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Nothing, Not Even Recovery, Moves Quickly In New Orleans


Writer Gwen Thompkins says virtually nothing happens quickly in New Orleans. Like many residents, she is withholding judgment on the city's recovery and taking the long view with a little salty language to boot.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Earlier this year, I sat next to a friendly New Yorker at a restaurant downtown. We got to talking. Roberta Brandes Gratz studies cities around the world and said she was publishing a book about New Orleans. So what's the name of your book, I asked.

ROBERTA BRANDES GRATZ: "We're Still Here Ya Bastards: How The People Of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City."

THOMPKINS: Good title. I got her phone number.


JON CLEARY: (Singing) Let's get low down. Let's get low down. Let's get low down.

THOMPKINS: We're still here ya bastards was written on the side of a building in uptown New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure. Gratz says locals have been struggling for the past decade to retain what many American cities lost long ago - a real, honest-to-goodness urban environment with densely populated neighborhoods and easily accessible schools, groceries, worksites and entertainment. That the going has been slow in many instances is not necessarily bad thing. Gratz says slow is good.

GRATZ: The most successful urban places are ones that have evolved over time. Anything done quickly, in the end, doesn't work.

THOMPKINS: Slow may be good, but it also can be lonely and even sad. Where I live, in Pontchartain Park, there so many empty parcels of land. An empty parcel is usually a reminder that somebody has died, given up trying to rebuild or can't come back.


AARON NEVILLE: (Singing) Even though we're apart, you're still right here in my heart.

THOMPKINS: Pontchartain Park is coming back, as is the Seventh Ward, eastern New Orleans and other areas that were gob-smacked by water. There are brand-new schools, newly renovated houses, newly paved roads and in some areas - pizza delivery. Gratz takes the long view.

GRATZ: The most successful, in contrast, neighborhoods are those that evolve incrementally in layers. That's not one block new and one block old. That's a block that has old and new in the same place and in scale.

THOMPKINS: Gratz says the merit of combining different architectural styles on a single city block is not about architecture.

GRATZ: Young people like certain things. Old people like other things. That kind of organic change does not happen quickly.

THOMPKINS: No one understands the long view better than the 78-year-old Arthur Gilbert. In his day, Gilbert was a champion golfer. He still plays three times a week at the public course in Pontchartrain Park.

ARTHUR GILBERT: You have to have a lot of patience - a lot of patience.

THOMPKINS: Gilbert says the fundamentals that are vital to golf are the same fundamentals that are vital to the city's recovery.

GILBERT: Mistakes are something that's going to happen regardless, but you have to learn how to get up and keep going, just like in golf. You got 14 clubs in the bag. I might hit a mistake, hit a bad shot, so I have other 13 to make up for what I just did.

THOMPKINS: But the flood taught us that some mistakes take a lot to fix. Anne MacDonald heads the Parks and Parkways Department, which oversees the golf course and other green spaces all over New Orleans. She says the city lost 100,000 trees in the storm and flood and that's not counting the trees on private land. But even if she planted 100,000 saplings today, the city wouldn't look the way it did before the storm. You got to be patient.

ANNE MACDONALD: Because of the amount of canopy loss and the trees loss, you can't replace trees that were 30, 40, 50-years-old in 10 years. And we don't want to plant every tree now because we don't want everything to age at the same time.

THOMPKINS: MacDonald says the city is planting fewer sycamore trees because they decline after about 60 to 70 years. I don't know about her, but like the sycamore, I plan to be dead by then. And yet, that's what the long view is all about - taking care of future generations of city dwellers. Parks and Parkways made sure to retain the city's only rookery - an island in the middle of the golf course that's home to hundreds, if not thousands, of wading birds. Peter Yaukey is a geographer at the University of New Orleans. If you ever want to go birding, go with him.

PETER YAUKEY: That a fish crow making that (imitating fish crow). And that (imitating downy woodpecker) that's a downy woodpecker. So you hear all the clacking?


YAUKEY: That's the young herons clacking their bills, trying to get the attention of their parents.

THOMPKINS: As it turns out, birds are great neighbors.

YAUKEY: You see the large white birds with yellow beaks? Those are great egrets. Below that, the brown bird with the white belly is a young white ibis.

THOMPKINS: Come September, most of these wading birds will be gone. But they'll be back. And yet, the population of non-wading birds in New Orleans is down. Yaukey says it's unclear how or whether Katrina is to blame. Consider the northern cardinal. They were once found on nearly every city block.

YAUKEY: In the flood zone of New Orleans, the St. Bernard Parishes, residential areas, they are so scarce that I keep track of the individual locations. If you have a woodlot or something, they're more likely to be there. It's a mystery that I have not been able to figure out.

THOMPKINS: Suddenly, it became important for us to find a cardinal. Before it migrates out of my area for good, I want to make inter-species contact. So producer Walter Ray Watson and I took Yaukey to the Lower Ninth Ward, where we were guaranteed to find an overgrown lot. But this is the time of year when cardinals lie low. If only one of us knew what to say.

YAUKEY: (Imitating bird). There's a cardinal ticking right there.

THOMPKINS: Yaukey doubts whether the cardinals can recover their population in my part of the city. He suspects that bronze cowbirds are stealing their nests. Cowbirds? But I'm hoping the cardinal stands its ground, like the rest of us, because hearing the cardinal tick like that makes me wonder if it's trying to say, we're still here you bastards. I'm Gwen Thompkins in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.