NEW ORLEANS - When
the guy rolling the giant wooden cross down Bourbon Street passed
the "Pimps and Ho's" party on the balcony of the Hustler
Club, you knew that juxtaposition-rich New Orleans was getting
back to business.
In this first post-Hurricane
Katrina Mardi Gras, there is a willful effort to look forward
instead of back at the structural and psychological scars left
by what a recently released White House report calls "the
most destructive natural disaster in American history."
The atmosphere is
not unlike the mood of New York five months after the attacks
of September 11th. Extraordinary circumstances have begun to feel
ordinary and everyone is encouraged to overcome trauma with the
feel-good economic stimulus of conspicuous consumption. A trip
to Mardi Gras this year is an exercise in patriotic tourism -
the beads and the bacchanalia are all offered with a feel-good
chaser of civic responsibility - by spending money and acting
stupid we are doing our part to rebuild New Orleans. It is an
appealing but misleading pain-free prescription.
People here have embraced
the contradictions of the celebration. There is an appropriately
irreverent quality to much of the revelry - t-shirts on sale proclaim
that FEMA stands for "Federal Employees Missing Again,"
while the acronym for New Orleans Police Department, NOPD, is
said to stand for "Not Our Problem, Dude." One group
of women wore matching outfits and proclaimed themselves with
acid double-entendre "Fema-a Fatales."
One of the floats
in the parade even managed to mock the recent disaster by proclaiming
itself the Katrina 2005 krewe; showing painted images of a city
underwater on the side of the float with an alligator and a school
bus floating by a submerged Superdome. The front of the float
is decorated with an abandoned refrigerator bandaged up with electrical
tape while on the back a gray Wal-Mart shopping cart is packed
with a stolen TV and a case of Mountain Dew.
On the high ground
of the French Quarter, New Orleans can make a convincing show
of getting back to normal, but even here casualties abound. For
example, the classic Felix's Oyster House off of Bourbon Street
appears to be shut down for good. As a way of meager compensation,
a new Penthouse strip club has opened up in a building next door.
This is part of the slow transformation of Bourbon Street into
a tiny Las Vegas, with authentic local businesses dangerously
on the decline.
In one strangely reassuring
sign of resurgence, New Orleans has quickly revived its traditional
role at the heart of the Saturday night/Sunday morning culture
wars. Amid the rowdy revelers would-be evangelists mill the crowd.
Some seem primarily interested in engaging hammered frat boys
in earnest conversations about God at 2 a.m., while others advanced
a less conciliatory approach. One memorable banner on Bourbon
Street singled out an exhaustive list of "Jesus rejecters,
homos and lesbos, porno-freaks, drunkards, Muslims, Buddhists,
unsubmissive wives, money lovers, unloving husbands, thieves,
rebellious children, liars, lazy Christians, racists, Mormons,
fornicators, Roman Catholics, adulterers, and baby killing woman"
for eternal damnation. If that list is right, there's not going
to be anybody left in town to rebuild New Orleans.
Not that there is
any shortage of people eager to vie for the privilege. In the
midst this chaos, the city is trying to conduct - as New York
City did - a mayor's race which has been rescheduled for late
April. The incumbent mayor, Ray Nagin, now trails in the polls
behind Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu among a crowded field
of candidates. Skeptics snicker that revived interest in the office
is motivated by a "Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler" Louisiana
government approach to the billions of dollars of federal aid
that will flow, but the task of rebuilding a city with 60% of
its population still gone is too grave to approach in search of
The real story of
this Mardi Gras cannot be understood without taking into account
the reality on the other side of town. Because across the river,
in the Ninth Ward, there are no floats and festivities. There
is no electricity. There are no people. There is only destruction.
Houses are smashed
and collapsed, wiped off their foundations, spilling into roads.
Hundreds of cars lie abandoned and upside-down. People's lives
have been slashed open and the details thrown about, within a
few feet a spare women's shoe, a bureau, an old 45 rpm record,
and a decaying teddy bear all covered with dust, mud and other
debris. It resembles nothing so much as a suburban Ground Zero,
but unlike the 16 acres that defined Ground Zero, there is no
neat perimeter - the devastation sprawls on as far as the eye
can see. One comparatively intact house had a sign placed upon
it which requested "No Bulldozing. Save Our Neighborhood."
But there is no neighborhood left to save.
For all the
enjoyable distractions of downtown, a steady stream of cars filters
into this modern ghost town. That is presumably what provoked
one young man to ride through the neighborhood with a sign taped
to the front of his bike that said simply "Tourism here is
is understandable - gawking at human misery is the worst kind
of pornography. But a visit to the 9th Ward is precisely what
the revelers on Bourbon Street need to wake them up. The ongoing
revival of downtown is heartening, and Mardi Gras is a needed
statement of defiance against this destruction. But the destruction
of Katrina is still in place, unaddressed, and the more people
who bear witness to both sides of this year's Mardi Gras, the
better. They will instead go home with an appropriate determination
not to forget the devastation that still exists, sprawling and
incalculable, in the heart of one of America's great cities.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author