Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Was He Just Lost in the Flood?

Having come back from a trip to New Orleans a week ago, I find the hurricane's impact upon the city particularly poignant. (The trip partially explains this blog's inactivity). What a city. First off, they have two functioning streetcar lines -- Canal Street, running north from the Mississippi riverfront (which runs East-West at that point) and St. Charles Avenue, running a looooong east west perpendicular (and connecting) to Canal. These streetcars, limited as they may be, are integral to the city's identity. "A Streetcar Named Desire" was named for a line that ran on Desire Street, but doesn't any more. As in the film starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, the name of the line shows above the car's front window.

These aren't merely tourist attractions, however. They serve a real need -- particularly connecting the garden district, which is largely residential, to the French Quarter, where even locals go to party. St. Charles was an incredibly smooth ride, if loud. Operated by electricity supplied by an overhead cable, the trolleys have conductors who literally make the thing speed up and slow down by opening and closing a circuit with a hand lever.

The group I went with took a swamp tour by airboat (think big fan on the back of the boat). The swamps were ecological marvels, a kind of place you may not want to be around, but are really grateful that they exist (and are preserved). We travelled a bit on the intercoastal waterway, a channel for barge traffic along the gulf coast and continuing up the eastern seaboard, then tooled about the swamps. The guides had an interesting relationship to the local natural resources. For one, they were long-time locals who were immersed in swamp-related activities and particularly hunted, fished, and trapped animals like muskrats and alligators. They didn't have much of a conservation ethic, however -- and I mean conservation in the sense of taking steps to make sure that current activities could be prolonged into the distant future. There wasn't much remorse or thought about the ongoing degradation of the swamplands and what might be contributing to it, except an anecdote about the arrival of the nutria rat at the hands of the McIlhenny family (of Tabasco fame). The nutria eats the root system of some type(s) of swamp vegetation, which allows the soil to wash away down the river, a serious problem in the Mississippi delta.

Anyway, much of the area in the city is underwater due to a breach of the levee system though the French Quarter itself, wisely built upon a hill, fared well. Though a LOT of the residential areas were run down, they had a special character, and throughout the city one found 2nd story verandas and balconies, a particular favorite form of mine. Lets hope the trolleys, for which replacement parts must be custom machined these days, get back up and running soon.

UPDATE: That doesn't look too promising. The whole city may henceforth be a memory.


Anonymous Lazaro said...

I'm glad you had the chance to check it out, Dale--most of my living family lived in and around New Orleans; so far as I know, they and the people I knew down there got safely away. The French Quarter was definitely a great place for pedestrians, and the streetcars, though picturesque, did a great job of conducting uptown-downtown traffic. Seeing much of the northern part of the city underwater is completely unreal.

5:31 PM  

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