I never knew how much I needed New Orleans until it was gone. Gone is too dramatic a word to describe what Hurricane Katrina did to the city. I know, it’s still on the map. The French Quarter keeps regular hours. But emptied of half its people, dark and listless and trash-strewn in places where, according to local officials, dead bodies are still being discovered a year after the disaster, the city is severely and permanently diminished, like a person who’s suffered a major stroke. There may be rehab, and it may even be successful. But the speech, the thought process, the unbridled attitude, the life force that emanated from the grass roots up-everything that gave New Orleans its character and connected it to a grand and troubled southern history that it increasingly didn’t want to face-have changed. That consciousness that was as big a part of New Orleans as po’ boys and Mardi Gras has been desiccated, blown away like the fearsome floodwater debris that dried up in the post-Katrina sun and was eventually reduced to dust. All of us clung to New Orleans as a familial touchstone in a country where Black demographics have been shifting under our feet for years. Once a place where its majority Black natives mostly stayed put, the city is now a place of very unlikely return. It will never be the same.
This has terrible consequences for me. I am not from New Orleans. I’m from Los Angeles, a city as undefined as New Orleans was circumscribed and steeped in the vinegar of history. But I always claimed New Orleans. Both sides of my family, from my parents’ generation back, hail from the Seventh Ward, the most intensely Creole part of town. Most of them migrated west between the 1930’s and 1950’s, lured out of the South by prospects of better jobs, better weather and the relative absence of Jim Crow segregation. With typical immigrant gusto, they remade a good bit of blank-slate L.A. into an enclave that boasted the biggest Creole population outside Louisiana itself, complete with Creole restaurants, bakeries, social clubs, Catholic churches and political action groups. It was this I grew up with, this I assumed as my past, not the past of Los Angeles, which is almost impossible to visualize and makes no impression on people anyway. “I’m from L.A., but my family is from New Orleans,” I always say to someone I’m meeting for the first time. Their eyes invariably light up in recognition-aah, New Orleans. It explains everything.
It still does. But in its crippled state, and with all the friends and relatives I used to visit and still hoped to meet now dead or driven out, it is already different. New Orleans is no longer a living place to me but a museum, a hologram, a Pompeii eternally frozen in the moment that tragedy hit. From now on I will have to content myself with memories of visits with my cousins Shirley and Ed, native New Orleanians who lived in a big house that was pretty much ruined by eight feet of water. After evacuating to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; and finally L.A., following several months of limbo, they decided to settle in Henderson, Nevada, a town on the outskirts of Las Vegas. I was speechless. Vegas the city is everything New Orleans, and even Los Angeles, isn’t: dry, brown and very recently invented. Suburban tract housing as far as the eye can see, all with standard air-conditioning and low-water shrubbery, helps everybody forget they’re in the middle of a desert.
Of course I am happy Shirley and Ed survived Katrina, but I am heartsick that they wound up here. I can visit them, but that no longer means visiting my past. They now have to do what I’ve done all my life: claim New Orleans from an improbable vantage point thousands of miles away, and keep the faith of home in a place that wills them to do otherwise. I feel for them. Their new house is fine, but it is boxy and bright and has none of the shadows or intrigue of New Orleans. When we all walked through the Henderson house before they moved in, there was little to say beyond, “This is really nice.” I knew then, as they put down tentative new roots, that I would finally have to cast L.A. in my own mind and heart as the place where I’m from. New Orleans, the place I loved and venerated, is gone.