The Pre-Game Party

From Spike Lee to Mexican 'storm catchers,' dry times in a new New Orleans

Anita McClendon spent a Mardi Gras day tossing soggy bibles out of Holy Cross parish in New Orleans. "It just feels wrong," says McClendon, a 48-year old Oakland, California social worker who's spent the past five months in clean-up efforts.

In New Orleans, getting on with your life means getting used to the daily insults of the clean-up process. Six months after Katrina, the nervy adrenaline of a capsized city has given way to the cold sweats of a town that can't seem to pat itself dry.

"It doesn't look that much better than it did five months ago," says Bridget Francis. Like many of the people in for Mardi Gras, she's neither disaster tourist or Bourbon street reveler, but a displaced resident of East New Orleans. Her teenaged sons are thriving in the Atlanta schools but her neighbors give her a chilly reception. "They say I don't talk right, that I talk like an African."

'There's going to be so many Mexicans in this place that it's going to be called Nuevo Orleans'
photo: Eleni Papadopoulou
'There's going to be so many Mexicans in this place that it's going to be called Nuevo Orleans'

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    "They're homesick," says the Reverend Willie Walker. "They want a taste of New Orleans." Walker is a ridiculously well-connected pastor, whose high water rescue efforts are being profiled in a forthcoming book by Tulane professor Doug Brinkley, author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. In my 48 hours in the Crescent City, the Reverend will whisk me from services at his Noah's Ark Church in low-income, high crime Carrollton to a parade after-party at Brinkley's Tulane University neighborhood house where the guests include Josh Hartnett (Mardi Gras grand marshall) and Spike Lee, who's busy shooting an HBO documentary, When the Levee Broke.

    Celebrity culture in New Orleans is a rare, imported bird. It's unclear what connections brought Hartnett to New Orleans. Spike Lee appeared genuinely at home, making more scratches than I do in his reporter's notebook. He's no Willie Nelson, though. A two-story model of the red-headed stranger appeared at Sunday night's Mardi Gras parade.


    Walker puts me up at his mom's house in the West Bank. It's the sort of middle-of-the road neighborhood that escapes the notice of TV cameras looking for racialized poverty or mardi-gras revelry. Plucky homeowners live out of FEMA trailers parked in their front yard, giving them a place to live as they gut out their living rooms. Kids shoot hoops next to neat piles of exploded couches and shredded cabinets. Inside the home I stayed in, black tarp hangs like gauze over the void where the fireplace sluiced storm water and refrigerators rotted from the inside.

    "You just padlock the refrigerator and throw it out," says Anita. Or as the script on a roadside Frigidaire pictured in the Times-Picayune read, "You don't want to open this, imagine baby diapers and rotting bass."

    The West Bank neighborhood is also multiracial, a fact of New Orleans life lost in translation in the brouhaha over Mayor Ray Nagin's chocolate city comment.

    "There's going to be so many Mexicans in this place that it's going to be called Nuevo Orleans," Jose Alfredo Cevallos tells me. In town from Houston, Cevallos, 51, runs a flooring company. He's got a Tejano twang, ostrich-skin boots you won't forget, and a Texas-sized ego. "I've made $10,000 profit between Tuesday and Sunday last week."

    Vicente Bernardino is a self-described Mexican storm chaser. He lives with several other Mexican construction workers next to St. Paul American Methodist Episcopal and its decapitated steeple, point down, thrusted into the earth.

    "I always liked to follow the storms," says Vicente Bernardino, a 25-year old construction foreman from Michoacan, "but also from Ohio." He's chased construction work for Florida hurricanes but prefers New Orleans. "They treat me right here." In a not atypical stay, he and his friends lived in tents in a Wal-Mart parking lot before finding a flooded house in the Carrollton neighborhood. At the end of most workdays, he says, he rubs cold creams and rubbing alcohol to treat the skin rashes picked-up from his house-gutting jobs.

    Nice work if you can get it. There's just one catch.

    "They're not getting paid," said Cevallos. "There's 300 of them waiting for work in the Home Depot parking lots and the contractors don't pay them what they earn."


    COMING BACK

    But on this weekend before Fat Tuesday, residents returning to neighborhoods that are neither solidly middle-class or tourist destinations, have to finally consider whether its worth pulling up stakes altogether. There's talk aplenty about Katrina posing a land grab for poor neighborhoods—but paying mortgage on a flooded house in New Orleans and living on FEMA dollars in surrounding cities is untenable.

    Patrick Quinn, whose Decatur Properties owns dozens of local hotels, put it more bluntly, "What we're losing are some neighborhoods but tourists don't go to that area anyway." He adds that FEMA is expected to release a floodplain map of the city that will have widespread implications in confirming what neighborhoods are "worth" rebuilding.

    But there's another city map, that anyone who was around for the flood has internalized. When I ask the Reverend Walker for the names of the neighborhoods, he's more interested in describing streets so inundated, his boat crew had to duck their head under power lines. "There's a feeling now that if you all had was one foot of water, you're OK," said McClendon.

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