Two weeks ago I soaked in the sights, sounds and culture – not to mention the 80-degree-weather – of New Orleans, a city I first fell in love with at 18. I can’t really explain my connection to New Orleans, but back then I was convinced that I’d lived there in a past life.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was working afternoon shifts at the Beacon. I rarely watch TV at home, but the TVs at the bar are always on, so I kept one tuned into the news. Throughout the saga I was glued to the heart-wrenching footage: I watched as the levees broke, and, in my opinion, as our government failed to expeditiously aid New Orleans and other Gulf-region communities. When storms ravaged Forest Park last year, my husband and I applied for aid from FEMA after our basement flooded for the second time. We were helped quickly, but I felt guilty considering how neglected much of the Gulf’s people were in the wake of Katrina.
This was my first visit to New Orleans since Katrina, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. We stayed with friends who live along the Mardi-Gras parade route, and the trees and fences were still covered in beads. The city was as beautiful and lively as I remembered, though evidence of Katrina’s destruction remains. Many of the houses you see are abandoned, and on the fronts of some there is a spray-painted symbol left by search-teams: a large X with the date, the initials of the National Guard unit that performed the search and the number of bodies found. You’ll also see rooftops with gaping holes in them – some damaged by the storm, but others obviously made by people desperate to escape the rising waters in their homes or the rescuers trying to reach them. These sights will break your heart. They definitely broke mine.
But the spirit of the people of New Orleans and their deep love for their city, which they know is unlike any other place on earth, is inspiring. We went on a tour through Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward: a community of brand-new homes built so that the musicians of New Orleans, many who lost everything in the storm, could come home and bring back New Orleans’ sound. I also talked to longtime residents. On the three tours that we went on, each of the guides spoke about living through Katrina and what they did to help rebuild the city. A bartender at a Beacon-like Irish pub in the French Quarter, who was native to New Orleans, told us that she was living in Chicago when Katrina hit but knew she had to move home to help out after the storm. This exemplified the hometown passion that has catalyzed the revitalization of the Big Easy.
I came home to terribly cold weather, but also to a lot of fiery politicking as Election Day loomed. The winners will be announced by the time you read this – hopefully you voted. We may have a new mayor, and we will have at least one rookie commissioner. Either way, I hope that our elected officials start each day thinking about what inspired them to run in the first place – ideally, their love for this village – and that they lead with their hearts. Meanwhile, the rest of us should reflect on what the spirit of Forest Park means to us and make sure to hold the people who we elected accountable, so that spirit can continue to flourish.
Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.