Thursday, May 24, 2007

Yours for $79,000

A reflection on skyrocketing cost of living in New Orleans

It’s a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of work, and I’m driving home along the familiar pothole ridden roads of Lakeview, a neighborhood in the city of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina some 21 months ago. As usual, there is no traffic, though many cars are parked along the sides of streets. My eyes dart around, eager to notice how the appearance of the neighborhood has changed during my 9 hour absence. Change— in the form of house demolitions, dead tree and debris removal, the arrival of new residents, house reconstruction, and the sight of prospective buyers— is evident everyday.

Today a small white house a few blocks away from the apartment we have been renting for the past nine months has been demolished. The deconstruction team started spraying the house with water (to prevent fires) as the jaws of the Caterpillar excavator started its feast early this morning when I left for work; now, as I return, the house is gone. A muddy lot remains.

I’m driving along the familiar pothole ridden roads of Lakeview, on my way home after a long day at work. As usual, there is no traffic, in fact, I am the only car on the road. My eyes dart around, eager to notice if anything has changed in the appearance of the neighborhood during my nine hour absence. Today, the small white house with a fallen tree on top of it has been demolished. Directly across from it, a bright red For Sale sign draws attention to a newly renovated one-level blue house, raised on old-fashioned stilts to aid air circulation and prevent flood damage.

I pull over on the side of the road, step out and look at the For Sale sign. There are fliers attached in a small plastic container. I take one out. House for sale by owner, it reads, listing all the renovations: 3 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, steel appliances, two-car garage… yours only for: $345,000.

My jaw dropped. The house looks nice, but not that nice— not nearly half a million dollars nice. This is a one-level ranch-style house in a neighborhood that took as much as twelve feet of water in Katrina, and we all know that could happen again. There is little to no yard. It sits next to a rotting shell of a house not yet demolished, and across the street from a muddy lot created just today. Moreover, it’s raised on small platforms (traditionally used to guard against flooding and to ventilate homes) which gives it a less than modern look. Still, I suppose some would consider this place a bargain.

For me, it perfectly illustrates the Post-Katrina real estate dilemma. There are still more unlivable houses in the city than livable ones; demand is much larger than supply. Add to that reality the mantra, “Location, location, location.” Post-Katrina, buyers and homeowners are more concerned than ever with living on “higher ground,” in crime-free neighborhoods. Lakeview is one of the lowest points in the city (it was largely swampland until the mid-1940s) but also one of the safest. And… it is conveniently located to downtown and suburbia.

So let’s say you owned a house in Lakeview before the storm. In the levee breech following Katrina, it was flooded with as much as 8-12 feet of water. Devastated, you wait a little while after the storm and weigh your homeowner options. You can: a) demolish it for several thousand dollars and sell the lot for $120,000 minimum; b) “gut” the damaged part for several thousand dollars and sell the house for much more than you bought it for; c)completely renovate the house and sell it brand-new at an even more exaggerated price; d)you can demolish the house and rebuild a new, grander structure, worth the most of all.

Prospective buyers all over the city are faced with similar predicaments; do you buy a house that needs (major) renovation? Do you buy a house ready-to-move-in? Do you buy a lot and hire contractors to build your house?

Hazim and I just don’t know. With average ranch houses on stilts going for $345,000, we’re just fine waiting and seeing how it all goes (and how the hurricane season flows) from our second floor apartment (well above the Katrina floodlines), which rents for $1000 a month. That’s right, $1000 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in a deserted post-Katrina neighborhood, where there’s a rotting purple house with the trademark Katrina spray-painted “X” across the street.

Our street is scenic, all things considering. A few blocks away, not far from the new $365,000 ranch, a two-story modern house is currently being built on the lot next to the crumbling shack featured in the photo. Every time we drive past this shack, with the offering “79,000” spray-painted on its front and sides, we grimace and shake our heads. That house is actually worth $79,000, with the assumption that if you buy it, you’ll knock it down (for several thousand dollars) and then have a lot worth about $120,000. In essence, it’s a good deal for anyone except the neighbors, filled with optimism about their new home until they look out the window and are reminded of the power of flood water and the lack of initiative on the part of the city to remove such structures. Afterall, it’s been almost two years!

With situations and prices like these, it’s easy to fathom just how few are financially and mentally able to come back to this cultural gem of a city, and worse yet, how few newcomers are encouraged to relocate here. After all, the rent is comparable to New York City and the crime is actually worse.

