Greenville’s Julia Reed – a senior writer at Vogue; a contributing editor at Newsweek; and a food writer for The New York Times, author of Queen of the Turtle Derby – probably backs up her grocery list after twice writing her latest book, the House on First Street: My New Orleans Story.
New Orleans’ road to recovery continues to this day. But the road to The House on First Street was a hard one too, because in the epilogue, we read of Reed’s no end of rotten luck. Roughly a year ago, her book was ready for the publisher. But a burglar got his hands on some things: the author’s TVs, some jewelry — and her computer. She’d backed up exactly one chapter of her book.
Renovation of a house. Recovery of a whole city. It’s all in how you look at it, but try rewriting a book from scratch. Reed did. She had to. And it’s hard to imagine the lost version being funnier, more exasperating, and more affecting. For fans of Reed’s previous book, the best-selling Queen of the Turtle Derby, I don’t have to tell you.
Actually, it’s not hard to imagine after reading this review in the Memphis Flyer – or to imagine a more candid assessment of NOLA before-and-after than Julia provided in responding to the Q&A.
My publisher wanted a book about New Orleans that would have staying power. I don’t know if I’ve done that. It is very much a description of a place before, during, and after. In a way, I’m hoping it stands up as a love letter.
And it is that — a testament to the people of New Orleans.
I’m a lot more optimistic about the future of the town now than I was before the storm. There were things like the school system, for example, that you could not have fixed without it literally being blown away. That’s a continuing story.
A lot of people saw the horror show the week after Katrina, and for them that was the end of the story. The city was under water. FEMA failed. Blah blah blah. What I still get a lot is: “How could New Orleans have reelected that mayor?” It’s a good question. We have a buffoonish mayor who’s an idiot.
But I didn’t want the book to be political. The thing about New Orleans is: We made our own problems. Folks — the so-called social elite or economic elite — had opted out of any civic involvement. They were going to spend their life savings on their daughter having a successful Mardi Gras debut. That sort of thing.
That is a recipe for disaster, and we got a disaster. We dodged the hurricane, but after the levees failed, what was writ large was what a cesspool the city had been before the storm.
Now everyone with a remote backbone and brain realizes you get the government you deserve. And now you’ve got a level of volunteerism and civic responsibility that never existed before. You’ve got garden-club ladies lobbying the legislature when the government fails us, whereas before it would have been an eyeroll and “Oh, that’s just Louisiana and that’s our governor.”
The feds are doing us a huge favor too by arresting every single corrupt politician we’ve got left. You’ve read about the money in Bill Jefferson’s freezer. Jefferson’s whole family is now under indictment!
Sounds like Memphis.
Memphis has a lot in common with New Orleans. t was the musicians and restaurant owners and chefs who got New Orleans somewhat back on its feet when the city was practically a ghost town.
The work those restaurant people did can’t be overestimated. The fact that where people used to eat … that those places were back a month after the storm. It was a reassurance.
New Orleans is a neighborhood town — neighborhoods that bump up against one another. A place like the Upperline restaurant: For those in New Orleans who live in that neighborhood, it’s their joint.
I think I gained 100 pounds going to all the restaurant reopenings. It was my civic duty.
Where does the rebuilding of New Orleans stand today?
At one point, there was lots of talk: Will New Orleans be rebuilt to look like Disneyland? First of all, it hasn’t been rebuilt! We don’t have to worry about it looking like Disneyland. You can’t pave over a culture.
No, you can’t and wouldn’t if you could – not this one. Reed has another book coming soon, btw, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, a collection of her food columns for the The New York Times.