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City's Rich Culture Proves Lucky Too

Fortunately situated on higher ground, many of New Orleans' most famous landmarks appear as if they will weather the storm.

September 05, 2005|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The worst storm to ever strike this old city has spared its most famous picture-postcard icons -- the French Quarter, the Garden District and the graceful, mansion-lined thoroughfare of St. Charles Avenue.

But although great swaths of these storied neighborhoods are unflooded, they have become eerie and sometimes menacing no man's lands. The vegetable bins of the French Market -- usually open every day of the year -- are bare. The grand oaks that canopied the genteel Garden District neighborhood are trashed, their big twisted branches blocking the streets.

There is little traffic save for police or military vehicles patrolling for looters or heading toward rescue sites.

On an Uptown porch Sunday, the body of a man lay wrapped in plastic with a wilted bouquet at his feet. Someone had written his driver's license number and name -- Alcede Johnson -- on a torn piece of cardboard and placed it on his chest.

And yet life goes on here for a small group of locals that will not, or cannot, leave. Some are holed up in their houses, protecting them from looting that seems to have largely subsided. Some have gathered at traditional hubs of social life -- a Bourbon Street bar, a fancy Uptown restaurant -- for camaraderie, medical help and military food drops. And a hardy few wander the streets, locals turned tourists in the new ghostscape that the city has become.

"We're just riding around checking things out," Art DePodesta said. The 30-year-old restaurant owner had pulled up to a Whole Foods market on Magazine Street on his bicycle Saturday, a .45-caliber handgun on his hip. As the police looked on approvingly, he and a friend joined a handful of locals who wandered through the glass-strewn store, rummaging for food. DePodesta chose a couple of gourmet salamis.

He surveyed Magazine Street, usually busy with cross-town traffic and antique shoppers. It was silent, but DePodesta was optimistic.

"This neighborhood's going to be up and running in no time," he said.

This rich swath of old New Orleans -- a portion of the 20% of the city that remained unflooded -- was saved in part because it was built along the river on higher ground than some of the newer neighborhoods.

A drive around New Orleans this weekend revealed that many of its world-famous buildings and institutions would probably survive. Jackson Square, the heart of the old Spanish colonial capital, was nearly immaculate. The St. Louis Cathedral was dry. Grand old creole restaurants like Galatoire's only looked as if they had survived a night of hard French Quarter partying.

Many residents here feel bad for the other parts of New Orleans that are now underwater, along with the surrounding parishes. These lesser known, hard-hit areas -- including Mid-City, Lakeview and the 9th Ward -- are rarely visited by tourists, but they contribute mightily to the city's piquant character.

A number of people said that the survival of so much of old New Orleans architecture and culture, though insignificant in the face of the death toll, is a rare and welcome bit of good news as the city turns toward an uncertain future.

"It's good that the historical city survived," said George Byrne, a 58-year-old lawyer who had been rescued from a part of Uptown that was covered in 9 feet of water. "The problem is a large part of the other residential parts of the city is never going to come back."

With no power and no water service, the old neighborhoods were quieter than they'd ever been, save for the helicopters buzzing overhead. Yet they seemed to retain their distinctive personalities.

In the French Quarter, the strip clubs and booze joints of Bourbon Street were closed up and the street was oddly quiet. But over at Johnny White's Sports Bar, perhaps the only bar open in town, a group of weathered locals pored over longnecks in the dim light.

Marcie Ramsey, the assistant manager, called the place "the only locals' bar on Bourbon Street," and said it had become more of a community center. She said the bartender, a former member of the Air Force named Joe, had been using his medical experience to treat the wounded and sick.

In the Faubourg Marigny, a more residential neighborhood that abuts the Quarter, a sort of bohemian block club has formed, watching for looters on the rooftops, hauling out trash and keeping neighbors informed. Resident Julia Li said the club was being headed up by a guitar player down the street.

"We've all banded together," she said.

In the upscale environs of Uptown New Orleans, the hip holster had become a discreet but de rigueur accessory for the handful of upper-middle-class men who stayed put, often to protect showcase 19th century homes.

Jim Huger, a 37-year-old real estate developer, was packing a 9-millimeter pistol. He had sent his wife and children to Florida, but he stayed in his 107-year-old Webster Street house along with his mother and brother-in-law.

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