Cover Story

New faces of New Orleans

"New faces of New Orleans" Continued...

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

We drove past neighborhoods like Broadmoor with still visible waterlines on houses. The whitewashed walls of above-ground cemeteries often did not hold back the torrents, and it's obvious where the water settled on streets like the aptly named Flood and Rampart. "People said we needed an Oprah-style church," Cannata recalled: "They said these hurting people need a hug. That's wrong: They need a mission, a sense of purpose to get them out of morbid introspection."

Many newly painted houses have extraordinary colors: sky blue with tangerine pillars, emerald green with intense gold pillars and brown shutters. Cannata loves the "beauty, celebration, creativity, grace" he sees around him, and he thinks that New Orleans has gotten a lascivious reputation largely through the antics of French Quarter tourists and those who cater to them: "Bourbon St. at 2 a.m. or these reports of Mardi Gras nudity . . . I've gone to 30 or 35 of the 40 parades and have never seen nudity. . . . Sure, you can find debauchery, substance abuse, laziness. . . . You also find great hospitality, generosity, and interest. At parties here I can say I'm a pastor and it doesn't cut off conversation."

Cannata says his children-a 10-year-old boy, a 6-year-old girl-are enjoying New Orleans, but crime occurrences concern him: "My son in his playground, uptown, witnessed a machine gun battle." As we drove in a minute from the fashionable Garden District to desolate and dangerous streets, and saw churches close to strip clubs, Cannata said, "New Orleans is the best picture of heaven I know of in America, and also the best picture of hell, but overall it's given us a purpose. . . . People here know they're not safe. . . . God is near to the broken-hearted, and there's lots of heartbreak here."

Others have also moved into uptown New Orleans to be close to heartbreak. For example, the city's Hispanic population is growing rapidly due to an abundance of construction work, and Stewart Hill, a pediatric resident at Children's Hospital, hopes to serve these new-comers. Over po'boys at Parasol's-bread soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside-he told how he took a year off from medical school to live in Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia, where he farmed, taught, and helped in a clinic. The Spanish he learned equips him to serve Hispanic kids who come in with asthma that is readily treatable if caught early: Without treatment it often becomes severe and leads to trips to hospital emergency rooms.

Michael Lewis ended his post-Katrina article this way: "The levees were breached, but something else cracked, too, inside the people behind them. The old facade; the pretense that New Orleans was either the Big Easy or it was nothing; that no great change was ever possible. . . . For the first time in my life, outsiders are pouring into the city to do something other than drink. For the first time in my life, the city is alive with possibilities. . . . Whatever else New Orleans is right now, it isn't stagnant."

Some non-stagnant traditions remain alive. New Orleans is known for its music, and at midnight one summer evening Glen David Andrews, a 27-year-old who merges old and new with powerful vocals and soulful trombone playing, was playing at d.b.a., a hot bar in the Marigny district. People hoisted Abitas and Dixies as the band riffed to the fugitive slave song with 2005 overtones, "Wade in the water./ Wade in the water children./ Wade in the water,/ God's gonna trouble the water."

New Orleans is also known for food. Pastor Cannata often meets members and seekers in restaurants: In 3 1/2 years he has eaten at 288 of New Orleans' 1,008 (his count) restaurants and hopes to hit them all. Doug Harmon, a professor and the director of graduate admissions for the school of architecture at Tulane University, says New Orleans residents are "always thinking about the next meal-at lunch you'll talk about what you're having for dinner."

I met Harmon, 39, and his wife Toy, 33, at Lüke, a restaurant owned by John Besh, who one year after Katrina received the James Beard Foundation Award as the "Best Chef in the Southeast." Even though he was teaching at Tulane before Katrina, Texas A&M graduate Harmon recalls that he didn't partake much of New Orleans: "I was continually surrounded by an upper-middle-class, largely white population. There were whole sections of the city I didn't know existed. Katrina pulled the lid off for a lot of people, not only nationally but locally."

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