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A Neighborhood Staggers to Its Feet

Elysian Fields Avenue is not the worst-hit strip in New Orleans, but its lingering damage reflects the city's slow and patchy recovery.

November 13, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Come hell or high water -- and there's been plenty of both around here -- Summer Anderson was going to give birth in her beloved New Orleans. Even her insurance adjuster, who is not in the habit of persuading clients that their homes are uninhabitable, told her to stay away. You're too pregnant, he told her. There's nothing here for you.

"But the house was in good shape," she said. "And there's no place like home."

Two weeks ago, she and her husband, Mark, returned from exile. And Thursday night, she brought her baby home from the hospital. Isabelle Cortina Anderson, all 8 pounds, 15 ounces of her, became the 12th resident of Elysian Fields Avenue, which was home, not long ago, to hundreds of families.

Elysian Fields is not the worst street in town; there are houses, not far away, still entombed in 10-foot piles of mud left when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Nor is it the best street; it is not in the French Quarter or Uptown, neighborhoods that have declared themselves open for business.

It is just another street clinging to life. There are suggestions of hope. But a walk down the avenue provides a vivid reminder that the exhausting slog has only begun here -- a reminder that New Orleans, when it is a city again, will be smaller, wealthier and whiter, none of which is welcome news to many of those who loved it.

When Isabelle came home, Summer's mother had pork chops simmering on the stove. Two-year-old Luke was more interested in the red bicycle he had received as a consolation prize than in meeting his new sister.

For a moment, it was easy to look past the spray-painted Day-Glo "X" left by a search-and-rescue team on the front door, surrounded by hieroglyphics indicating that they had found no bodies inside. It was easy to forget that a few blocks away, there was a car sitting in the limbs of a tree.

The Andersons -- she a 29-year-old teacher whose career is on hold, he a 31-year-old dentist -- are pioneers. Of the 438 homes on Elysian Fields, six are occupied. Of the 131 businesses, 13 are open, if you count the enterprising man selling barbecue in a parking lot. Of the 11 churches, one is open.

And that is where the walk begins, at the northern tip of Elysian Fields, in a small chapel where the priest will run the organ off a diesel generator this morning; where the faithful, when they come at all, come to cry.

If New Orleans is a geographic bowl, as is often said these days, Elysian Fields runs from one rim to the other, from the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, above the city, to the Mississippi River below. It is a storied avenue with a wide median -- known here as the "neutral ground" -- where a train called the Smoky Mary once carried wealthy visitors to lakeside shows featuring Danny Baker and Louis Armstrong.

All but the north and south ends of the 5-mile-long avenue were flooded for weeks with as much as 10 feet of water. The water stopped three blocks from the Chapel of the Holy Comforter, the Rev. Roger Allen's Episcopal church, which served the neighborhood as well as two nearby colleges.

Allen's story would seem odd in another city, one less welcoming to eccentrics and idealists and self-starters. For 21 years, he practiced maritime law in New Orleans, defending shippers and oil rig owners. He had a good life, lived in a nice Uptown house. Three years ago, at 48, he gave it up to attend seminary in Tennessee. He was ordained July 2, less than two months before Hurricane Katrina.

The church was a bustling little place with an ethnically and socially diverse congregation -- college professors, urban kids, immigrants and the elderly couple who brought doughnuts every Sunday. Allen wears jeans with his tab-collared clergy shirt, and recently had the church wired with high-speed Internet so students could come there to study and, hopefully, drop in for a prayer.

The church sustained only mild damage, but it is fair to say Allen's mission has changed.

His own house, and everything in it, was destroyed. He only located the last member of his congregation last week. No one died -- an enormous relief -- but only six of the congregation's 66 families are back.

He starts each day with a prayer, "whether there is anyone here or not." He wants his church to be a beacon of serenity, so he cleans all day -- his staff is scattered in various states -- and waters the grass incessantly, giving him the only patch of green grass for blocks in any direction.

He spends the rest of the day cruising the streets, offering his church to anyone he finds as a place to wash up and rest. Most take him up on the offer. Most wind up sobbing on his shoulder.

"People are angry," he said. "They are angry at God, angry that this happened, that their lives are screwed up. They are exhausted. A lot of people are self-medicating with alcohol, myself included."

A month ago, he held his first Sunday services; he unplugged the organ from the generator after the service so he could plug in the coffeepot. Four people were there.

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