probably a good time to abandon the levee system and build on high ground. It’ll be cheaper in the long run.
Of course, that would mean burying the old city. Although I’m not charmed by the idea of a fancy, unfunky all-new New Orleans rising up out of the muck, I think there’s a fair chance of that happening. Whether New Orleans is reborn on a hill or in a bowl, there will be soulless developer types who’ll try to build an ersatz New Orleans, with vain and hideous McMansions filling up lots that used to hold three or four shotgun houses. Downtown, there’ll be fern bars, theme restaurants and Branson-like lame-music venues on every block. If the folks who loved the old New Orleans aren’t careful, their town will get Disneyfied in a hurry. Ten years from now, if the weasels have their way, New Orleans will be Stepford.
If the folks who’ll be planning the rebirth of New Orleans want to keep their funk, they’re going to have to do something that hasn’t been done before: make sure the funky people—and by that I mean the musicians, chefs, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, late-night barhoppers and other colorful and mischievous types—have some say in rebuilding the town. Those are the folks who’ll know what the new town should look like and smell like, how the food should taste, how the music should sound. And I bet they’ll work cheap.