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A SHATTERED GULF COAST

Call It Eau de French Quarter Renaissance

Bourbon Street is cleaning up and coming alive again. Just don't inhale too deeply.

October 03, 2005|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Bourbon Street stinks.

One of the most famous addresses in the world is filled with trash after Hurricane Katrina, and the stench at some points is overwhelming. Dumpsters are filled with black plastic bags and other trash, because only now is the city beginning to collect the debris accumulating for a month in the French Quarter. Beer bottles are everywhere.

The street is awash with National Guard members, police from all over the country, firefighters and volunteers. But the smell Sunday was so overwhelming that people covered their noses with handkerchiefs as they made their way along Bourbon Street.

"It should be spotless," said Dale Juneau, behind the counter at the Bourbon Strip Tease Lingerie and Adult Gifts store. "But still we've been selling a lot of stuff, mostly to the soldiers."

Bourbon Street, of course, is known for many things. It has some of the best restaurants in New Orleans; it is also home to strip joints, T-shirt shops, neighborhood bars, jazz clubs, some smaller inns and one major hotel, the Royal Sonesta, which in different times boasted one of the better oyster bars in the French Quarter.

All that has changed, at least for the time being, though Bourbon Street is now showing signs of life. The Royal Sonesta has begun serving a buffet lunch and dinner, though Rick Vita, the director of catering, said only about a tenth of his 500 kitchen employees had returned to work.

"A lot of them are dealing with not having a home anymore," he said. "The good news is that of the 500 employees, we've found all but 72 of them."

The water rose here, but not as high as in other parts of the city because the French Quarter is on higher ground than areas that are below sea level.

The Bourbon Street that is a magnet for tourists from around the world begins at Canal Street, one of the main thoroughfares for the Central Business District and the defining border of the French Quarter.

Its bars and strip clubs have been a rite of passage for generations of high school and college students. But there is also a certain gentility about the place, especially for those who make their homes in the French Quarter.

On Sunday afternoon, Dee Ann Henson and her husband, Bill, were sitting at the bar of the Red Fish Grill, the first restaurant to open on Bourbon Street since Katrina struck Aug. 29.

"I want to see the city come back," Dee Ann Henson said as a television above her aired the New Orleans Saints-Buffalo Bills game. "The Quarter is the engine that drives the city, and that had to be recognized by our civic leaders."

The couple, like so many other residents, sneaked back into New Orleans last week, circumventing the hundreds of patrol cars that blocked many city entrances.

Their 107-year-old French Quarter house was "in good shape, but the courtyard was pretty much destroyed," she said. "And now we've got rats that we're naming because we see them so often."

She said that when they returned, there was no electricity and only two cars on their street. Both of their cars were destroyed.

"It was eerie, it was so quiet," she said. "But now everybody is happy to see each other. You can see the place changing."

They said there was a sense of time standing still.

"All the clocks had stopped," she said. "But we found the mail that was left behind. The coffeepot was half full and we had to look to see what was in the washer."

Down the street, Giselle Loper was naked save for a thong as she worked the crowd at Larry Flynt's strip joint. She said she rode out the storm and was one of the few people who had returned to work.

She said she had grown up in a small Texas town and gotten into the business with a girlfriend "because we wanted to make some extra money."

"I've worked here for a while," said Loper, 27. "I actually just started back to work last night."

Her audience was largely construction workers, who tossed dollar bills onto the stage during what was one of their few days off since arriving in New Orleans from all over the country.

Down the street, Vita was working to keep the restaurant open at the Royal Sonesta. He said workers were coming from Florida to help with the day-to-day workings of the hotel.

"We've had a lot of security people, firemen, restoration contractors and others," he said. "But the best news is that the locals are trickling back."

At Mary's Hardware, the point where Bourbon Street becomes much more residential, J.J. Mische, 25, was behind the counter. Business was hopping as locals looked for items to repair their homes.

"Since the storm it's been mostly cleaning supplies and camping supplies," he said. "A lot of people have damage to their courtyards. You probably couldn't find a chain saw in this town."

One of his best sale items: a crawfish boiler. All the better to purify 10 gallons of water.

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