That December Saturday afternoon in New Orleans, we thought we’d go over to the Lower Ninth Ward. An unusual constellation of shooting stars, even in this place and time, had brought us to that point. One was the almost complete and utter continuation of the devastation. Since the flood wall shattered in the L9 and the barge shot through, that has been pretty much the whole story.
Except the sweeping away of the structures and the gobbling up of 1000 or so of the folks who’d been living in them. Of course almost all of us had seen it all before. But now there was something new on the landscape.
After we crossed the St. Claude bridge over the Industrial Canal, we didn’t go there though. Instead first we went further east, on to Holly Cross, where the flood had run right through the neighborhood until the river levee stopped it. No far from the city-side levee bank, there we saw a demonstration site with one new structure going up, as idled and abandoned looking as much of what we were about to see soon. We learned that more such structures were slated to go up here, as well as community and daycare centers. So the promise ths site held was only being temporarily delayed by the weekend pause.
Not so what our car flew by next. Yes, there were some nice looking homes with actual live inhabitants. Unfortunately that soon gave way to the depressing expectation of entire blocks of boarded up, burnt out and falling down houses. As we got deeper into this urban desert, even the ruins of buildings became rarer. You might see supporting blocks with no visible meaningful anything to support, or still intact steps with nothing any longer to step into, but that was about it. At what you could still distinguish as intersections, street signs had likewise faded into the aniquity of two and a third years ago. Some telephone poles thereabouts were swabbed with those names, an act of defiance or hope or something else that no longer had any name either. Before, you would have had to brace yourself for what we were approaching next. Ground Zero, where the Industrial Canal’s flood wall had crumbled and that barge had exploded through. Where the hundreds of homes had been bashed and battered and ripped asunder.
Where the thousand had drowned in the horror. Where the bulldozers had finished what the floods had begun. Though not totally. Those few lonely structures still standing, however, were like the stubborn last molars in the otherwise toothless mouth. That didn’t seem to have much left to say either.
Then, there it was. The pink. And lots of it! We parked on the last block that is wasn’t and walked onto the hallowed ground where so many had died. As far as you could see the pink structures rose from what hadn’t even been ruins for too long. Scattered around on the bare ground, solar powered plastic candles represented all the souls some way went to a better place too soon and so quickly. By chance, or perhaps design, we’d arrived here at one far corner of the exhibit. Inside that corner an elevated pink structure let us step up to look out over the entire expanse, which was as vast in its promise now as it has been in its misery.
We thought we’d seen it all, like before, were more than sure we got it, yeah. But back in the car on our way out, we decided to drive over to the Common Ground Blue House, since we were in the neighborhood. It’d been there pretty much since the military had let mere civilians back in, months after the flood waters had receded. And so, before all the pink, there’d been the blue, like a beacon of hope and support for the neighbors who came back, or wanted to but couldn’t yet. Standing together against those bulldozers that were trying to flatten the place totally once and for all, gutting hundreds of homes.
We found the house, but it was another one, two stories high, freshly painted, with neat vibrant vegetable gardens and a good convergence of other visitors. Off to one side we saw three open trailers. So we walked over there and were greeted by a smiling security guard who thanked us for coming by. This was a new experience in and of itself. Inside the trailers we looked at exhibits-sketches and graphs and photos and charts-informing us of proposed designs for new homes that would be built where all the pink stuff stood now. About people who lived here and wanted to come back now to live in the new places in the future. Of all the individuals and groups who are supporting them and will help figure out-along with them-how it will all come to be, and in what way it will get paid for. Conspicuous in its absence, as has become the NOLA norm: government, in all forms and at all levels.
We ran into some other friends and milled around some more. It seemed like the place to be. You could even imagine the future was now, as the dusk was on the horizon and bright pastels-including pink, of course-smeared the end of daylight.
The aroma of food arose as the sun set. We saw Malik Rahim, native New Orleanian and one of the founders of Common Ground, organizing the serving. Once the food came out of the kitchen and onto the land, he showed us where and how to line up, and led us in a prayer of thanks. For the food, of course. But also, it seemed, so that we would be able to believe that we could keep the promise all that pink represented. To those who once walked here and now no longer could be with us. to those who have come back and can see that promise stretched out before them now. Because the sun’s power, even as it grew dark, through its borrowed solar power, was still illuminating the pink structures, and the 1000 memorial candles were now bright points on the darkened ground.