We all remember the awful photos of the Lower Ninth Ward … a predominantly black neighborhood in New Orleans that was closest to the levees, very low elevation and thus hit hardest by Katrina. The water went up to 20 feet, causing houses to drift away. What we don’t hear is that the Lower Ninth before the Storm actually had a relatively high homeownership rate, and was home to many African-Americans who had moved up the ladder … away from poorer parts of the City. New Orleans is an extremely racist city … where whites live in higher elevation, and blacks live below. The Lower Ninth Ward was just the most dramatic example … other areas were hit hard too.
I visited New York in 2002 after September 11th, and saw bulldozers feverishly working to rebuild Ground Zero. So I assumed that, more than three years after Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward would be making a comeback. My brief visit to the neighborhood was nothing short of traumatic, and I was almost driven to tears. The area is still a wasteland … with tons of vacant lots, sprinkled with the occasional abandoned building. Practically nobody lives there, and probably no one will. Unless we get some serious resources from the government to make it happen.For those who are trying to rebuild their homes, the City has even begun to accidentally demolish homes that they think are abandoned. In one case, a newly married couple bough their first home from the city at a tax sale … with the intention of rebuilding it when they return from their honeymoon. When they got back, they learned that the city had already demolished it. This has led some folks to spray paint “DON’T DEMOLISH” on their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, hoping to avert such a disaster. Blogger Karen Gadbois, a good friend of Eli’s, has publicized this issue.
I should point out that there are abandoned buildings all over New Orleans … as the double whammy of Katrina and the economic crisis has even hit relatively good neighborhoods like the Marigny, where Eli lives. But it is quite another thing to see an area that’s exclusively abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Hurricane Katrina was really the Bush Administration’s worst legacy, and inaction over the last three years is a true abomination.
On a lighter note, I decided to take a trip to Cajun Country … because I’m half-French. It has always intrigued me to go to a part of the U.S. where folks speak French, even it is a different dialect like Cajun. The Cajuns are direct descendants of the “Acadians” from Canada, who fled religious persecution to practice their Catholic faith. Back in my 28-state road trip, I visited their cousins up in northern Maine … and was stunned to find out that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying in French. I was warned that very few Cajuns actually speak French anymore (until recently, they were beaten up at school for speaking it), but I picked the part of Louisiana with the highest portion of French speakers — St. Martin’s Parish — and reserved a hotel room for the night in Breaux Bridge.I should point out that none of the guidebooks I have specifically talk about Cajun Country, and most of my research was sporadically done online. I left New Orleans a bit later than expected (around 2:00 p.m.), so I knew I also wouldn’t have much time to visit there. I headed out of town on Route 90, with Janis Joplin playing in my car. After all, she had busted flat in Baton Rouge … and had thumbed a diesel down who drove her all the way to New Orleans. Figured it would be good music for Route 90.
After passing miles and miles of swampy bayous, I exited Route 90 outside of Bayou Vista … taking Route 182 (which a billboard on the highway called the “Scenic Cajun Coast.”) Someone in New Orleans had told me there are Cajun-speaking radio stations out here, so I turned off the CD player and played with the dial. Couldn’t find any French being spoken, but I did get AM 960 which played non-stop Cajun music. My intention was to stop along the way to catch my breath, and hopefully chat with some of the locals to learn how many people speak French.
Sadly, the little I saw at first was not impressive. Towns like New Iberia appear economically depressed … and when I stopped in Loreauville to ask for directions, the clerk at the grocery store obviously wasn’t used to travelers passing through. I then headed for St. Martinville, hoping to stop a bit … but it’s here where the trip took an unfortunate downturn. Like many towns throughout Louisiana, St. Martinville was having its Mardi Gras parade … which I arrived in town right after it ended. What it means is I got caught in traffic … awful traffic that had me at a standstill. Even worse, I knew I had to turn onto Route 35 to make it to Breaux Bridge. It wasn’t until I had been stalled in traffic for two hours that I learned I’d taken the wrong turn on 35 … the cop allowed me to turn around.
By now, night had fallen … and there wasn’t much of a chance to do much. I had yet to find a decent restaurant on the roadside (or even a charming tavern), so I figured I’d check into my hotel and play it by ear. Arriving in Breaux Bridge at 8:00 p.m., I asked a gas station clerk what place would be open for dinner. She suggested Mulate’s … a charming traditional Cajun restaurant just up the road. I went there, and it was exactly what I had been looking for … delicious Cajun food, and lots of old people dancing to live Cajun music. I spent two idyllic hours having dinner, and even got to dance with a couple old ladies … which I then learned were visiting tourists from Florida.
Adam, the bartender at Mulate’s, was very nice … and suggested places to go in LaFayette tonight (although he admitted they weren’t very Cajun.) A native of Breaux Bridge, Adam doesn’t speak French … and he said most of the young people don’t speak it anymore. It also turned out his uncle runs the hotel where I’m staying … Cajun Cabins, a fantastic collection of small cabins at a reasonable price. I opted to stay in tonight rather than go to LaFayette, get up early tomorrow and explore a little Cajun culture around town. After all, the old folks who speak French won’t be up partying late tonight …