As I write, I have one more event to attend at this year's American Library Association conference in New Orleans. I intend to get up early tomorrow morning to hear Cokie Roberts speak in the auditorium in the Morial Convention Center. I have only one block to walk to the center, but I have three or four blocks to walk inside the center to get to the auditorium. I was there several hours ago hearing Anderson Cooper tell about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.
Before I came to New Orleans, I read much about the city's past and the events of Hurricane Katrina. I had wondered what it was going to be like to go into the convention center, which had been the scene of much tragedy, neglect, and crime. When I arrived in the city on Friday afternoon, I watched the city from the shuttle, looking for signs of damage and recovery. I saw much of both, but nothing like the devastation of the Ninth Ward. The path from the airport to the hotel was not lined with damaged buildings. Somehow, when I entered the convention center, nicely remodeled, I did not think about its recent past. It just seemed to be a convention center. We heard about Hurricane Katrina and the recovery of New Orleans much from inside its rooms, but no one really dwelt on the center itself.
That changed this evening. Anderson Cooper was visibly shaken by being back in the building. He told us at the PLA President's Program that he had last been in the building soon after the thousands of refugees had finally been evacuated. He told us about the refuse, the smell, and the stray dogs. He told us of an older woman who escaped the flood only to die outside the convention center doors when she could not get her medications. He will never forget. How could I?
When I was sitting in Chartes House, a restaurant in a two hundred year old building in the French Quarter, waiting for my gumbo and Greek salad, I looked at the walls, windows, and floors and wondered what had happened in the room in the past two hundred years. Had the room been a public room where guests were entertained? Were engagements announced in the room? Did soldiers say goodbye to their families in the room? Did slaves serve their masters in the room? What stories could be told?
Inside the modern and bright convention center I had no questions for its walls, windows, and floors. It did not seem like the kind of place that could have much history. It is hard to imagine it dark and hot and full of despair.
Cooper had two things that he wanted to say to the librarians in the cool blue auditorium with its dramatic lighting. The first was "thank you for coming." That seemed to be the first thing that Madeleine Albright, Mayor Nagin, Robert Pinsky, and Gail Godwin said to us. "Thank you for coming. You could have cancelled and gone somewhere else. Others have. It is so important that you came." They all said first "thank you for coming."
Cooper's second message was "remember." He said that the people of New Orleans, many who have to drive in from other places because there are few places to live inside the city, remember every day. He fears that the rest of the country is forgetting already. The federal government seems to have forgotten. There are no plans to restore the city. There is little progress towards preventing future flooding. He urged librarians, as keepers of the collective memory, to remember and tell the story of New Orleans.
As I was walking back to my hotel this evening after delicious lasagna and tiramisu, I thought about what I was seeing around me. Around me were a few homeless people, some workers about to commute to wherever they live, and lots of librarians. There were a few tourists, some families with children, but not many. I thought about how easy it has been to cross streets. Drivers seem very tolerant of pedestrians. Then it occurred to me that there really were not many drivers in downtown New Orleans. Convention Hall Boulevard without marked crosswalks or traffic lights has been very easy to cross.
I have walked around the Warehouse District, Central Business District, and the French Quarter for four days (after my library programs). I have taken many pictures. There are many beautiful old buildings. Cooper explained this to us. The people of New Orleans preserve the past. He named several building where the old signs from institutions that disappeared decades ago still remain. New tenants do not remove them. Likewise the people live with and remember the past, even the tragedy. He said that the New Orleans way seems more right than the American way of erasing the past.
There are many beautiful old buildings. Many have balconies loaded with potted plants. Some are built of beautiful old bricks. Others are painted colors that you would not see in other American cities. Most are not gaudy or loud. In the sun and heat they fade into beautiful shades. The proportions of the buildings are usually graceful. Some of the tall modern buildings seem out of place.
There is much I have not seen. I was unable to go to the museums, the historical sights, the zoo, the aquarium, and the parks. I want to come back with my family some day.
Goodbye, New Orleans.