Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two Years Later

One day, not quite two years ago, while I hauled debris out of my house, a photojournalist from some British paper asked to talk with me. Seeing as how hauling the stinky, rotting remains of my personal affects to the curb alone wasn’t exactly the epitome of happy fun time, I was more than happy to take a break. He asked me what my plans were, and I remember saying something along the lines of “You couldn’t drag me away from here with a bulldozer.” I, in turn, asked him what he was doing, and he said something about covering a single block in New Orleans with the intention of coming back in a year to see how much progress had been made. Sounded like a good idea to me.

Well, two years on and I haven’t seen or heard of him again, so I guess the idea fell through – waning interest in New Orleans on the part of Britain? Editorial priorities? Maybe I just missed him. At any rate, since it didn’t work out with him, I decided to present my own little tour of my block, two years later.

Since my neighbors to the right as you walk out of my house were the first ones back, let’s start with them. I’ve mentioned them before – he grew up in that house; his parents left it to him, and he and his wife lived in it. Since they didn’t have a mortgage, they didn’t have to get flood insurance. They moved back in while rebuilding, which has been quite slow, seeing as how there wasn’t any insurance money and he had to do most of the work himself and he’s old. They have middle-aged couple living in other side, helping with the renovation. They all come out and drink beer out of cans on the plant-covered porch, and if you squint real hard so their front porch is all you see, you can almost imagine everything is back to normal.

A large two-story sits next to them, fronting onto Banks. For a long time, an extensive family of Hispanics lived there on the upper story which escaped the flood. They seemed to have disappeared now, though I couldn’t say why, maybe they found a better place to live, maybe they just moved on, hopefully they didn’t get deported. I do know it wasn’t because they ran out of work.

Kitty-corner from there, Finn McCool’s is of course up and running and has been for quite some time. It’s a real focal point for the neighborhood, and just won Best Neighborhood Bar honors from Gambit, so the block definitely has that going for it. We ambled down last Monday for Pub Quiz night and, while we couldn’t find a table because of the crowds, we did take second place.

Coming back my way, directly across from Finn’s on the other side of the block, the corner house got stripped down to the studs – even the siding was gone. It has plywood walls now, and I assume work is happening, though without any windows or real doors, it still looks rather like a really large child’s block with a roof. A few long four by fours, tilted at an angle, hold the roof of the front porch up.

Next to that is a little shotgun single. Near as I can tell, nothing has been done with it – no gutting, nothing. So it just squats there, home to nothing more than rot, stink, and a large feral cat herd.

The couple next door moved in after the storm, the new young kids on the block. They offered to buy the feral cat cave next door, but the woman who owns it refuses to sell. The single shotgun they live in is all renovated, and I really like that new people moved into the neighborhood, rather than it just getting reoccupied by those with roots here already. That, I think, is a very good sign.

Next to them is a renovated (at least on the exterior) though still vacant single shotgun. No rent sign, no sale sign, so I’m not sure what’s up with it. It looks good, though, freshly painted a nice light blue.

An elderly lady lives next door, and I’m pretty sure she’s back, though I only see her rarely come out on her porch.

The raised shotgun next to her place escaped the worst of the flooding, but – despite the aging “I am coming home” sign on the front porch about eight feet up – the place remains unoccupied. Again, I couldn’t tell you why. Ditto for the two houses directly across the street from me, not raised and completely abandoned. I know they’re gutted because some church group volunteers showed up a couple of months ago and did it but, if not for them, those two places would have remained untouched since the day of the storm.

The adjacent lot has completely reverted to jungle. Seriously – trees have sprouted and grown. You could get lost in there. You could film “King Kong” in it. I would find it rather amusing, actually, except that I’m sure the current occupant of the White House will call it “wetlands” and use its existence as a reason to not restore the coastline.

Right next to that is the house in the best shape on the block, belonging to a gay couple who seemed to renovate and re-landscape before the rest of us even finished throwing out our crap. Unfortunately, they’re moving to Vancouver, and it kills me to lose the best and brightest on the block (not that I blame them). I just hope whoever buys the place realizes how lucky they are.

Next to them on the corner, another abandoned place, nothing happening, no one there, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Across from that back on my side of the street, renovations were recently completed and there’s a rent sign hanging out front. Doesn’t look like there’s any takers yet, but it’s something.

Next to that is the empty lot that borders my place. The insurance company totaled that house, so the ex-Marine/current teacher and his wife that lived there own the empty lot free and clear. I heard they were having trouble getting a loan to rebuild, but just yesterday (yesterday – no joke, no exaggeration) some people showed up with surveying equipment and pounded a bunch of painted sticks into the ground, so maybe soon I will be awoken by the sweet sounds of power tools and salty construction worker language.

Oddly enough, no FEMA trailers mar my block, though several are scattered around the various corners. Not something you really notice – after all, who’s going to think, “Hmm, why aren’t there white ugly trailers ensconced in front of all these houses?” – until you turn the corner and practically run straight into one. Which I do, often, when I go running out to the bayou. No matter how many times I do it, I apparently can’t get it out of my head that sidewalks are for pedestrians, not mobile homes.

Finally, my house. I’ve mentioned before how the inside is pretty much back together, though the outside remains a mess. The plants Dr. A put in have helped immeasurably, but there’s no hiding the black, angry line across our doors, a daily reminder of just how high the water got. We tried pressure washing, but the muck and the stains just go too deep, and the insurance money has run out. The paint job will have to wait, though who knows when we’ll be able to afford it.

Two years ago, I thought fixing the house would be the tough hurdle to get over, but in the end that just took muscle and sweat and will. I could come up with that, but in the meantime, the mortgage shot up four hundred a month, thanks to rocketing insurance rates and taxes, and energy bills more than doubled, thanks to, well, corporate greed. I managed to get my place rebuilt, but what little monetary help I received was used up long ago.

So how are things two years on? Some good, some bad. I thought rebuilding would be the hard part, but it looks like holding onto my home will be the more difficult slog. Turns out, money is more powerful than any bulldozer.