Life Goes On

New Orleans' Marigny Neighborhood is Both Lucky and Determined.

By Reed Karaim

New Orleans has been lost, swept away by the storm of the century, abandoned to anarchy by historic government incompetence. What remains is a ghost town that looks as though it surfaced from the bottom of the ocean, an instant archaeological ruin preserving in its collapse a record of our society's social inequalities and arrogant presumptions about mastering nature.

This collage of disaster is, I suspect, where the story of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans left off for most Americans, and there is considerable truth in every part of it. Yet there I was, little more than 100 days after Katrina, sitting at the Caf? Rose Nicaud in the neighborhood known as the Marigny (just east of the French Quarter), where, strangely enough, life felt pretty normal.

The caf?, with its beige and yellow walls, pressed-tin ceiling, overstuffed chairs, and fine coffee, is the kind of place you dream of finding when you visit New Orleans, redolent of the city's character, a genuine neighborhood joint filled on a breezy Friday afternoon with people who seem to know each other. Just next door, the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro was advertising an appearance that evening by Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and Branford and one of the seminal jazz musicians of his generation. Outside, people strolled up and down Frenchmen Street, past quiet, leafy Washington Square Park. Only a few blocks away, the Mississippi River rolled along, largely out of sight behind warehouses and the levee, back to its sluggish, Big Muddy self.

One could stand at the corner of Frenchmen and Royal streets, the heart of the Marigny, and conclude?to paraphrase an old Mississippi riverboat pilot named Samuel Clemens?that reports of New Orleans' death had been greatly exaggerated. But an oddly blurred sense of reality exists on the streets of the Big Easy these days. Post-Katrina New Orleans is a city shoved backward in history, largely returned to a time when it consisted only of its first neighborhoods, which were built on high ground along the river. It is there that the city's rich and unique culture was born, and it is there that the city is determinedly returning, with its casual, alluring bon vivance.

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