“We’re all wondering now what will become of New Orleans,” writes Nicholas Lemann. “A big American city has never before been entirely emptied of people, and had most of its housing rendered useless, and had all its basic systems fail at once.” Lemann’s article is a daunting reminder of what is at stake in the rebuilding and recovery of New Orleans.
He also seems to understand the city’s unique character. New Orleans is an affront to nature, and nature isn’t shy about reminding New Orleans of it. Lots of other places are affronts to nature, too, but, if they are in the United States, they usually have the hermetically sealed feeling of high-rise beachfront condominiums and desert suburbs and houses perched on mountaintops. New Orleans is too scruffy ever to achieve that. Tendrils of vines poke up through the floorboards. Paint flakes, wood rots, stamps self-adhere, and chunks of concrete must fly out of the roadbeds in the middle of the night (how else could they have disappeared?). The air is wet and heavy enough to slice into chunks and carry out of town in shopping bags. Streams lose their coherence and turn into swamps. Rats and roaches and snakes sashay through the gutters. Southern Louisiana is the site of many environmental depredations, but one of them will never be a feeling of locked-down sterility as an appurtenance of human habitation. Nature has the upper hand.
His article, “In the Ruins,” is published in the September 12, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.