Sunday, March 21, 2010

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

St. Louis Cathedral, as seen from Decatur Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 20 March 2010.

In mid-January, I realized that I had exceeded the State of New York's vacation time accrual maximums and that I would forfeit roughly four days' vacation if I didn't take some time off before April 1. I figured that I might as well take an actual vacation, and started planning to head down to New York City for a few days and visit some museums and galleries. However, when I was watching the Super Bowl, I started thinking that it was time to come back to New Orleans. I was last here in August 2005 for the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, loved every moment of my stay, and left eight days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the city's levee system failed catastrophically. I made up my mind that I would return sometime, and was stunned to realize earlier this year that more than four years had passed. So I started making plans.

Although the areas most heavily frequented by tourists -- the French Quarter, the Garden District, the Faubourg Marigny -- are above sea level and thus suffered relatively minor damage, the lingering effects of what the city suffered are still visible to any visitor who gets beyond Bourbon Street. The city's jail was destroyed by the floods, and to this day inmates are housed in large white tents visible to anyone driving from the airport to the city via Interstate 10. The badly damaged Hyatt hotel adjacent to the Superdome has yet to re-open. And appalling revelations about post-Katrina police shootings are still coming out.

New Orleans nonetheless remains a fascinating city with an extraordinary history, and I came determined to learn more about it. This morning, I went on a guided tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which was established in 1789, when the city was under the control of the Spanish. Tourists are commonly warned to be careful when visiting the city's cemeteries and to avoid some of them altogether, but St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is probably small enough and close enough to the French Quarter to be relatively safe, particularly on a sunny weekend day when lots of visitors are around. However, I heartily recommend the tour offered by Save Our Cemeteries, the non-profit group devoted to the study and preservation of the city's burial grounds: our guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and I learned a lot.

Most of the city of New Orleans is either a few feet above or below sea level, and as a result wooden caskets tended to float to the surface after heavy rains. Aboveground tombs solved not only this problem, but also made it possible to conserve space: bodies interred in these tombs decomposed within a short time, and as a result most of them house the remains of entire families.

There are several types of aboveground tombs. These wall vaults, also known as oven vaults, also house the remains of multiple family members.

There are a few actual graves in the cemetery. Stepped graves such as this used the weight of bricks to keep coffins underground. In most instances, graves such as this hold the remains of only one person.

The Americans who came to New Orleans in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase were were a bit put off by the existing residents' burial practices. Many of the graves in the Protestant section of the cemetery, which is much reduced in size, used slabs of stone to keep buried caskets in the ground. NB: Beyond the cemetery walls you can see the Iberville housing project, which stands on ground formerly occupied by Storyville, the famed red-light district that existed between 1897-1917.

Many of the tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 have been photographed extensively. Images of this statue of a weeping child have appeared in countless books and films. Our guide noted that there was a good reason for commission of this statue: the yellow fever epidemics that periodically swept through the city often claimed the lives of adults but not children -- hence the large number of orphanages in the city.

The largest tombs in the cemetery are those built by mutual aid societies. These organizations enabled people who did not have family tombs to ensure that they would receive a proper burial; membership rules also ensured that a respectable number of mourners would attend one's funeral. Anyone who's seen Easy Rider will recognize the stunning tomb above, which was built by the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society -- and understand why the Archdiocese of New Orleans now insists that filmmakers go through a permitting process and provide copies of their scripts in advance of filming.

A few of the tombs bear evidence of voudou, which is a meld of the spiritual beliefs of African slaves and orthodox Catholicism, and "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau may be interred in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The "XXX" symbols inscribed on the tomb are meant to call the spirits of the dead, and the beads, flowers, food, and coins left on these tombs are meant to serve as offerings to them. (NB: You can be fined heavily for damaging a tomb, and the descendants of the Laveau family regard the "XXX" symbols inscribed on its tomb as a desecration. I don't know how the owners of the above tomb view these inscriptions and offerings.)

At first, I thought that many of the cemetery paths were covered with gravel. However, I soon noticed that they're actually covered with clamshells. The tour guide confirmed that clamshells were used because they were cheap and ubiquitous; he also noted that they're softer than oyster shells, which are equally ubiquitous but tough on bare feet.

After I left the cemetery, I made my way through the French Quarter to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. The Society of American Archivists held its evening reception at this facility in 2005. I have really fond memories of that event and was profoundly saddened by what happened to the aquarium after the levees broke. Despite having a superb disaster plan and a number of dedicated staff who barricaded themselves in the building before Katrina made landfall, the air pumps that sustained the facility's plant and animal life stopped working when the power went out and the building's glass roof acted as a greenhouse. Most of its animals perished.

The aquarium re-opened in 2006, and I decided to visit it today because a major cold front moved in overnight, and I wanted to get out of the unseasonable cold and wind. Just about every parent of a toddler had the same idea, which made getting through the exhibits a bit of a challenge at times. I had a lovely time nonetheless, and I have only one real complaint about the aquarium: the food options lean toward the deep-fried and the sugary, and there's nary a drop of coffee to be found.

I could watch stingrays swim all day . . . .

This sea turtle, named Treme in honor of a city neighborhood, was found cold-stunned and sick on a beach outside of the city. The aquarium, which rehabilitates sick and injured marine animals, rescued her and nursed her back to health. If all goes well, Treme will be reintroduced to the wild in a few months.

This California moray eel and I spent several minutes checking each other out.

This alligator is one of the relatively few animals that survived Katrina's aftermath (the macaws, penguins, otters, and a few fish also pulled through). Although many people refer to this fellow as an albino, it is actually leucistic -- it has dark eyes, and some leucistic alligators have dark spots on their bodies. Leucistic alligators are quite rare in the wild because predators pick off almost all of them at a very young age. However, those who survive to adulthood generally have normal lifespans: adult alligators don't have any natural predators.

After I left the aquarium, I spent a little time savoring the literary history of the French Quarter. I stopped by Faulkner House Books, a little gem housed on the first floor of the building in which William Faulkner lived while writing his first novel, and picked up a copy of Tennessee Williams' notorious Memoirs; how could I resist an edition with a forward by John Waters?

I then walked to the Avart-Peretti House (632 St. Peter Street). Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire while living on the second floor in 1946-1947. It's gotten a fresh coat of paint; I was looking for the yellow house I remembered from 2005, and almost walked past it as a result.

Just to the left of the Avart-Peretti House is the Gumbo Shop, which has been around since Williams lived next door and always has a vegetarian option on the menu. I can personally vouch for today's special, the Gumbo Z'Herbes -- yum!

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