New Orleans is the most enigmatic of American cities, a city in which a stew of culture and cronyism, music and mayhem, racism and revelry, politics and populism, hang out on the city's laundry line for all to see.
The city and its residents are not malleable - but they are durable. Every strata of the population seems to possess a fierce loyalty to 'their own.' After Katrina, author Dan Baum was overcome by the stories of New Orleans residents of every level.
By the time he'd interviewed and drank beers with these people, Baum knew a series of stories in the New Yorker wouldn't be enough. He needed to write a book. Whether New Orleans can revive itself is an open question. By the time you finish this book, you'll care if it succeeds.
Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans -
The Hidden History of a Beloved and Haunted City Told Through The Intersecting Lives Of Nine Remarkable Characters
by Dan Baum
We all know that hurricanes can swallow up New Orleans. What we don’t know, unless we’ve been there, is that New Orleans can swallow up reporters. The New Yorker sent Dan Baum to New Orleans to write about the effect Katrina had upon its residents.
In the course of interviewing scores of people, Baum got into the crosshairs of a benign Crescent City voodoo. He and his wife moved to New Orleans for several months in 2007 to complete interviewing, researching and breathing the air of the city as it began to put its lipstick back on and look for the next party.
Contradictions in New Orleans are as thick as shrimp in gumbo. Baum began to grasp how on earth New Orleanians can accept a culture in which corruption and bureaucracies filled with incompetents are the order of the day.
In the preface to Nine Lives, Death and Life in New Orleans, Baum writes,” Stop thinking about New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States and start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean.”
While he doesn’t downplay the poverty, lethal crime, drugs, police brutality, he begins to see another face of the city, an attitude that is steeped in but transcends the food, architecture, and music. It’s a story of everyday people who ended up in extraordinary circumstances after Katrina - people including a millionaire Mardi Gras kingpin from the white Garden District, a retired streetcar repairman from the Ninth Ward, a transsexual from St. Claude Avenue, a trumpet playing coroner, a white policeman from Lakeview, a high school band leader who treats the kids as if they were his own, and a bad luck black ex-con from the Goose, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town.
They willingly, perhaps gratefully, sat with Baum while he collected bits and pieces of their lives that became part of the book. As Baum found out, New Orleanians are not linear storytellers. The result is a kaleidoscopic tale, told through the eyes of nine characters, that covers the fifty years from hurricane Betsy to Hurricane Katrina. It takes an effort to keep all the characters straight, but over time they satisfyingly drifted into sharper focus.
It’s a tribute to Baum that he found enough specks of universal humanity in each of their stories to make us care about each of them and root for them to reconnect with their lives in the months after Katrina annihilated what they called home.
The nine main characters identified friends, relatives, and associates whom Baum and his wife interviewed for relevant background. They conducted nearly one hundred interviews and amassed over one million words that they boiled down to the final 120,000-word text. A four-page appendix lists every character interviewed and the dates of interviews. The book is massively authentic.
If you keep turning the barrel of a kaleidoscope long enough, similar patterns emerge. The thread that ties together all of the characters, regardless of race, social class, gender is that they all felt a connection, by blood, friendship, or profession, to “their people” - they didn’t always agree with them but they stood by them through thick and thin.
I spent two weeks in New Orleans and southwest Louisiana last August writing publicity material for an October “Help Re-Build New Orleans” Fund Raiser that was hosted in Boston. Proceeds of the event were donated to Common Ground Relief, a non-profit group that organized volunteers to rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“The house we’re sitting in was covered in 18 feet of water for 3 weeks. Every single-story house around here was under water,” Thom Pepper, the Operations Director of Common Ground Relief said in his "office," a cramped storage room in a rebuilt house on Deslonde Street. You could count on one hand the original houses still standing on that street.
Looking two hundred yards behind Common Ground Relief’s headquarters, I saw where the barge pierced the levee in the Industrial canal, the gobbled up houses filled with vines and festooned with disgorged refrigerators and dinner plates, and blank slabs of concrete where houses had gone AWOL - floated away or obliterated by the surge from the breach. Eighty percent of the Ninth was under at least 6 feet of water. For months.
The divides in the city, cultural, racial, and geographic, are real. There are wards of the city in which I would have felt like an intruder. But I know that inside those neighborhoods were people like the people I "met" in Nine Lives, people whose stories are the fabric of this city.
Baum’s book is not a polemic or prescriptive. It is a close to the ground story of people who make the city what it is, a city acutely aware of its shortcomings and its past and one that prefers to live in the moment.
1. (Top) Screen saver in Common Ground Relief office on Deslonde Street, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, in August, 2008
2 and 3: by Paul Tamburello, Deslonde Street 2008, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans