Wednesday, October 19, 2005

City still feels empty

People finally seem to be returning to my neighborhood in the Bywater section of New Orleans without moving vans.

Another four people on my block moved back into their homes this week, raising the total to about 10. That's still a housing unit occupancy rate of less than 50 percent for the block. No businesses have opened yet in our neighborhood. That's partly because many of them were looted or seriously damaged after Katrina.

Population seems to be the key to reviving parts of the city. The neighborhoods with the most residential activity seem to be the ones that suffered the least damage, contain a larger percentage of home owners rather than renters and have seen the speediest resurrection of businesses.

On my side of the city, about the only businesses that have opened are bars, gift shops and junk antique stores in the French Quarter, a small but growing number of restaurants and a handful of coffee shops. For the most part, nearly all of those businesses close their doors around 6 p.m. Nearly all of the restaurants close by 9 p.m. There's only one gas station open on my side of the city (and only five in the whole city), and only a couple of small corner grocery stores.
That makes even the simplest task, such as filling up the gas tank or picking up groceries for dinner, a real challenge.

We continue to avoid shopping in the suburbs because the store hours there are also limited and the shops are packed with people from open to close.

And just as I've feared for weeks, there are growing signs that the cost of living in the city is rising quickly.

Gasoline prices in metro New Orleans are the highest in the state, and wages, particularly near the bottom of the job market, continue to rise.

With little to do in the city and grocery store largely inaccessible, most of my money is spent on eating out. While a handful of re-opened restaurants have reinstated the prices that were in place before the storm, many others have raised prices - some substantially.

Constantine and I ate dinner the other night at a Decatur St. neighborhood spot that used to be a cheap eat place. We shared a large pizza (which is just big enough for two), a large regular salad and a couple of beers. Before Katrina this meal would have cost us about $30 before tip. On this recent night, the bill before tip was $43. The pizza alone was $18.

I'm afraid that our days of relatively cheap living in New Orleans, as compared to other cities of similar stature, are over.

That's troubling. Our traditionally low cost of living allowed working poor people to survive and made the city attractive to artists, musicians and young people. You take away those populations and you make New Orleans much more like a bland, middle-class suburb.

We've settled into our new routines for the most part, but that doesn't make them any easier or less depressing.

The most discouraging thing is not knowing how many more weeks, months or even years that life in New Orleans will be like this.

Meanwhile, every few days bring news of another friend or acquaintance who has decided to move away or stay where they evacuated. Those decisions anger some people who have returned to the city, but I can't really blame them. Why shouldn't people who had successful, happy, thriving lives try to re-establish that somewhere else if the prospect of having that life again in New Orleans in the foreseeable future appears to be nil?

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