WVFC: Letter From New Orleans, first in a series
by Beth Herstein
I live in New York City now but grew up in New Orleans. A good friend of mine, WVFC editor Chris Lombardi, asked about the great women currently living in New Orleans. To me, this is an important topic: Since Hurricane Katrina, which locals often call “The Storm,” women have played critical roles in the rebuilding efforts. In the months to come, I hope to interview some of the amazing Women of the Storm; Becky Zaheri, founder of the Katrina Krewe; Maria Muro, the dynamic publisher of Greater New Orleans Living, for which I write an arts column; some local legislators who’ve been the voice, heart and soul of the people they represent; and a few friends and family members who've made a difference in their own ways.
Last month, I spent a weekend in New Orleans; I thought I’d first write an account of my time there. So many possible topics related to the weekend: I was in town for a lively literary conference in the French Quarter called Words & Music: A Literary Feast, but attended few events there; primarily, I had the first fifty chapters of my novel-in-progress critiqued by the instructors. My parents and I went to a jazz/dance concert at Tulane’s Dixon Hall, presented by New Orleans Ballet Association. It was great, a program featuring several by the Trey McIntyre Project. McIntyre and his dancers collaborated with the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band on "Ma Maison," a specially commissioned celebration of New Orleans that drew on the traditions of the second line and New Orleans music.
My mom and dad live in Metairie, in New Orleans’ eastern suburbs. I spent much of the rest of my time there. I walked their dog, Bogey, who is warm-hearted and easy going (photo?) — nothing at all like the characters played by Humphrey Bogart, for whom he is named. I ate out a lot, at familiar and wonderful local places. Places like Austin's, started several years ago by Ed McIntyre, owner of the longtime Metairie staple, Mr. Ed's. He is related to the people who own downtown favorite Mother's and sits not far from my parents at the Saints' games. In New Orleans, a lot of things get intertwined that way.
And I saw the movie “The Changeling,” starring Angelina Jolie, who currently calls New Orleans her home base.
The day before I left, my folks and I drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, being partially rebuilt through the Make it Right Foundation. Make It Right is run by Angelina Jolie’s partner Brad Pitt, who has become a local hero for his incredible dedication to the city. The neighborhood is rebuilding, though painfully slowly. The Make It Right Foundation’s efforts have been instrumental to this process.
Driving through, we counted ten fully or partly built Make it Right houses. They are conspicuous because they are raised so high off the ground, and because they look partly like the charming cottages already there and partly like eco-friendly futuristic homes. There were families in some of them; I noticed a man prematurely sporting a Santa hat heading inside one of the structures. Though the Lower Ninth Ward has a long way to go, it was heartening to see these signs of life, hope, family – and, yes, Christmas.
Though none of this yielded a bona fide topic, maybe the fact that I had an eventful, culturally stimulating but ultimately normal weekend in New Orleans is worthy of mention itself. So much of the national and international media coverage about New Orleans focuses on the devastation. Camera crews plant themselves on the most barren section of the city they can find to provide their Katrina-related updates. It is understandable and actually important to remind people – and the incoming administration – of the work that remains to be done. However, it gives the world a skewed picture of the city and what it is like to visit and to live there.
I could go on (and on and on) about this, and I sometimes do. Strangers who ask me, “So, how is New Orleans doing?” often live to regret their words. My point is that life in metropolitan New Orleans is more complicated than it used to be, and it is complicated in ways unique to a city that was half destroyed three-and-a-half years ago. However, it’s a fun – and a marvelous – place to visit, and a vibrant, culturally diverse, place to live. Its residents are all heroes, in a sense, who committed to rebuild a great American city even when people in government were slow to provide aid. There are plenty of great women who’ve been integral parts of that rebuilding process. I’m going to be proud to tell you about some of them in my entries to come.