Visiting my hometown New Orleans is usually a challenging experience for me. I grew up here, left it half a lifetime ago, but still have family here. In fact nearly every family member who grew up here still lives here. People don’t leave this area.
I usually stay at my sister’s house, our family home. Her guest room was my room in my youth. The house is small and it is hard to believe that four of us lived here. She lives alone and this house is perfectly suited for one person.
Despite Hurricane Katrina’s devastation five years ago, most of the visual cues of my childhood remain. St. Dominic Church and school have been rehabbed and remain a cultural and spiritual center of the Lakeview neighborhood. The Harrison Avenue ‘neutral ground’(local term for median) still has parking spaces in it, something I’ve not seen anywhere else.
I took in the view while sipping Starbucks outdoors this morning. Yes, outdoors on December 22nd, not wearing a coat. Seventy-degree temperatures in winter are not the norm in New Orleans but it does happen sometimes. I also remember a couple of 15-degree Decembers when we had to run water all night to keep the pipes from freezing. And one of exactly three snowfalls I experienced as a child happened on New Year’s Eve one year.
So, the mixed emotions. Sitting at Starbucks is odd here because there are so many traditional, local coffee places in New Orleans. In fact, I still can’t believe there is a Starbucks in Lakeview. It opened a couple of years after Katrina and is a sign of the new trendiness of this part of town. But I chose it over other locations today because I wanted to sit and view the area for a few minutes and because I wanted to shop at a newly reopened local grocery across the street.
I’m happy to see the grocery and other businesses open because I clearly remember online pictures of those same structures sitting in 10 feet of water for weeks after the hurricane. But right across the side street is a boarded up restaurant that looks just like it did after Katrina.
A sad part of the view is the vacant lot at the corner of Harrison and Canal Blvd. The Robert E. Smith Library was built there decades ago and that is the very place where I first developed my love of reading. I checked out books relating to my childhood interests; specifically Charles Lindberg ‘s book about his historic first solo flight across the Atlantic and numerous books about helicopters. The library did not survive the floods and the building has been torn down, but it appears a new one is being built. That part makes me happy. See, mixed emotions.
Spending time in this house is a rollercoaster ride too. It was rehabbed after Katrina and although everything inside is sparkly and new, it retains the spirit and most of the floor plan of the house that Dad built. That part is good. The frustrating part is that my sister has filled every corner and surface with “stuff”! She lost at least 75% of what she owned in the floods and seems to have recreated it all. She is not a hoarder but this is an incredibly cluttered house. I try not to judge, but in my view there are way too many useless little things here. But I can’t really argue the point if it truly makes her happy. And my own home more than a thousand miles from here is also very cluttered. Again, mixed emotions. Maybe this is all a reflection of our parents’ tendency to keep things “just in case we need them someday.” Dear God, please help me break this habit in my own life. It sucks.
I’ll end this post on a positive note. Today and tomorrow I’m having long lunches with two friends from high school. I’ve been in touch with them by email off and on through the decades but I look forward to in person time with them. I’ll also have some great family time with two sets of cousins, a Christmas day feast with my sister’s friend and several total strangers (similar to the fun fest I had in Asheville a few days ago) and I’ll meet a guy my sister is dating. That last part is pretty cool because my sister doesn’t date much and she seems pretty happy about this guy.
Another positive thing … visiting New Orleans is always an emotional experience for me but for a long time it left me depressed. Something about my present life not matching expectations of my youth. And I’ll continue to have moments of depression, many relating to how much this city still struggles to recover from Katrina. But I am in a much better place emotionally now than I have been for a long time and I think I’ll leave here next week feeling good.
The self-discover journey I started writing about almost two years ago is leading me to great places and I am excited about the new year.