Still, those that are here feel an almost instant communion with each other. You tend to meet a lot of die-hard NOLA pride people, people with bumper stickers like “New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home,” “ReNew Orleans,” and “Eracism” plastered all over their car; people who wouldn’t dare live anywhere else.

I feel like we are becoming those people. We are now connected to the plight here—even as locals who didn’t weather any part of “the storm.” We chose to move here, we choose to teach here, we catch beads and dance to jazz here, and we encourage people to come here, please. We don’t want to leave. But the cost of housing is making that decision pretty darn expensive—especially when you consider other factors, like the cost of flood insurance (doubled), and the fact that the electric and gas company, Entergy, has a monopoly across the area; it cost us $350 to heat our small apartment in February.

We’ve been here since September 2006 and keep waiting for the prices to go down, but they just keep going up. Still, we are doing our best to be optimistic. After all, these inflated prices have to come down at some point, right? Sure, they will— just as soon as more livable housing comes available and more people decide to take the chance and call NOLA home.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

We found our thrill

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press (AP)

We found our thrill

Fats Domino wooed a crowd for the first time in three years at Tipitina's last Saturday

My knees went all weak and wobbly when I saw Fats nonchalantly saunter onstage. Tears welled up in Haz’s eyes, and then mine. This was not something we were supposed to experience, and yet here we were, in the presence of one of the greatest musicians of all time, a man born in former slave quarters on Laura Plantation in 1928, a man second only to Elvis Presley in numbers of albums sold in the 1950s and early 1960s. A man whose songs we both grew up singing and hearing, whose songs our parents and their parents know; songs that have been covered by hundreds of bands around the world. Though he looked so real, so with us, and so happy on that stage, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a 1960s broadcast or a movie made about the real thing.

Fats did not address the sold-out crowd of hundreds directly, but he did start playing the piano and singing “I’m walkin’” immediately. His face, consumed by an enormous grin and large, luminous eyes, turned towards the crowd and melted into the mike. His voice sounded as fresh as when he first recorded the song, more than fifty years ago, and he did not miss a beat. He was joined by his longtime musical partner Herbert Hardesty, who held a tenor sax in one hand and a trumpet in the other for much of the performance, a man Fats has worked with since the mid 1940s.

Fats sang his famous hits, “Blueberry Hill,” “My Girl Josephine,” “Blue Monday,” “Jambalaya,” “Ain’t that a Shame,” “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Lovin’,” “Valley of Tears,” and “So Long” one after another for half an hour, with one brief interruption. After just three songs, Fats stood up suddenly, turned his back to the crowd, and started to walk away; brother-in-law and keyboardist Reggie Hall and Tiptina’s Foundation Executive Director Bill Taylor hugged him and coaxed him back out onto his piano bench. It is unclear as to whether Fats suddenly got scared, tired, or confused or all three— nonetheless he looked completely unphased as he started to sing “Blue Monday.”

Maybe singing and playing music is dreaming for Fats. Maybe he suddenly woke up after three songs, suddenly consumed by stage fright, possibly reminded of the city he grew up in and no longer knows.

Fats and his family were rumored dead in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. They had stayed behind in Fats’ Lower Ninth Ward home, where flood waters surged up to the roof. No one heard from the family until they were rescued by boat.

Fats proved rumors false again on Saturday. Many, including organizers of Tipitina’s and members of the band, had no idea whether or not Fats would actually perform his much anticipated concert. At age 79, Fats’ health isn’t what it used to be, and he frequently suffers from a lifelong case of stage fright.

Proceeds from the night’s concert, and from merchandise sold, including limited edition posters and post-Katrina Fats Domino CDs, will benefit public school music programs in the city and the rebuilding of Fats Domino’s house in his Lower Ninth ward neighborhood. Fats’ treasured pink Cadillac sofa, made out of the car’s bumper, sat onstage during his performance, evidence of the recovery that is happening.

* * *
Fats’ last song was “So Long,” a song he changed the lyrics for at the end. “So long,” he sang, his face and grin turned towards us, “I’m tired, I’m going home.” With that, he stood up, without a bow or any acknowledgment of any kind, and humbly left the stage. Taylor put Fats’ characteristic captain’s hat on the legend’s head. A State Senator presented Fats with a plaque and Taylor declared that May 19 would from now on be known as “Fats Domino day” in New Orleans.

And now that Fats has finally performed, probably for the last time ever, the city has nothing left to do but follow in his footsteps, cast all past hesitations aside, and fully recover.